What is a Recorder?

The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument that was popular as early as the 14th century. At the time its name was coined, the word recorden was used, meaning to play or to practice music, thus the recorder. It is a member of a family of end-blown flutes, known as fipple flutes, which includes flageolets and tin whistles. The recorder is set apart from these other members of the family by eight holes along its pipe.

How does it Work?

The eight holes of the recorder are comprised of seven finger holes and an additional hole for the thumb of the upper hand. The lower two holes are normally smaller than the rest and positioned side by side so that the player can cover them with a single finger. The recorder itself is a pipe, traditionally made of wood but also from plastic in modern times. By blowing into the slot at the mouthpiece, a note is produced by air being forced against the hard edge called the labium. The musician varies the note by covering and uncovering the holes along the instrument’s pipe.

The Parts of a Recorder

A recorder is normally comprised of three separate parts, known as joints. The top part is known as the head joint because it houses the mouthpiece. The body joint is the main pipe of the recorder. This part has most of the finger holes. The bottom section is called the foot joint and it has the final finger hole, which must be turned slightly so as not to line up perfectly with the other holes. On some recorders, the body joint and the foot joint are a single piece.

The beak is the narrow section of the mouthpiece and the part that the musician places between their lips. The narrow tube that is being blown into, extending from the beak, is referred to as the windway. As the air exits the windway, it strikes against a sharp edge called the labium. This process produces the sound. The opening in the recorder that extends from the end of the windway to the other end of the labium is known as the window.

A Brief History

The oldest known recorder was discovered at the bottom of a moat in Holland during the 1940s and the instrument has since been dated to the 14th century. However, it was during the 16th and 17th centuries that the recorder experienced its heyday. It was during this period that music was becoming accessible to the masses and no longer the exclusive domain of the nobility. Consorts became common. These were groups of musicians using varying-sized recorders. These instruments had limited range individually but blended to produce full music. Today, we refer to them as Renaissance recorders.

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Unfortunately, as the orchestra grew in popularity, the recorder fell out of favor. This happened because the recorder was not loud enough to play alongside the other instruments. By the end of the 18th century, the flute had completely supplanted the recorder. The recorder and the techniques used to play them were fading. Fortunately, in the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the music and instruments played in olden times. The recorder was at the center of this revival because it was no longer used and therefore intriguing. Instrument makes began to make recorders once again and the techniques for playing them were rediscovered. Today, there is no shortage of quality recorders and musicians able to play them.

Playing the Recorder: Step 1: Tonguing

Hold the recorder. Don’t worry about the holes or finger placement for the moment. Put the beak between your lips but make sure that your teeth are not touching it. Whisper the word “do”. Beginning each note by whispering “do” is called tonguing and it produces a clean start to the note. Practice stringing several “dos” together in rapid succession. You should be able to produce a steady note for thirty-seconds doing this. If you cannot, you may be blowing too hard. Be sure to breathe from your diaphragm and blow evenly.

Step 2: Play a Note

Once you feel comfortable tonguing, it is time to try a note. We will start with the note B. Place you left thumb over the hole on the back of the recorder and place the left index finger over the top hole. Now begin by whispering “do” and then blow gently. Congratulations. That note you just heard was a B. If you did not hear a note, try again making sure that you finger and thumb stay flat against the holes they are covering.

Step 3: Learn the Left Hand Notes

The fingering chart for that B note you just played is 0 1-- ----. The zero represents your thumb and the one represents the first hole because it is being covered. The remaining holes are indicated by dashes because they remain uncovered to produce the B note.

Here are some more left hand notes:

A = 0 12- ----
G = 0 123 ----
C' = 0 -2- ----
D' = - -2- ----

The tick beside certain notes indicates that it is a high note. The two indicates the second finger on the left hand. The three indicates the third finger on the left hand. The notes G A B C' D' form the sequence do re mi fa so. With these five notes, you can play a simple tune in the key of G, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb: B A G A B B B, A A A, B D' D', B A G A B B B, A A B A G.

Step 4: Learn the Right Hand Notes

Once you are comfortable using you left hand, you can try the right hand holes. The fingers on your right hand are numbered 4, 5, 6 and 7, with 4 being the index finger. Here are some notes:

E = 0 123 45—
D = 0 123 456-
F# = 0 123 -56-

Notice that this D does not have a tick like the D’ above. This means that it is a low D. The pound sign indicates that the note is sharp, as in F sharp. Practice these notes by playing them in this order: G E D F# G E D F#. Once you feel comfortable with them, try Twinkle Twinkle Little Star: D D A A B B A, G G F# F# E E D.

Here are two more notes than can be especially difficult for new players due to the number of holes that must be covered:

F = 0 123 4-67
C = 0 123 4567

Note that this F is lower than the F# we learned earlier. You can practice these notes by playing Auld Lang Syne: C F F F A G F G A F F A C' D'.

Step 5: Learn the Semitones

Semitones are the notes between notes. On a piano, this is what the black keys are used for. The most commonly used semitone is F#, which we learned earlier.

Bb = 0 1-3 4---
C#' = - 12- ----

Practice these notes by playing Baa Baa Black Sheep in D: D D A A B C#' D' B A, G G F# F# E E D.


This might seem like great deal of instruction but in truth, we have only scratched the surface of playing the recorder. Practice playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Auld Lang Syne, and Baa Baa Black Sheep. Once you have mastered these, you will be ready to move on to the more advanced aspects of playing the recorder.