A Composer's Guide to Writing for the Recorder

Written by Benjamin Thorn

When writing for the recorder (as for any other instrument) it is important to remember its strengths and weaknesses. Music that works well on other wind instruments may not work as well on the recorder (and of course vice versa).

Recorder Dynamics and Articulation

The recorder does not have a great range of dynamics. If you try to play it very loudly or very softly it tends to go out of tune. This is a problem particularly if you are using more than one instrument and/or playing with instruments with more stable pitch. As a consequence long flowing passages with crescendos and diminuendos (which sound really good on flutes for instance) are not very idiomatic for the recorder.

Recorder players will give the illusion of dynamics through articulation. Dynamics written into a score will be interpreted largely as indications of sound quality. As a general rule keep the number of dynamics down. 

Accents are usually done with the tongue and should not imply a sforzando which is likely to be out of tune. Since most players will use a range of articulations quite normally it is probably unnecessary to overdo the articulation marks: only show those that really are important. 

Unless specified with a slur a recorder player should tongue everything but this covers a very wide range of articulations. Do not use slurs to mark phrases!

Types of Recorder and Ranges

The most common types of recorders are:

  • Sopranino (lowest written note F above Middle C sounding an octave higher).
  • Descant (or Soprano) (lowest written note Middle C sounding an octave higher).
  • Treble (or alto) (lowest note F above Middle C).
  • Tenor (lowest note Middle C).
  • Bass (lowest written note F below the bass clef but sounds an octave higher).

Several other instruments are occasionally available.

  • Garklein Flautlein is an octave higher than the descant. Sitting next to someone playing this instrument can be like having nails driven into your head.
  • Great Bass (lowest written note C below bass clef but sounds an octave higher).
  • Contrabass (lowest note F below bass clef).

Points to remember

Do not write for these instruments unless you have checked that they are available!

  • 'Recorder' without any qualification means the treble.
  • Note that a considerable number of people find the high tessitura of the smaller instruments (descant and smaller) quite irritating and you might therefore gain greater audience acceptance if you use the larger instruments.
  • Recorders are sometimes described as being in F or C. This refers to their lowest note and does not imply that they are transposing instruments.
  • The safe range for most recorders is 2 octaves and a note. This would be the treble from F (above middle C) to G (4 ledger lines). Do not exceed this range for consort music (unless you know the consort).
  • (Garklein range is an octave and a sixth C to A).
  • The highest F# on F instruments or C# on C instruments is a bit awkward to get and should be avoided if possible.
  • On some tenors and basses the lowest semitone (C# on tenor and F# on bass) is not possible and should be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary, particularly in consort music.
  • On most instruments (not sopranino) the range can be extended fairly easily to 2 octaves and a fifth (and sometimes a bit more). Only use this extended range for solo works and only if necessary. Fast passage work in this part of the range can be very awkward and should be avoided.

Strong and Weak Notes

  • On a treble the lowest F# and G# (on a C instrument C# and D#) are quite weak sounding notes that do not speak as quickly as other ones. Avoid them in strong musical gestures.
  • Also passage work that involves moving between the lowest F and F# and G and G# on a treble (C and C# and D and D# on a C instrument) is extremely difficult and should be avoided. Rapid movement from other notes is however fairly easy.
  • As a general rule notes with accidentals will have a slightly different timbre and be slightly weaker than those without.

An important thing to remember! Recorder players (like all wind players) have to breathe.

Contemporary Techniques

Multiphonics. The recorder does these very well (probably better than any other wind instrument). It is best to check with a recorder player before using these. Notation can either be chordal notation indicating two main notes, or just a square headed note of the base with an harmonic sign. Multiphonics work especially well when used in ensembles.

Singing into the instrument. This works well. Singing in unison or octaves is quite easy and effective. singing in counterpoint is possible but tricky. Male and female voices can have quite different effects. Also you need to consider how much voice you want since a very strong voice sounds quite different to an ethereal one. Also remember that as in all vocal music you need to give the player some chance of correctly pitching the note you want. 

Glissandi. They are easiest if they don't go across registers: the main register change is a ninth above the lowest note. You can also get small glissandos or bending down by shading the windway of the recorder.

Flutter tonguing. Flutter tonguing, and many other specialised tonguing techniques are quite possible. Use normal notation. 

Non specific pitches. Fluttering, twittering, burbles etc tend to work very well. Notate graphically or without note heads. 

Echo effects/half blowing/angle blowing. By blowing across the beak of the recorder rather than directly into it you get a breathy sound (still with clear pitch) which is a useful timbral variation and can be used for echoes etc. 

Percussion sounds. The main ones are tapping on recorder with a ring which can be done while playing other notes or bell banging which involves hitting the end of the recorder on the palm of your hand which is a quite nice drum sound. 

Blocking the recorder end. Blocking the end of the recorder can produce some interesting sounds, including a lowest note a fifth below the normal one (this can be done for a whole piece with a bit of masking tape or bluetack). You need to check with a recorder player about what is possible. 

Vibrato. This is hardly a contemporary technique but it can be done in lots of ways including diaphragm, lip, tongue and finger vibrato. Each sounds different!

See the Glossary of Unusual Recorder Techniques and Notations for more information and examples relating to contemporary recorder techniques. 

Recorders in Ensembles and Consorts

Massed recorders can be one of the world's truly horrible musical experiences. In the main this is because variable ability of players usually ensures tuning problems and also because the general pitch is quite high (frequently an octave higher than any other common ensemble) which can disturb some people. Low pitched recorder ensembles are a much more pleasant sound. 

Tuning, or apparent tuning problems are also caused by the structure of the recorders harmonics and the absence of vibrato. Two or more recorders that are in fact quite well in tune will still have a 'different' sound quality that some people interpret as being out of tune. This is particularly noticeable if parts are being doubled by more than one player. A compositional consequence of this is that dissonances between recorder parts sound much more pronounced and exciting than on other instruments and can be exploited extremely effectively. You also need to be careful about writing too many unisons, octaves or other perfect consonances since the effect may not quite be what you imagine. 

Some use of dynamics is possible in ensemble music so long as the whole ensemble changes at the same time (and you're not too worried about the slight changes in pitch), but is possibly best left to difference between large sections or movements. 
Many contemporary aleatoric techniques are extremely effective when played by ensembles. Massed multiphonics also work very well (and in fact are more effective than those by a soloist). 

Since most recorder players play several different sizes, changes of instrumentation (between movements is most convenient) to vary the pitch profile of a piece is quite possible and can be effective. 

While there are some virtuosic consorts, the chances of widespread performances are much higher if the level of technical difficulty is not too great. (Similarly most consorts are usually fairly musically conservative.) Do not write virtuosic consort music unless you have particular performers in mind.

Recorders and Other Instruments

When using recorders with other instruments it is important to remember their limitations. While the sound of a recorder does cut through other sounds quite well the comparatively soft dynamic does mean that it can be swamped. It therefore works best in small ensembles. Using the smaller instruments to increase the pitch difference between the recorder and the other instruments often works well, but does tend to type cast the instrument. 

Another critical issue is the lack of dynamic flexibility of the recorder so that the expressive possibilities of the instrument do not match those of other instruments. This can create a compositional problem since often quite disparate means of expression will need to be used between the instruments while trying to maintain compositional unity. (Note that in baroque music, where this does not seem to be so much of a problem, the general style suits the recorder quite well, which is not true of later instrumental stylistic and technical developments.)

Some combinations work better than others. For instance recorders combine well with harpsichords, which share dynamic limitations, but not so well with pianos. This is partly the actual sound which doesn't seem to blend well but also pianistic musical language. The most successful works for recorder and piano tend to use the piano in non pianistic (that is non romantic) ways. 

Instruments that work well with recorders include: harpsichord, percussion both tuned and untuned, voices, guitar, organ (so long as it's not too loud). Strings can work effectively, as can other woodwinds so long as the difference in styles as well as in timbres are considered and exploited. Brass tend to be overpowering but can be used effectively in alternation. Interestingly music for brass often works well on recorders and vice versa. Pianos often do not work particularly well. 

It is possible to amplify recorders. However this has all the logistical (and musical) problems that any amplification incurs. Electronic modification of recorders does work quite well.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Benjamin Thorn is one of our Orpheus Music Composers. Benjamin is a visual artist with multiple compositional outputs when it comes to music, including vocal, instrumental, choral, and music theatre. CLICK HERE to learn more about Benjamin Thorn.

Recorder Courses: Thanks for reading this guide on composing for the recorder. If you're interested in attending our recorder courses workshops for intermediate to advanced recorder players, CLICK HERE to learn more about our wonderful courses for players of all ages.