Listen Up! “W” is for Willow Flute

Listen Up! “W” is for Willow Flute

WThe willow flute is a Nordic folk flute with no finger holes. You play it by varying the amount of air blown into it, and by using a finger to control the hole at the bottom, covering it at times. Modern willow flutes are made from plastic, but originally, they were made from the bark of green willow branches. They could only be made in the spring, and when the bark dried out, they were unplayable.

Listen Up! “V” is for Violin

Listen Up! “V” is for Violin

VI love the violin. I wish I could play it. First seen in 16th century Italy, the best-known and most prized instruments were made by the Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati families.

There are some notable violinists, but my favorite performer is without a doubt Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. I’ve never seen anyone play with as much passion.

Listen Up! “U” is for Udu

Listen Up! “U” is for Udu


The udu is an African instrument whose name – udu – means “vessel” in Igbo. It’s a water jug with an added hole! Usually it’s made of clay and played by hand (no mallets or sticks). Wait til you see this!

Listen Up! “T” is for Triangle

Listen Up! “T” is for Triangle

TNot the tuba. Or trumpet. Or trombone. Today, “T” is for triangle, a percussion instrument made of steel or copper bent into the shape of a…..yeah, a triangle. One of the angles is left open a little, which gives it some pitch.

The poor triangle is the subject of jokes. Remember Ed Grimley on Saturday Night Live? However, some triangle parts in classical music can be difficult – really! Watch here:

Listen Up! “S” is for Saxophone

Listen Up! “S” is for Saxophone


Usually made of gleaming brass, the sax was invented by Belgian Aldophe Sax in 1840. It gained popularity for its use in military bands in France and Belgium, and is featured in military bands all over the world today, as well as in classical music, jazz, blues, and popular bands.

Some of the world’s greatest saxophonists were Charlie Parker, Clarence Clemons, and this guy, Boots Randolph.

Listen Up! “R” is for Recorder

Listen Up! “R” is for Recorder


The recorder was popular in medieval times through the Baroque era, but it declined in the 18th century as the flute, oboe, and clarinet took over. It’s associated with pastoral scenes, suggesting shepherds and birds.

It’s thought of as a child’s instrument, due to its simplicity. But when you listen to this, you’ll see that it’s not just for kids.

Listen Up! “Q” is for Qanun

Listen Up! “Q” is for Qanun


Note: I don’t pick a topic unless I know I can cover the alphabet!

The qanun is a stringed instrument played mostly in the Middle East, central Asia, and southeastern Europe. It’s derived from the Arabic word kānun, which means rule or norm, and its sound is decidedly Middle Eastern.

Listen here:

Listen Up! “P” is for Piccolo

Listen Up! “P” is for Piccolo

P The word piccolo means small in Italian, but the piccolo is called an ottavino there – go figure. It’s a half-sized flute and a member of the woodwinds.

Mozart used a piccolo in his opera Idomeneo, and they were seen as early as 1735 in some Parisian opera orchestras. Once made from wood, glass, or ivory, today piccolos are generally manufactured out of brass, silver, or resin.

Here’s the piccolo starring in John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Listen Up! “O” is for Organ

Listen Up! “O” is for Organ


We’re more than halfway through the alphabet, and I hope you’re enjoying these blog posts. As you can see, I’ve tried to keep the reading to a minimum, because these posts really are all about listening – to the sound, to the melody, to the interpretation. A little bit of history, especially for some of the more obscure instruments, is essential.

Anyway, “O” is for organ. It was either that or oboe, and I love them both equally. The word organ is from the Greek ὄργανον organon, meaning instrument or tool. It was played throughout the Greek and Roman world, particularly during races and games. I hear an organ, I think church. Or a baseball game.

Steven Eaklor, of the Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts, is featured here. Is he The World’s Best Organ Player? You decide.

Listen Up! “N” is for Nyckelharpa

Listen Up! “N” is for Nyckelharpa


A traditional Swedish instrument, the nyckelharpa is a keyed fiddle, meaning that it a bow is drawn across its strings while keys are fingered to produce different tones. Depictions of the instrument date to the 14th and 15th centuries in Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. There are about 10,000 nyckelharpa players in Sweden today, due to a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

Here is Bach played on the nyckelharpa. The melody is perfectly matched with the instrument:


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