Wooden Wind Instruments From Around the World

Through exploring wind instruments from different countries, we can learn about music and craftsmanship of both past and present.
Wooden Wind Instruments From Around the World
Bagpipes are an iconic symbol of Scotland and Ireland. (GRSI/Shutterstock)
From the haunting sounds of a sheng mouth organ to the lively melodies of a shakuhachi bamboo flute, wind instruments encapsulate the diverse musical traditions that span the globe. And while there are perhaps hundreds to learn about, here is a sampling that will broaden your musical horizons.

The Bagpipes

Regions: Scotland and Ireland

In the mist-covered hills of Scotland and the green pastures of Ireland, the bagpipes emerge as iconic symbols of the region. The Great Highland Bagpipes, with their unmistakable sound, have long been associated with the pageantry of Scottish history. You have likely seen these in parades or at special events.

What mainly distinguishes Scottish from Irish bagpipes is that the former have three of what are called “drones,” which are the wooden stalks from which the sound emerges when a bagpipe is played. Traditional Irish Bagpipes, meanwhile, have two of these “drones.” The Scottish version’s extra drone produces a constant, distinct bass sound.

The Didgeridoo

Region: Australia

For those familiar with the long Tibetan horn known as the dungchen (not included in this article because the dungchen is made of metal), the didgeridoo has a very similar look. Traditionally crafted from hollow eucalyptus or ironwood branches, the didgeridoo produces a mesmerizing drone sound (not to be confused with the drones just mentioned, which are parts of bagpipes).

These instruments, in a sense, connect players to the spiritual essence of Australian aboriginal practices. In the heart of indigenous Australian cultures, the didgeridoo emerges as a primal force in sound. Once used only in Aboriginal ritual ceremonies, the didgeridoo now stands as both a musical instrument and a symbol of cultural resilience.


Regions: South America & Europe

Across the Andean areas of South America, the panpipes, or pan flute, breathe life into melodies of the region. Typically fashioned from bamboo or reeds of varying lengths, which are fastened in a row and closed at the bottom, the instruments produce different notes as the player breathes across its different-length tubes.

Panpipes are also common in Europe (think of the Greek legend of Pan), where they have traditionally been an instrument of shepherds. In Romania, however, there are professional panpipe players. Some of these professionally-played panpipes consist of a full 20 pipes.

The Sheng

Region: China

With roots stretching back over three millennia, the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, remains a testament to the enduring musical traditions of China. Somewhat similar to the panpipe, its intricate design incorporates usually 17 bamboo pipes of varying lengths. However, in the case of the sheng, the pipes are attached to a circular base and are thus grouped together. Each pipe of the sheng contains what is called a “free reed,” which freely vibrates and produces sound when finger holes on the pipes are covered and the instrument is blown into.

Interestingly, a sheng taken to Russia in the 1770s helped spur the invention of European instruments that also use free reeds, such as the accordion and harmonica. The harmonious tones the sheng produces contribute to the rich array of sounds in traditional Chinese music.

The Ney

Region: Middle East
The ney is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use, having been played for 4,500 to 5,000 years. Crafted from cane, this instrument, with six or seven finger holes and usually an end-blown mouthpiece, is featured in traditional Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Jewish music. Ney types vary widely, with some having trumpet-like metal mouthpieces. Their hauntingly beautiful notes echo across centuries, connecting listeners to the rich musical heritage of the Middle East.

The Shakuhachi

Region: Japan
From the serene landscapes of Japan emerges the shakuhachi, a bamboo recorder-like instrument that is deeply intertwined with Zen Buddhism and traditional Japanese music. This flute was derived from the Chinese xiao, another kind of end-blown flute, in the eighth century. The shakuhachi’s design, marked by meditative simplicity, produces contemplative and soul-stirring tones. Used in ancient ritual ceremonies and modern compositions alike, the shakuhachi serves as a bridge connecting listeners to the timeless beauty of Japanese artistic expression.

Baroque Flute

Primary region: Europe

The Baroque flute, also known as the traverso, emerged during the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries. This predecessor to the modern flute was a significant development in woodwind instrument design. The Baroque flute is made of wood, usually boxwood, as well as ivory and metal. One of its distinctive features is the presence of a metal key. The playing technique of the Baroque flute differs from that of the modern flute; the player has to make more adjustments in embouchure (mouth position) and finger position in order to play in tune.

Musicians who specialize in performing Baroque music often choose the Baroque flute for its historical accuracy and the specific tonal qualities it imparts to the music. The sound produced by the Baroque flute is warm, rich, and has a mellower character that distinguishes it from its contemporary, more penetrating counterpart, the modern concert flute.

The history of music is incredible, in part because it allows us to see and appreciate the many journeys the instruments of our day have traveled, so to speak, in order to become what they are. Over time, in many cases, there has been a process of innovation and refinement that has given us the instruments we can now enjoy. On that note, gratitude to those who have walked before, and kudos to those creating beautiful music today.

Angelica Reis loves nature, volunteer work, her family, and her faith. She is an English teacher with a background in classical music, and enjoys uncovering hidden gems, shining them up, and sharing them with readers. She makes her home in New York state.