6 Types of Recorders – An Overview of this Amazing Instrument!

Author: Brian Campbell | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Recorders. *SIGH* You know, those annoying plastic things little kids squeak in music class? Well, it turns out there’s more to them than meets the eye. As it turns out, they happen to have a fascinating amount of history behind them!

All jokes aside though, recorders have a unique place in Western music history. While they may never have reached the respect and popularity of instruments like the violin or piano, they have still fascinated players and listeners alike.

To illustrate this point, people as diverse as baroque giant Vivaldi and rock legend Paul McCartney have written tunes for recorder.

The history of recorders can be explored through six types. First, we have pre-baroque era recorders, which are not made anymore.

Then, within the baroque era, we have five different types based on size and range. These are the ones used today, and will be explored in detail at the end of the article.

These types will be discussed in their corresponding sections. With that said, let’s jump right in and learn about the intriguing history of recorders!

Family Matters

Before learning recorder history properly, we need to classify them to better understand their characteristics. I promise this will be as painless as possible.

According to Western tradition, musical instruments are broken up into four families: percussion, string, brass, and woodwind. Woodwinds are the oldest known family, and like any large family, probably the most confusing to figure out.

Nowadays woodwind instruments are defined as blown-through instruments using reeds to make sound. Saxophones, clarinets, bassoons, and oboes are common examples.

However, the flute does not have a reed, yet is considered a woodwind. Why is that? Like anything else, it comes down to history not lining perfectly up with how we expect it should.

Before reeds were used, people blew through hollowed wood. They drilled holes for their fingers and added a chunk of wood called a “fipple” into the mouthpiece. The fipple made the mouthpiece blow like a whistle, and the shaft with its holes made the overall sound and notes.

These characteristics defined “woodwind” instruments from antiquity up until the baroque era. They were literally made out of wood, used a fipple mouthpiece, and played straight out the mouth.

Recorders are part of the woodwind family today because they come out of this pre-baroque history, before reeds were widely used.

To make matters more confusing, recorders were called “flutes” back then. Fortunately, this part isn’t hard to explain.

Modern metal flutes that are played horizontally are referred to as “transverse flutes,” and weren’t invented until the baroque era. This means that since the only kind of “flute” back then was a recorder, there was no risk of confusing the two.

The transverse flute was invented to standardize and improve the sound and fingering of instruments like the recorder before them. Once invented, they just started calling old flutes “recorders.”

So reed instruments, recorders, and flutes have nothing in common in regards to how they make sound. But all three are woodwinds, and because of their common title flutes and recorders are forever linked like quantum entanglement! Don’t you just love history sometimes?!

The First Recorders

If you didn’t specify that a recorder has nine holes (with two grouped together for one finger) and three parts, it would look a lot like other “non-transverse flutes” around the world. Irish tin whistles and French flageolets look quite similar.

So why did people decide to invent another instrument? The answer is actually pretty simple.

Several people in 14th century Europe wanted to improve the quality of their straight flutes, so they tinkered around until they came up with the early recorder. This early recorder is the “pre-baroque era” one mentioned in the introduction – our first type of recorder.

By 1511 they were common enough for a Venetian to write a book on how to play one. It seems the recorder has always attracted a formidable crowd of admirers – King Henry the IV owned seventy-six and Shakespeare mentioned them in Hamlet!

The Renaissance Era

The Renaissance era brought about tremendous changes in European art, and music was no exception. New song genres were being created, troubadours carried styles across kingdoms, and musical storytelling was complex.

The newly invented recorder found itself an ideal candidate for playing dance music and madrigals. Their range fit perfectly with renaissance melodies and their timbre blended nicely with other instruments.

Because renaissance music was densely layered, one type of recorder often wasn’t enough. In response, inventors designed five primary types of recorders.

A full “consort,” or small group of various recorders, could cover all the notes needed in popular dances like the galliard.

As stated earlier, these are the five styles used today. Their primary difference is the range of their notes, which directly results in different sizes and adjustments related to size.

I will cover their differences at the end of this article. If you are interested in buying a recorder yourself, those details should help inform your decisions.

The Baroque Era: the “Golden Age” of Recorders

When baroque music burst onto the European scene, the hottest trends in music were extravagant solos and orchestral music. Huge technological advances allowed more musicians to play together, which resulted in even more standardization of instruments and music styles.

Recorders evolved into their final design during the baroque era, becoming standardized enough to play in large groups. Recorder repertoire grew infectiously, right alongside the repertoires of violin, voice, and trumpet.

Each instrument tended to play certain types of solos. Due to their mellow and woody sound, recorder solos often depicted pastoral, erotic, or supernatural themes. It’s pretty easy to imagine a shepherd passing time by playing flute under a tree!

The erotic and supernatural themes most likely came from Pan, a faun in Roman mythology that seduced forest spirits with his pan flute music.

Legendary composers like Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, Purcell, and even J.S. Bach wrote pieces for recorder. These are the same guys that wrote “The Four Seasons” and “The Hallelujah Chorus!”

Naturally, this leads to the question, “why isn’t their recorder music famous?” Of course, that is a good question.

The recorder simply could not survive the changing conventions of orchestral music. Orchestras were getting bigger, louder, and more diverse. Eventually, they became the main performing groups for classical music.

The recorder was too quiet and mellow to seriously play with one. The newly invented transverse flute fixed all these problems.

Over a short period of time, the recorder became obsolete. It made more sense to preserve the repertoire of popular instruments like the violin than music for “weird old instruments.”

Renewed Interest in the 20th Century

If recorders went out of fashion over two hundred years ago, why do we know about them today? There are three main reasons, and they all got kickstarted in 1898.

First, a musical historian by the name of Christopher Wetch published two scholarly articles on the forgotten instrument. Because music historians are interested in rediscovering music scenes of the past, his articles quickly gained popularity.

Soon, an instrument maker named Arnold Dolmetsch was able to find an authentic Bressan recorder. Much like Stradivarius was a legendary violin maker, Bressan was known as a consummate recorder craftsman from the baroque era.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps, for his wife), Dolmetsch misplaced his prized recorder. So he decided to build a new one from scratch. Paired with the renewed interest spurred by Wetch’s papers, Dolmetsch soon found himself making more and more.

It was official: the baroque style recorder was finally making a comeback!

But they were still only the darlings of nerdy college professors and tradesmen; that is, until Edgar Hunt came along in the 1930s. Hunt decided that due to their simplicity, recorders could be used as excellent teaching tools for elementary music classes.

By the 1950s and 60s, recorders were a household instrument. They branched both amateur and professional circles alike, with several fascinating results.

Perhaps the most surprising result being their use in rock and roll! You might not think the recorder would interest most rockers, with the exception of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. But consider the following:

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” including one of rock’s greatest guitar solos, begins with a recorder quartet. Of course, bassist John Paul Jones couldn’t play all parts at the same time during concerts, so he played a mellotron.

Basically, the mellotron was an early sampler loaded with pre-recorded cassette tapes for each note. But no worries, because the mellotron included preloaded recorder sounds!

The Beatle’s “Fool on the Hill” features prominent sopranino recorders throughout, often as the center of attention. Call me crazy, but this might be the only time a “badly” played (as intended) recorder sounds catchy!

Lastly, even blues-rockers The Rolling Stones couldn’t resist using a recorder in their classic ballad “Ruby Tuesday” from Between the Buttons. Jimi Hendrix also included an electronically manipulated recorder sound at the end of “If 6 was 9.”

Exploring Baroque Recorder Types


The soprano recorder is the most common recorder in use today, making it both the most accessible and cheapest. Elementary classes use them as their default choice, and most learning resources are written for them.

While exact prices are always changing, you can often find an amateur plastic soprano for as cheap as $10 or less, like this Yamaha model. Quality wooden ones can range anywhere from $20 to $100. A popular choice is this Hohner model, and here’s a Woodnote double package that includes an alto too!

About a foot long, sopranos are easily transportable. Traditionally, they play the melody in consorts. With a two octave range of C5-C7, their higher pitch allows them to pop out from the consort’s “mix.”

If you look at a piano, the C key in the middle of the keyboard is called “middle C” (makes sense, right!)

Middle C is like the “Prime Meridian” of pitch. It marks the primary boundary between bass and soprano ranges, and all pitches are measured by how high or low they are relative to Middle C.

Middle C is also referred to as C4. Higher numbers mean higher pitched notes and lower numbers mean lower pitched notes. This means that at C5, a soprano recorder’s lowest note is a full octave above Middle C.

I promise I’ll stop talking about pianos and music theory now. However, that information will inform the other recorders below, so you’ll find it useful.


Sopranino recorders are rarely used in consorts, but still fun enough to be listed here. I mean come on, it’s the type Paul McCartney used in “Fool on the Hill”!

Adding “-in-” to an Italian word means “smaller,” so a sopranino recorder is smaller than the soprano and sounds higher. They are around 7 inches long and have a one-octave range of F5-F6.

This means the soprano’s range is wider than theirs and covers all their notes. Traditionally, sopraninos play descants and countermelodies.

A popular choice is the Yamaha YRN-302B.


Alto recorders are the next lowest recorder after sopranos, with a two-octave range of F4-F6. This means they cover most of the soprano’s range as well as several pitches below it.

Altos appear just like sopranos, but are longer at about 1 and a half feet. Because their range includes notes the soprano cannot reach, they are probably more useful to buyers than sopraninos.

If you teach recorders in a school, altos could be very helpful for adolescents and beginner music theory. Their lower range allows changing male voices to match their exact pitch. Its range also lets students play wider chords, illustrating chord theory.

When it comes to buying options, you can consider this Suzuki recorder, as well as this Yamaha model. By now you must’ve realized Yamaha is a dominant force when it comes to recorders!


Because the lowest pitch on sopranos and altos is different (C and F, respectively), this means pitch names will be different for identical fingering. If this confuses you or your students, the tenor might be perfect for you!

I could list all its specs, but here is the easiest, most relevant summary for you: it is exactly like the soprano, only an octave lower!

This means its two-octave range goes from C4 to C6. If you look back at the alto, this means they share about two-thirds of their ranges.

If you are deciding between tenors and altos, decide whether range or ease of playing is more important. If you need a wider range from a soprano’s, then you will want an alto. However, if you want something that is easy to relate to sopranos, a tenor would be great.

When it comes to pricing, tenor recorders are significantly costlier than soprano or alto recorders. Be prepared to spend over $50 for a decent instrument! Choices include models from Aulos and Yamaha.


A bass recorder is great if you want a full consort sound with full, rich bass notes. Although their appearance might remind you of intimidating reed instruments like clarinets and oboes, they are still easy to play.

Basses have a two octave range of F3-F5, making them one octave lower than an alto. Interestingly, although they go over an octave lower than sopranos, they still share four with them.

At about three feet long, basses would be awkward to play if they were completely straight. Manufacturers add a slight bend to the mouthpiece, just like saxophones or bass clarinets.

This bend makes the holes easier to reach. Even then, the holes are spread far apart. This is why they have several keys like reed instruments, which allow players to cover some holes without actually covering them with their fingers.

If you play the clarinet, you understand these changes. The soprano clarinet is completely straight, but the bass clarinet is curved for the exact same reasons.

Owing to these significant differences in size and build, bass recorders can easily cost 10x the price of soprano recorders. A popular option is again from, you guessed it, Yamaha!

Other Types

The most common consort quartet today uses a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. While these, along with the sopranino, are the most common recorders today, they are not the only ones available.

The other types of recorders are used for very specific purposes, and you probably won’t need them for most projects. However, for curiosity’s sake, I list several of them below:

Piccolo: C6-C8

Great bass: C3-A4. These stand up straight on the ground and use a small metal tube connecting the mouthpiece to its body. This function is identical to bassoons.

Contrabass: F2-F3

Sub-great bass: C2-A3

Sub-contrabass: F1-F2


As you can see, the recorder has a unique – and at times surprising – history spanning several centuries.

I certainly hope you gained a new appreciation for the recorder after reading this, even if you don’t race off to find a recorder playlist on Spotify. If nothing else, it really shows how people can find inspiration from the most intriguing sources.

So next time your son pulls out that neon green recorder to play “Hot Cross Buns” at level 11, why not find yourself one and join in for a centuries-long tradition of fun and music!

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About Brian Campbell

Brian has been playing piano since elementary school and started learning guitar in 7th grade. He teaches K-8 students in Columbus, Ohio, and writes lessons covering a broad spectrum of genres. As a child, he moved back and forth between Colorado and West Africa. He credits those experiences with opening his eyes to the cultural and artistic diversity he appreciates today. Several of his favorite musicians include J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Radiohead. When not doing music and teaching, you can find Brian reading, hiking, traveling, or making just one more shot of espresso.

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