16 Fun And Interesting Facts About The Recorder You Should Know

Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

The recorder is a very interesting instrument that most people recognize from their early school days. While it seems more like a kid’s toy compared to other musical tools and instruments, the recorder was once a staple in music and has a long history to back up its significance.

The following are some fascinating facts about the recorder that you might not know about.

1. Recorders Come in Many Sizes

Like most woodwind instruments, Recorders come in a number of different shapes and sizes.

However, there are 5 common types from smallest (and highest pitch) to largest (and lowest pitch they are:

  • Sopranino
  • Soprano
  • Alto
  • Tenor
  • Bass

However, you can get a lot bigger recorders such as the subcontrabass recorder which is over six feet tall!

2. Recorders are Really Old

Recorders aren’t just old, they’ve been around since the middle ages! — that’s a few centuries before the invention of the tuba, the clarinet, and the harmonica.

Early musicians who played recorders back then didn’t use today’s mass-produced plastic versions of the instrument. Instead, they played recorders carved out of ivory or wood.

The oldest example of the recorder that survived to date has been linked to 14th-century Europe.

3. The Recorder was First Made from Plumwood

Speaking of the earliest recorder from the 14th century, it was discovered in Göttingen, Germany.

The length of this instrument is around 10 inches (256 mm) and it was carved from a single chunk of plumwood.

One of the cool things about the design of this recorder is that it can accommodate both right-handed and left-handed players because the bottom finger gets to take advantage of widely-spaced double holes.

4. The Name “Recorder” Used to Make Sense

Way before the age of voice messages, voicemails, and tape recorders, saying that you “recorded” something meant that you memorized it by heart.

As far as this translation goes, the simple “recorder” flute makes sense to have such a name.

Another possible explanation for this instrument’s name is that it was often used for practice, also referred to as “recording.”

That being said, the name “recorder” doesn’t translate well in other languages besides English, and it’s usually categorized as a type of flute.

5. The Recorder Used to be a Staple of Classical Music

While serious musicians of the modern-day may look down on the recorder, the instrument was a crucial part of the wind section throughout the Baroque period.

Huge names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and Georg Frideric Handel integrated the recorder into their works.

The recorder was often used in opera to evoke pastoral images – such as shepherds and birds – and erotic themes thanks to its clear and sweet sound.

6. The Recorder Features in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

The popularity of the recorder was so high during the 16th century that the most famous writer of the time used it to illustrate a metaphor.

That’s right, William Shakespeare mentioned the recorder in the third act of Hamlet where the title character asks Guildenstern to play him the recorder, to which the latter responds that he doesn’t know how to do it.

After that, Hamlet insists that playing the instrument is as easy as lying but Guildenstern still refuses.

That’s when Hamlet tells Guildenstern that he should face no trouble playing the simple recorder since he “played” him like an instrument so skillfully.

This comparison/metaphor soon made it into common vocabulary.

Nowadays, it’s been modified where people are more likely to say they were “played like a fiddle” rather than a recorder.

7. The Recorder was Collected by Royalty

Better known for going through notorious marriages, you may not be familiar with the musical talents of King Henry VIII.

In addition to being royalty, he was also an accomplished composer with several published songs and instrumental pieces.

This music knack of Henry VIII led him to become an ambitious instrument collector to the point that he had added a total of 76 recorders to his ensemble by the time he died in 1547.

As an instrument that was played in choirs, the recorder had a limited range, so multiple ones were needed to play a single song.

Henry VIII didn’t leave his recorders to collect dust in a case either — he made sure they fulfilled their true purpose.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when the King wasn’t playing these instruments himself, they were probably played by the royal recorder consort and other professionals.

8. The Recorder has an Everlasting Fundamental Structure

Although the details of a recorder’s design have dramatically changed over the years, the basic construction still follows the same set of concepts and characteristics.

The are three main parts of a recorder which are:

  • The head section, which is a whistle mouthpiece.
  • The middle section, which consists of 7 finger-holes.
  • The foot section, which featured only one hole for the thumb.

9. The “Plastic” Recorder Came Out in the 1960s

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Recorders went plastic around the 1950s and transformed into the cheap, lightweight version of the modern-day.

There were a number of reasons such as plastic being readily available meaning it could be mass-produced.

It’s also very durable – especially compared to wooden recorders which made it tougher and able to last longer.

It also brought the price down a lot and made recorders one of the most affordable instruments to learn.

All this, without the quality of the sound suffering too much made it a popular choice.

10. The Recorder was Dominated by the Flute

A Baroque Flute

Although the recorder is technically a type of flute, it’s a fellow type of flute that we often associate with the term “flute”, namely the transverse flute.

This is a flute that you hold horizontally and blow into from the side.

In the 14th century, the transverse flute made its way from Asia to Europe, where it made an appearance in most orchestras by the 19th century.

Due to its limited range and relatively low volume, the recorder couldn’t put up much fight against the bold, piercing sound of a flute in concert halls.

Throughout the 19th century, the recorder was gradually phased out until it no longer became a part of the modern orchestra.

11. The Recorder Entered Classrooms in Style

Carl Orff is a German composer famous for the scenic cantata Carmina Burana, which features a popular first movement that you’ve probably heard before.

Additionally, the composer played a huge role in introducing the recorder to schools thanks to his unique teaching style; “Orff Schulwerk”.

One of the main notions of his method states that children will learn music easier if they could sing the notes they’re playing.

Producing a sound range similar to that of a child’s voice, the soprano recorder fits the process like a glove.

Around the same time when the word was spreading about this idea, the plastic recorder came to life.

Consequently, more schools could buy the instruments in bulk.

12. The Recorder Used to Rock

One of the ways that music teachers use to get their students to approach the recorder is emphasizing the connection between said instrument and classic rock in hopes of making it seem more “hip”.

Paul McCartney integrated the recorder’s sound into a few of his solo works, but more notably, into the Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill”.

Besides that, the recorder also features in the music of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed. 

That said, not all the rock stars who used the instrument were proud of the fact.

13. The Name “Recorder” was First Used in the 14th Century

The first time the term ‘recorder’ was used to refer to a musical instrument was back in 1388.

It was listed as the property of the Earl of Derby’s household, who became King Henry IV later on.

14. The Recorder Can be Really Big

While the standard soprano recorder most people think of when picturing a recorder they can actually get a lot bigger.

For example, the subcontrabass recorder is the largest in the world at 10 feet tall (around 3 meters).

There are only 3 currently in the world and are also pretty expensive setting you back at least €14,000!

15. Early Music Enthusiasts Stopped the Recorder from Going Extinct

The recorder was on the verge of being completely phased out, but it was saved by the efforts of some music enthusiasts and multiple institutions who had an interest in pre-classical music.

They held events and presented performances where old instruments were showcased and played, for example, the concert of 1885’s International Inventions Exhibition.

16. The Recorder was Given to Prisoners of War

To ease their feelings, prisoners of war in the RAF – who were captured by the Germans during WW2 – were given recorders to play.

Manufactured in England, these instruments were the earliest version of plastic recorders.

Wrap Up

There you have it, 16 interesting facts about the recorder you might not be familiar with.

As you can tell, the recorder as an instrument has a rich history behind it that you simply can’t ignore.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.