The future of woodwind instruments

Here are a few predictions (or wishes) about the woodwind instruments we might be able to buy in the future.

Personalized ergonomics

With the amount of worry musicians expend over repetitive motion injuries and other playing-related ailments, it’s truly baffling that instruments are still almost entirely a one-size-fits-all affair.

For just one example: for generations, saxophonists have applied cork or other stuff to their palm keys to help avoid collapsing the hand to press them. Most of the finest saxophones in the world still offer palm keys in a single height, meant to accommodate child and adult hands, male and female hands, large and small hands. (A couple of exceptions are Keilwerth’s wrench-adjustable left hand palm keys, and Cannonball’s “Stone Series” instruments, which can be purchased or retrofitted with stone touchpieces of varying heights for both left and right palm keys.) And this is only one of the ergonomic issues of saxophones and other woodwinds.

Imagine buying a production woodwind instrument that had fully adjustable keywork that could be matched to your individual hands. This could be done with interchangeable parts, or with keywork adjustable via screws or other means.

Related to this is a need to re-examine the possibilities of plateau (“closed”) keys. Most of the modern woodwinds have at least some fingerholes or keys with holes in them, and these cannot be moved to accommodate ergonomics without affecting pitch and tone. But the touchpieces on a saxophone or bass clarinet can largely be located according to convenience, to open or close toneholes somewhere else on the instrument’s body. Our largely unfounded derision of plateau keys on woodwind instruments prevents us from embracing much better ergonomic possibilities.

New materials

Far too much credit is given to materials, especially if those materials are costly and pretty, for their contribution to an instrument’s sound. Inventors have created incredible new materials for aerospace, automotive, and electronics applications. Why couldn’t we make woodwind instruments out of amazing new materials that are inexpensive, crack- and dent-resistant, sustainable, lightweight, and beautiful? (Buffet-Crampon’s “Greenline” instruments are an example of high-quality instruments made from synthetic materials.)

A move to new materials could reduce investment in instrument purchase and maintenance, prevent the heartbreak of a new clarinet or oboe cracking, stop over-harvesting of certain woods, and reduce repetitive-motion injuries.

And it wouldn’t be the first time woodwind players gave up traditional materials for better ones; there aren’t a lot of players still using boxwood flutes and clarinets.

Imagine, too, the possibilities of reeds and pads that are long-lasting, stable, and consistent.


It’s axiomatic among woodwind players that good instrument technicians are getting harder to find. In my rural area, it’s a 2½-hour drive to a city where I can get my high-quality instruments worked on competently, by people doing instrument repair in their homes rather than in music stores or commercial repair shops.

Many woodwind instruments have at least some adjustment screws or other relatively intuitive ways to keep them adjusted and playing well. Installing pads is still somewhat of a specialist art, but imagine how that could change with improved materials for pads and for toneholes, and with approaches like MusicMedic’s “self-leveling” Neo Pads.

Imagine instruments that are user-adjustable using common household tools or tools included with the instrument, supplemented with detailed instructional videos. Some routine tasks like pad or bumper replacement could become the player’s responsibility, or something that could be done by a minimally-trained music store employee, school band director, or private teacher.

Your turn

Let me know what features and qualities you would like to see in the woodwind instruments of the future!

3 thoughts on “The future of woodwind instruments”

  1. To be honest, I’m not particularly hopeful about any of these convenience or ergonomics-based improvements, if only because the history of woodwind instruments seems to show strong progressions in the development of improved playing capabilities— people jump on those right away!— and little interest among musicians in making things easier.

    On the bassoon, I think there has been some improvement in awareness of ergonomics and the possibility that a player with smaller hands may play the instrument— I used to play Heckel built in the 70s which had flick keys so far apart my entire thumb could fit in between them, whereas on my newer Bell instrument they’re all lined up in a row. At least on bassoon, though, the need for varying degrees of half-hole depending on reed, tuning and dynamic means I don’t see plateau keys catching on for the left hand, which is where most people would need them.

    Materials… maybe. The major thing not explored in any of the studies in the article linked about materials and tone is articulation. Ease of articulation, and the range of articulations possible given a regular human mouth, is, in my experience, the biggest part of the “sound” that depends on both the reed and the material of the instrument, which makes sense— different materials and thicknesses of those materials will require a different amount of initial pressure to get them vibrating. More difficult to test in the lab than just “tone” in the sense of the waveform of an extended note.

    The biggest thing I’d predict for my own instrument is the wide-scale adoption of the contraforte replacing the contrabassoon within the century. The advances made in that instrument are the kind most likely to be quickly adopted— it’s an instrument that you could show up to a contrabassoon audition with and have a distinct edge over everyone playing a contrabassoon because it does necessary things well that the contrabassoon does poorly. Though the fact that it’s proprietary will probably slow it down… we need an open-source movement for instrument design, apparently!

  2. A note on the materials thing: Wolf made that ultra-lightweight bassoon years ago, with traditional maple wood, but aluminum keys (and the prototype had carbon fiber rods). The weight reduction from silver/brass/whateveritreallyis was incredibly significant. I’d switch to a bassoon like that very quickly if the sound and acoustic were to my liking. Seriously it was 1/3 of the weight of my Moosmann.


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