The oboe was the most popular Baroque woodwind instrument. In the early 17th century, it saw a rapid technological advance amongst the main instrument-making families in France. These families were the Philidor’s, the Chedevilles, and the Hotteterres. Many remember Jean Hotteterre as the modern oboe’s maker.

The instrument consists of a slender wooden tube with an air column. Blowing forcefully activates this column. It distinguishes itself from its Shawm predecessor by allowing the player to contact the reed more directly. Also, the reshaping of the conoidal bore and reforming of the size and placement of the finger holes allowed access to a complete set of diatonic and chromatic pitches through two octaves.

During the second half of the 17th century, the oboe started to be played in musical theatres. Perhaps it happened as early as 1657’s “L’Amour Malade” by Jean-Baptist Lully. It arrived in England during the Restoration and seems to have gained favor almost immediately. Henry Purcell frequently used it after 1690, particularly in his ode “Come Ye Sons of Hearth”, which demonstrated the oboe’s expressive ability.

At first sight, the oboe appears like a bigger version of the clarinet, with its black body and silver-colored keys. However, in many aspects, the two instruments differ completely. The inside of an oboe is very narrow. In fact, the upper portion’s inner diameter is just around four millimeters. The diameter grows as it approaches the bell, creating a cone shape. The hole for blowing into an oboe is narrow as well, so only a little bit of the player’s breath can enter.

Other wind instruments tend to be difficult for players who don’t have sufficient breath volume. However, in the case of the oboe, the opposite could be true, and often breath needs to be less. This is by no means easy, since playing through a melody on a single breath is almost like a sustained stretch of breath-holding. Thus, carbon dioxide accumulates in the lungs during performances. Likewise, players need to catch up on air after exhaling long-held breaths. Because of this, it takes longer for them to take breaths than it does for players of other wind instruments.

Construction and structure

The modern standard oboe is most commonly made from Granadilla, also known as African blackwood. However, some manufacturers still produce it from other members of the Dalbergia genus, which includes cocobolo, rosewood, and violet wood (still known as kingwood).

Manufacturers shave down an actual cane reed to get an oboe reed. Two reeds sit face-to-face and get strapped to the metal pipe with strings. A piece of cork wraps part of the oboe and then inserts itself into the upper section of the instrument.

The two reeds curve slightly, so there is a small gap in the center where the two ends stick together. This allows the flow of the player’s breath. During execution, the reeds experience minute vibrations, constantly closing and opening the space between them. Interestingly the reeds open and close 440 times per second when a player outputs an A note at 440 Hz. 

A modern oboe with the “full conservatoire” or Gillet key system houses 45 pieces of keys. Possible additions are a third-octave key and alternate F- or C-key. Most have “semi-automatic” octave keys, such that the second-octave action closes the first, while some have a fully automatic octave key system, as used on saxophones.