Music

Is the recorder the most underrated musical instrument ever?

That instrument you learned in elementary school is much cooler than you think.

That instrument you learned in elementary school is much cooler than you think

Long before recorders became an elementary school staple, the woodwind instrument had a long history of popularity in the Renaissance and baroque periods. (Photo from Getty Images/graphic by CBC Music)

It's a sound that many who grew up in North America may remember from their childhood: a chorus of tinny-sounding plastic recorders playing songs like "Hot Cross Buns" in a slow, pained manner.

That's what most people would associate recorders with nowadays, an amateur level of musicianship that produces cringe-inducing reactions. But, that's not really a fair assessment of the instrument.

Long before people started posting weird recorder covers or videos of themselves playing songs with their nostrils, the recorder had a long and distinguished history and was made out of sturdier, more valuable material. So how did it go from being used in Bach sonatas to becoming practically a kids' toy?

People often forget about the recorder after their grade school days, but we're here to make a case for the recorder being not only an incredibly underrated instrument, but one worth picking up again.

Continue reading to find out the instrument's interesting history, its integration into schools and popular songs that use the recorder.  

The history of recorders

Recorders date all the way back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but they gained popularity between the 15th and 18th centuries during the Renaissance and baroque periods, with the latter being considered the "Golden Age" of the recorder.

At first, recorders were reserved for royal courts as a hobby for kings and queens. But in the 1500s, sheet music was made available to wealthy commoners and the instrument was produced for the public. Still, as it became more accessible to everyone, it continued to be revered as a serious instrument. Some of music history's biggest names have written pieces for the recorder including J.S. Bach, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi.

Flutes and clarinets took over from the recorder in the late 18th century, though, because by comparison, the recorder is a more limited instrument in sound and range. But some composers continued to write pieces for the recorder.

So why do kids have to learn the instrument in school?

Recorders have become a staple in classrooms across North America for several decades now, and for that, we can thank German composer Carl Orff. Orff, who is best known for his 1937 cantata Carmina Burana, teamed up with his colleague Gunild Keetman in the 1920s to develop what is now called the Orff Schulwerk (or the Orff Approach).

Its main goal was to encourage music education for all children — but also people of all ages — through "doing, exploring and improvising," as the Carl Orff Canada website states. "The Orff philosophy combines the elements of speech, rhythm, movement, dance and song. And at the heart of all this is improvisation — the instinct children have to create their own melodies, to explore their imaginations."

To tap into basic forms of human expression, Orff and Keetman focused on using instruments that are easiest to play regardless of skill level. That included lots of percussive instruments like the xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine and marimba, but also recorders. A recorder, unlike the rest of the woodwind family, doesn't possess a reed or require one to exercise mouth muscles and learn specific techniques. Basically, all you need to do is breathe into the instrument, place your fingers into the correct position and sound is made.

A student practices on the recorder at Alaska's Angoon School. (The Associated Press)

Sometime between 1950 and 1954, Orff and Keetman published five volumes of a series called Music for Children, which school teachers still use today. These texts begin with nursery rhymes and melodic exercises that use only a five-note scale, and then build up to songs that utilize the instrument's full range.

The Orff Schulwerk eventually stretched beyond Europe and built associations in various countries, including Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Korea. In the '60s, recorders started getting mass-produced using plastic instead of the old standard of wood or ivory. This made it affordable for classrooms or parents to provide mostly soprano recorders (though some schools include alto and tenor ones) for their children.

Recorder music today

Outside of classrooms, recorder music has thrived in many ways since the '50s. An early music revival, which looked back on the music and pedagogy of the medieval and Renaissance periods, boomed in the '70s, leading many to gravitate towards instruments like the recorder. Canadian musician and composer Peter Hannan recalls that period of time as "exciting and creative" for players of early instruments.

Hannan is a multi-instrumentalist who spent time in the late '70s and '80s playing and composing pieces for the recorder. Speaking to CBC Music, he reflected on his time studying in Holland, home to Frans Brüggen who, Hannan notes, "was considered the best recorder player that ever existed." Hannan remembers a lecture that Brüggen gave in Holland that started with a strange statement: "The recorder's a weak instrument."

 

"I was shocked," Hannan says. But, "how he tried to get around that problem — the fact that it's a very quiet instrument — was he would just blow as hard or soft as he wanted at any moment given the musical expression, and he didn't care if it went totally out of tune, which it did." It's a technique that Hannan observed a lot with the students around him then. "It was just insane."

Hannan performed his last recorder concert in 2006, but he assures that it's "still huge in Europe." And while he says he sees less recorder music being played in Canada, there are notable names like Montreal native Vincent Lauzer who continues to play the recorder today.

While the repertoire of recorder music is admittedly more limited than that of most instruments, many modern composers have written music for the instrument including Leonard Bernstein, Steven Stucky, Benjamin Britten and Paul Hindermith.

Famous uses of recorder in popular music

Recorders have made many appearances in popular non-classical music, but they mostly go undetected or mistaken for other woodwind instruments. Given the instrument's popularity during the early music revival period, it's no surprise that it made its way into some of the biggest rock acts of the '60s and '70s such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Later on, the recorder would sneak its way onto songs by Barenaked Ladies and Dido, the latter of whom studied recorder at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in England.

Below is a list of songs that you may or may not have realized feature a recorder.

'Ruby Tuesday,' The Rolling Stones (1967)

 

'The Fool on the Hill,' The Beatles (1967)

 

'If 6 Was 9,' Jimi Hendrix (1967)

 

'Stairway to Heaven,' Led Zeppelin (1971)

'Satellite of Love,' Lou Reed (1973)

 

'Time it's Time,' Talk Talk (1986)

 

'Helicopter,' Barenaked Ladies (2000)

 

'Thank You,' Dido (2000)

 

'Sea Ghost,' The Unicorns (2003)

 

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