Understanding the Role of the Oboe in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

You will likely recognize the sound of the oboe when you hear it in classical music. Like the flute, the oboe produces sounds by causing a column of air to vibrate. But instead of a hole to blow across, the oboe has a reed to blow into.

Still life: Oboe, with reed.

If you were an oboe player (or a bassoonist), you’d spend much of your time making reeds. Yes, actual reeds, sliced from the wall of a cane stalk. Talk about low-tech.

Almost all oboists make their own reeds. Reed-making prowess is considered as much a requirement of the job as the playing itself, whereas the mastery of reeds isn’t an essential component of the basic performance technique of, say, maracas.

In fact, each oboe player’s individual taste in reeds determines the kind of sound that she produces. Oboists usually keep several reeds available at once, and they save the best ones for special occasions, such as important concerts and hot dates. Here’s all you need to know about the oboe — unless you’re an oboist, of course.

Playing the oboe

To become an oboe virtuoso, follow these three easy steps:

  1. Insert a newly whittled reed into the end of an oboe, making sure that the reed is moist.

    The reed must always — repeat, always — be moist.

  2. Place the end of the reed between your lips.

    Your lips control the vibrations of the reed as you blow.

  3. Blow.

Now, depending on how many years you’ve studied the oboe, you may not get any sound out of the thing at all. The oboe is one of the most difficult instruments to play. It ranks right up there with the trumpet as the instrument with the most discrepancy between its sound when played badly and its sound when played well.

When played by a beginner, an oboe sounds something like a raucous, nasal duck being boiled alive. When played by a virtuoso, the oboe produces one of the most beautiful sounds on earth: clear, vibrant, sweet, plaintive, and full.

Hearing the oboe

Check out the famous oboe cadenza in Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 (Track 04; 4:37).

If you’d like to hear even more of the oboe in all its glory (played by a virtuoso, that is), check out the following concertos:

  • Bach: Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 (By the way, BWV stands for three German words that mean, simply, “Bach Work Catalog.”)

  • Mozart: Oboe Concerto in C major

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Oboe Concerto

  • Richard Strauss: Oboe Concerto in D major

And listen to the following smaller pieces:

  • Robert Schumann: Three Romances for oboe and piano, opus 94

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Trio in C major for two oboes and English horn, opus 87

Also see whether you can get your hands on these classical works to hear some truly gorgeous oboe solos:

  • Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto (second movement) — really! Right at the beginning of the second movement of this violin concerto is the nicest oboe solo you could ever hope to hear.

  • Brahms: Symphony no. 1 (second movement)

  • Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

  • Gioachino Rossini: Overture to La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder)