Recorder (musical instrument)

Various recorders (second from the bottom disassembled into its three parts)
Woodwind instrument
Other namesSee § Other languages
Hornbostel–Sachs classification421.221.12
(Flute with internal duct and finger holes)
Playing range
Soprano recorder: C5–D7(G7)
Related instruments
Recorder players

The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument in the group known as internal duct flutes—flutes with a whistle mouthpiece, also known as fipple flutes. A recorder can be distinguished from other duct flutes by the presence of a thumb-hole for the upper hand and seven finger-holes: three for the upper hand and four for the lower. It is the most prominent duct flute in the western classical tradition.[1]

Recorders are made in different sizes with names and compasses roughly corresponding to different vocal ranges. The sizes most commonly in use today are the soprano (aka "descant", lowest note C5), alto (aka "treble", lowest note F4), tenor (lowest note C4) and bass (lowest note F3). Recorders are traditionally constructed from wood and ivory, while most recorders made in recent years are constructed from molded plastic. The recorders' internal and external proportions vary, but the bore is generally reverse conical (i.e. tapering towards the foot) to cylindrical, and all recorder fingering systems make extensive use of forked fingerings.

The recorder is first documented in Europe in the Middle Ages, and continued to enjoy wide popularity in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but was little used in the Classical and Romantic periods. It was revived in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance movement, and became a popular amateur and educational instrument. Composers who have written for the recorder include Monteverdi, Lully, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Berio, and Arvo Pärt. Today, there are many professional recorder players who demonstrate the instrument's full solo range and a large community of amateurs.[2]

The sound of the recorder is often described as clear and sweet,[3] and has historically been associated with birds and shepherds. It is notable for its quick response and its corresponding ability to produce a wide variety of articulations. This ability, coupled with its open finger holes, allow it to produce a wide variety of tone colors and special effects. Acoustically, its tone is relatively pure and odd harmonics predominate in its sound.[4][3]


The instrument has been known by its modern English name at least since the 14th century. David Lasocki reports the earliest use of "recorder" in the household accounts of the Earl of Derby (later King Henry IV) in 1388, which register i. fistula nomine Recordour (one pipe called 'Recordour').[5]

By the 15th century, the name had appeared in English literature. The earliest references are in John Lydgate's Temple of Glas (c.1430): These lytylle herdegromys Floutyn al the longe day..In here smale recorderys, In floutys. (These little shepherds fluting all day long ... on these small recorders, on flutes.)[6] and in Lydgate's Fall of Princes (c. 1431–1438): Pan, god off Kynde, with his pipes seuene, / Off recorderis fond first the melodies. (Pan, god of Nature, with his pipes seven, / of recorders found first the melodies.)[7][8]


The instrument name "recorder" derives from the Latin recordārī (to call to mind, remember, recollect), by way of Middle French recorder (a. 1349; to remember, to learn by heart, repeat, relate, recite, play music)[9][10] and its derivative MFr recordeur (c.1395; one who retells, a minstrel).[11][12] The association between the various, seemingly disparate, meanings of recorder can be attributed to the role of the medieval jongleur in learning poems by heart and later reciting them, sometimes with musical accompaniment.[10]

The English verb "record" (from Middle French recorder, early 13th century) meant "to learn by heart, to commit to memory, to go over in one's mind, to recite" but it was not used in English to refer to playing music until the 16th century, when it gained the meaning "silently practicing a tune" or "sing or render in song" (both almost exclusively referring to songbirds), long after the recorder had been named.[9] Thus, the recorder cannot have been named after the sound of birds. The name of the instrument is also uniquely English: in Middle French there is no equivalent noun sense of recorder referring to a musical instrument.[13]

Partridge indicates that the use of the instrument by jongleurs led to its association with the verb: recorder the minstrel's action, a "recorder" the minstrel's tool.[5][14] The reason we know this instrument as the recorder and not one of the other instruments played by the jongleurs is uncertain.

"Flute" and "recorder"

The introduction of the Baroque recorder to England by a group of French professionals in 1673 popularized the French name for the instrument, "flute douce", or simply "flute", a name previously reserved for the transverse instrument. Until about 1695, the names "recorder" and "flute" overlapped, but from 1673 to the late 1720s in England, the word "flute" always meant recorder.[5] In the 1720s, as the transverse flute overtook the recorder in popularity, English adopted the convention already present in other European languages of qualifying the word "flute", calling the recorder variously the "common flute", "common English-flute", or simply "English flute" while the transverse instrument was distinguished as the "German flute" or simply "flute".[15] Until at least 1765, some writers still used "flute" to mean recorder.[5]

Other languages

Until the mid 18th century, musical scores written in Italian refer to the instrument as flauto, whereas the transverse instrument was called flauto traverso. This distinction, like the English switch from "recorder" to "flute," has caused confusion among modern editors, writers and performers.

Indeed, in most European languages, the first term for the recorder was the word for flute alone. In the present day, cognates of the word "flute," when used without qualifiers, remain ambiguous and may refer to either the recorder, the modern concert flute, or other non-western flutes. Starting in the 1530s, these languages began to add qualifiers to specify this particular flute.[5] In the case of the recorder, these describe variously

  • the "sweetness" or "gentleness" of the sound
    • flauto dolce (Italian)
    • flûte douce (French)
    • flauta dulce (Spanish)
    • flauta doce (Brazilian Portuguese)
    • flaut dulce (Romanian)
  • the "beak"
    • zobcová flauta (Slovak)
    • zobcová flétna (Czech)
    • flûte à bec (French)
    • flauta de pico (Spanish)
    • flauto a becco (Italian)
    • φλάουτο με ράμφος phlauto me ramphos (Greek)
    • bekfluto (Esperanto)
    • nokkahuilu (Finnish)
  • the block
    • Blockflöte (German)
    • blokfluit (Dutch)
    • blokfluit (Afrikaans)
    • blokkfløyte (Norwegian)
    • blokfløjte (Danish)
    • blockflöjt (Swedish)
    • blok flauta (Croatian)
    • blok flüt (Turkish)
    • блокфлейта blokfleita (Bulgarian and Russian)
  • its vertical orientation (as opposed to the "transverse" flute)
    • flauto diritto (Italian)
    • flet prosty (Polish)
    • 竖笛 "shu-di" (Chinese, Mainland China)
    • 直笛 "zhi-di" (Chinese, Taiwan)
    • 縦笛 "tatebue" (Japanese)
    • egyenesfuvola (Hungarian)
  • the number of holes
    • flûte à neuf trous (archaic; French)
    • flauto da 8 fori (archaic; Italian)
  • its hollow inner-space of air
    • חלילית "Khalilit" (Hebrew)
  • a supposed geographical origin
    • fluste d'Angleterre (archaic; French)
    • flauto italiano (archaic; Italian)
  • the ability for the recorder in C5 to fit comfortably in the hand
    • handfluit (archaic; Dutch)