Hosted by Jo Ann Simpson, May 4 is the 13th  annual Paul Buttemer Day to honour our memories of this wonderful Canadian bassoonist and reedmaker by making reeds as a community.

Since 2009, bassoonists from Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, Winnipeg, Ohio and New York states have met annually at the Conservatoire de Musique de Gatineau, Quebec to share their reed trials and successes.

The 2021 event takes place entirely online from 9 am to 9 pm. People are welcome to drop in and out (and in again) as they please.

Highlights of the 13th Edition will include cameo appearances by some of our favourite reed experts.



Paul Buttemer Bassoonist and Reed maker

Paul Buttemer 1956 – 2008

SCHEDULE: (subject to change) All times are EDT.

9:30 am        ANDREW BURN – Historic Bassoon and Reed Maker – Two Styles of Hand Shaped Reeds

11:00 am      GARETH THOMAS – Cleveland Orchestra – The Cleveland Orchestra Reed

2:00 pm        JAMES MCKAY – Co-author of The Bassoon Reed Manual: Lou Skinner’s Theories and Techniques –

                       Lou Skinner’s Concept of Linear Enhancements

4:00 pm         CHRISTOPHER MILLARD – National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada and University of Ottawa – Symmetry

5:30 pm         GLENN EINSCHLAG – Buffalo Philharmonic and Glenn Gould School, Toronto. – Reed Chit Chat

7:00 pm         CHRISTOPHER WEAIT – Composer, bassoonist, teacher, author. Finishing Reeds

Join any time on Tuesday May 4th for reed making, conversation and camaraderie.

Follow the event on Facebook

Here is the Zoom login. The room will be open from 9 am to 9 pm. You can join at any time and come and go as you please.

Topic:  Paul Buttemer Day 2021
Time: May 4, 2021 09:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 838 3728 1110

Passcode: 953153

Hosted by Jo Ann Simpson

Bassoonist and bassoon pedagogue

613 290 7462

Founder and Co-Director Brooke Valley Bassoon Days

Contact Us

  • If you are a bassoon student of any age and looking for information.
  • If you wish to donate money, reeds, or a bassoon to the COCB.
  • If you are a corporation that would like to sponsor a Bassoon Day or special concert by major artists.
  • If you have ANY questions at all or comments to make on blog, write to us!

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© The Council of Canadian Bassoonists. Website by Mighty Sparrow Design.

CHIAROSCURO Chapter 19 by Christopher Millard

CHIAROSCURO Chapter 19 by Christopher Millard

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 19 – CHIAROSCURO


 Light & dark

Caravaggio and Corelli, one a painter, the other a tenor.  Both transcendent masters of the balance of light and shade.

Our Little Bassoonist has studied Caravaggio’s paintings, his human figures illuminated by shafts of light, the backgrounds indistinct, shadows balancing the highlights. She has listened to Corelli’s recordings, his spinto tenor lyrical yet powerful, perfect bel canto balancing a velvety depth with piercing projection.  So how does she imagine an ideal bassoon tone?  She has heard endless advice about making a ‘dark’ sound, an adjective that seems equivalent to ‘beauty’ for many modern bassoonists.


Our Little Bassoonist has studied 

If a dark room implies the absence of light, then a dark tone must imply the absence of – what?  Higher frequencies?  Or perhaps ‘dark’ just means an abundance of lower frequencies, like a room filled with shadows.  LB instinctively associates dark with low frequencies and bright with high frequencies and she’s on the right track.  But for a complete picture of bassoon tone, we need to consider the kind of frequencies.

In previous chapters, we have examined how bassoons harness the energy supplied by the pressure-controlled reed and animate the natural resonance frequencies of the bore via complex standing waves.  These true harmonics are selected by damping a broad range of unnecessary frequencies in the vibrating reed.  Along with embouchure, this interactive process described in previous chapters dampens unwanted elements of the reed’s overly broad tonal spectrum.   It is a bit like mixing paints: Caravaggio’s palette included primary colors, but he carefully muted and balanced his tints to achieve skin tones within the visual light spectrum.

When we first see a painting utilizing chiaroscuro – light/dark – we are as much struck by what is obscured in shadow as we are by what is revealed in the clarity of light.  A great bel canto voice presents a similar balance and an aspirational ideal for the bassoonist.

So, why is it that ‘dark’ is generally admired while ‘bright’ is often a pejorative?  I think one way to talk about these adjectives is to define them in terms of spectrum analysis.  In earlier chapters we looked at audio spectrum graphs, which focus on the frequencies of true harmonics.  These graphs show a certain amount of energy distributed among the fundamental and the overtones – for each note, each bassoon, each player and each reed.  While most of these spectrum outcomes are determined by the instrument itself, the reed and the embouchure play important roles by increasing or decreasing the relative strength of the many overtones.  A measurable increase in the lower harmonics leads to a sound often described as darker, while increasing the strength of the higher harmonics leads to a brighter sound.

Remember, while the specific frequency of each harmonic is defined by nature’s simple ratios to that of the fundamental, its relative strength (its amplitude as shown in the spectrum graph) can be modified to some extent by reed design and embouchure use.   Our Little Bassoonist wonders why we can’t measure the dark/bright balance of a reed by simply measuring its harmonic spectrum in real-time.  After all, we seem to have plenty of good audio spectrum applications using algorithms that convert a sound signal into a graphic representation of frequencies.  But these only take a ‘snapshot of the average levels of each of the component harmonics.  Much is left out of the evaluation, including the complex beginnings of notes – we call these attack transients – and the ongoing presence of unpredictable inharmonic components throughout the sustained tone.  It’s like the difference between a charcoal sketch and a full-blown oil painting.  The problem with relying too much on spectrum analysis is this: our ears are considerably more sensitive to complex sonorities than these simple computer applications.

The phenomenon of attack transients is common to all orchestral instruments: it’s the quick negotiation phase between initial energy input and the establishment of a steady, periodic regime of harmonics.  For the bassoonist, these range from the obvious (poorly vented mid-range attacks) to the subtle (perhaps that little chirp in tenor Eb?).   Once a steady tone is achieved, we become aware of inharmonic components that continue throughout the duration of a note.  You all know these as buzz, rattle, sizzle or just plain ‘noise’.  So, while a spectrum graph may clearly show energy peaks in the first 5 or 6 true harmonics – suggesting a dark sound – the brighter inharmonic transients simply won’t appear on the graph.  Those components not being generated by the bore of the bassoon are too ephemeral to be easily quantified.  Instead, these are reed-generated frequencies – non-harmonic and unpredictable – and they can contribute a LOT to the character of the bassoon tone.

There is an analogy to be made to a spoken conversation between two people, where words and ideas may be deep and resonant despite the occasional stutter or mispronunciation.  We should keep in mind that the bassoon/reed dialogue ultimately aspires to emulate singing.   Spectrum analysis tells us something about what is true in the acoustics of sound production, but actual listening reveals what we deem to be beautiful.

It should come as no surprise that a reed constructed from organic material and cleverly sprung to maximize energy input and acoustic output will naturally contribute all sorts of extra frequencies.  Good reed making strategies, combined with skilled embouchure, regulate these anomalies.  We’ve examined throughout this blog that the bore of the bassoon does the lion’s share of the work, setting up a regime of organized standing waves and discouraging non-harmonic oscillations, but the bassoonist’s lips and blowing strategies play important roles in attenuating unwanted sounds.

2021 is Franco Corelli’s centenary.  Thank heavens we don’t need spectrum analyzers to appreciate his tonal resonance and complexity.  But aren’t you a bit curious….?  I suspect that the unmatched squillo in his voice was achieved by the cultivation of fairly true upper harmonics.

In a long orchestral career, I have tried to balance my instinctive preference for a ‘covered’ sound with the need to project in a large theatre.  Too dark a sound can lead to a lack of both clarity and projection.  Students of my generation were told to ignore the closeup noise of a reed, with the understanding that transients and inharmonics would be largely attenuated by distance.  I was often advised that without some sizzle I wouldn’t project.  Of course, this advice has a logical basis; human ears perceive higher frequencies with more clarity.  You will always hear a piccolo carry over a viola.

Distance is critical in an art gallery, too.  Imagine you are standing inches away from a Rembrandt, close enough to see the brush strokes and tiny splashes of colour.  An eye springs to life with a mere speck of white dabbed on an iris.  Up close it’s a bit messy, but at a distance it seems utterly refined.  But are we bassoonists necessarily obliged to follow the same principle, using inharmonic ‘tints’ to project rich character to an audience?

Each of us bring our personalities to our tone production.  Some of us are bold and outspoken, others naturally understated.  Many bassoonists love to produce some extra ‘stuff’ in their reeds – a touch of frizzante if you like.  Experience has taught them that an overly sizzly sonority is often heard at a distance in perfect balance.  Others [I include myself] are more inclined to produce a ‘finished’ up-close tone.  The question is: while a sparkling reed will darken at a distance, will a velvety, covered reed actually go the distance??

A critical question for our role in the symphony orchestra.  The answer depends on several rather large factors:

  • some bassoons produce a broader and more complex range of component harmonics
  • some concert halls are more friendly to the lower range instruments of the orchestra
  • some ensembles are simply more transparent and balanced than others.

Projection is never just an acoustical quality; it’s about understanding when to play louder, use vibrato to increase tonal complexity or employ exaggerated nuance to help your musical personality carry.  A well-shaped phrase supported with a well-developed airstream will travel an extra 50 feet.  Musical depth and respect for your acoustical environment are as important as skillful reed making in achieving projection.

I had the great fortune to spend the first few decades of my orchestral career working in both a frequently recorded symphony orchestra and a separate radio orchestra.  These gave me an opportunity to listen to my sonority and projection in both a large concert hall and a recording studio.  As my reed making and my musical abilities evolved, I was able to evaluate my sound development on broadcasts a couple of times a month for many years.  The experience persuaded me that a reed that is satisfying up close can also achieve good projection in the concert hall.  The key is maximizing the strength of the higher harmonics while minimizing unwanted transients and inharmonics.  

Our little bassoonist [Miss Caravaggio, now] is looking for some simple rules to guide her in mixing her tonal palette.

So, here are some principles to consider…

So much of the character of the bassoon, or any instrument for that matter, depends on the first few milliseconds at the start of each note.  This is the opening dialogue between bassoon and reed when initial non-periodic frequencies are quickly dampened by the dominating standing wave regime within the bore.  These attack transients, in their most obvious form, are the reason we use flick keys, discouraging the lower 1st harmonic by creating a disruptive leak in the tenor joint.

Attacks grow more complex as we ascend the ladders of the various ranges; how much of these transients we choose to employ will depend on our artistic personalities.  Many players [mea culpa] work to minimize the presence of unwanted harmonics in the upper register attacks, while others love to have the extra character in their articulations and cultivate profiles that deliver these ‘peppier’ attacks.  Of course, these choices can also be repertoire-driven.

While attack transients are most obvious at the beginning of tongued notes, they also remain subtly present in legato passages.  Slurring between adjacent notes within one register tends to reduce the interactive dialogue between bore and reed to an absolute minimum, yet some reed profiles will exaggerate even these very minimal components.  Once a sustained tone on any note is achieved, we can begin listening for some of the ‘extra stuff’ in the sound: transient/impermanent components that bubble up to the surface.

If you’ve ever played on a plastic reed, you will immediately notice the absence of all of this ‘extra’ acoustical information!  Arundo donax has unpredictable, complex internal structures that contribute tonal complexities mostly absent in a synthetic reed.

Loudness plays an important role in the contribution of transients in the sound.  The louder you play, the greater the tendency for the ‘extra stuff’ to emerge.  Bassoonists tend to rely on a rebalancing of dark and light to exaggerate the effect of a crescendo.  The typical change of character between piano and forte can be an essential tool in establishing our personal tonal objectives.  Some players choose profiles that utilize significant increases in non-harmonic content during a crescendo.  Others will prefer to utilize ‘noise filtering’ strategies in their reed trims – often by using thicker profiles and larger overall dimensions.  My observation over the last 50 years of orchestral bassoon playing is that we’ve seen a shift in the dark/light preferences of performers and conductors.  You could say that bassoon tone has become ‘warmer’ – although that is a highly subjective description.  You could also say that bassoon tone is simply ‘darker’ than it was decades ago.

We have already established that the word ‘dark’ is a confusing concept.  I think a better description might be that we’ve undergone a shift in our ideals of refined bassoon tone.  Bassoonists understand the importance of true higher harmonic frequencies in their sound production but are a bit more cautious now in controlling transients in attacks and avoiding too much buzz at higher volumes.  What has emerged is the idea of a chiaroscuro that cultivates both shadow and clarity but leaves some of the rougher character of cane in the marshes where it grew.

At this point in yet another challenging chapter, our little bassoonist needs some guidance as she takes a knife to her reeds.  So, let’s look at a really simple principle that governs certain kinds of vibrating objects:

  • Non-harmonic content is inversely proportional to dampening [a vibrating system with a longer potential decay period]. It will take the dialogue between bore and reed longer to establish a steady regime of harmonic oscillation.
  • Conversely, a vibrating object whose natural frequencies are quickly dampened will demonstrate shorter attack transients and fewer non-harmonic components.

Here is a thought experiment: imagine your reed’s natural frequencies could be induced by whacking it against your knee like a tuning fork.  You can sort of imagine the reed briefly ringing like this, but the sustained ringing of cane is significantly shorter than the steel tines of the tuning fork.  You can also imagine that a thinner profile will vibrate longer than a thicker profile, as will a reed constructed with more resilient cane.  The more wood left on the profile, or the mushier the wood, the quicker this dampening process occurs.  Quick decay reduces transients.

A possible way to visualize the relationship between long decay and non-harmonic behavior would be a very loosely strung guitar string.  Pluck it and the string will vibrate wildly, buzzing and colliding with the fingerboard.  But as the string is gradually tightened and brought up to pitch, you will see it quickly organize into predictable waveforms.

Many experienced reed makers begin with profiles that are intentionally too thick and patiently remove cane to achieve adequate compliance (sufficient vibration).  Heavy reeds in that early trimming process generally demonstrate very little in the way of attack transients or extra ‘noise’ in the sound.  And we probably don’t notice!  Usually, when we test overly thick reeds, we’re entirely focused on the resistance and the sharpness, so we probably won’t notice the absence of transient inharmonics.  Trimming down sharp, heavy reeds to proper MCA values will deliver properly tuned reeds with a broad spectrum of harmonics, but we have to be careful not to go too far.  And it’s not just to avoid flatness. Thinning reeds too much can lead to more buzz in fortissimo and more pop in the attack than we might like.

There is certainly not a correct light/dark balance: chiaroscuro is a highly subjective concept in both art and music.  Corelli found his by combining bel canto techniques with lucky genetics in his vocal physiology.  Maybe our Little Bassoonist will find hers adapting reed profiles to match her lips, teeth, mouth, air column AND artistic temperament.  But she’ll do better if she can understand the main source of the ‘extra stuff’.

Bassoonists who prefer smaller reeds need to remove more cane to play with resonance in the A=440 world.  Success here typically involves specific profile strategies.  For example, some of our great players make reeds with very thin ‘channels’ as a way to deliver adequate compliance.  Others rely on a stiff spine and let tip and sides vibrate more freely.  There is always an acoustical requirement to match cane flexibility and reed dimensions.  Smaller reeds have less margin for error in finding correct MCA values without losing control of chiaroscuro. 

When done well, these lighter reeds become Corelli in character, with boosted higher partials and just a touch of inharmonics.   They’re fun to play, too.  Bigger reeds, using larger and thicker profiles, produce smoother and woodier sounds with more relative energy in the lower harmonics, a bit less of the upper harmonics, and much less transient character in the attacks.

Let’s give LB a simple rule:

  • Profiles that feature very thin areas will tend to produce more of the transient frequencies in the attacks and more tendency towards brightness and inharmonic noise in louder dynamics.
  • Profiles with thicker cane will tend to produce less of these transients

Think like Caravaggio!  Thicken your sound with dark umber before gradually thinning to an iridescent silver. 

Finally, please consider this: like Corelli, your ideal bassoon tone is an unavoidable extension of your body and your personal identity.  It will be tightly linked to your physical tolerances and tonal preferences.  Your responsive embouchure and adaptive air column are critical in emulating the human voice.

Like Corelli, you’ll need to balance the light with the dark! 

Read more about Christopher Millard. Chapter 1 – The Craftsman Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? Chapter 3 – Surf’s up! Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff… Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways Chapter 8 – Dialogue Chapter 9 – The Big Bounce Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Bassoonist Chapter 11 – A Useful Equation  Chapter 12 – Goldilocks’ Dilemma Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven  Chapter 14 – Reed MyLips Chapter 15 – Resonance Chapter 16 – Corvids & Cacks Chapter 17 – Lift  Chapter 18 – Chickens and Eggs Chapter 19 – Chiaroscuro Doodles & Design by Nadina

Contact Us

  • If you are a bassoon student of any age and looking for information.
  • If you wish to donate money, reeds, or a bassoon to the COCB.
  • If you are a corporation that would like to sponsor a Bassoon Day or special concert by major artists.
  • If you have ANY questions at all or comments to make on blog, write to us!

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We send out regular (but not too regular!) newsletters.

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© The Council of Canadian Bassoonists. Website by Mighty Sparrow Design.

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 16 – Corvids and Cacks

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 16 – Corvids and Cacks

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 16 – Corvids and Cacks

As if holding a bassoon weren’’t funny enough, we seem to get an inordinate number of laughs just testing our reeds.

We all ‘crow’ on our reeds – but to what end? What are we looking for? Rattles, peeps, honks, caws, croaks, cackles, rasps…squawks??

Time for a quick review. Remember that in a coupled system [bassoon + reed] there are strong bore resonances which determine the periodic oscillations of the input device. But how long does that bore need to be to exercise control? The shortest bore we use is open F; it’s the last rung of that fundamental first ladder from Chapter 13. Upper register notes are based on longer bore lengths, utilizing higher harmonic resonances, which are corrected for tuning by employing complex fingerings.

We can make an even shorter coupled system – just the bocal and the reed. Most of us play on setups where this combination delivers between C3 and C#4. The internal volume of the bocal has its own standing wave behaviour that dominate the reed’s frequencies and creates its own fundamental and harmonics.

Here is a spectrum graph showing what’s contained within that short bocal/reed system. You’ll see similar graphs for any of the notes on that first harmonic ladder.


Everything makes sense. It’s sounding 270hz [between a C and C#] which is quite typical for this combination.  The harmonics are all true to the harmonic series.

If we were to start cutting the bocal shorter and shorter at its large end – admittedly a rather expensive experiment – we’d find the sounding pitch getting higher and higher.  Eventually, we’d toss that last bit of metal tube and have the reed all on its own.  By shedding all the expensive parts, we’re left with the world’s smallest bassoon.  And as long as you blow gently, you will get a fundamental and harmonics by peeping on the darn thing.  This next graph shows an analysis of the harmonic components of the simple peeping sound from the reed by itself.

Amazing eh? A functioning coupled system created with a little bit of cane, wire and string. The first harmonic at H1 is 370 hz [F#4] and the next 3 strong harmonics are at 740 hz, 1120 hz and 1480 hz. Simple integer multiples indicate a pure harmonic series.

Now, as we all know too well, as soon as you start blowing a bit harder something strange emerges. We call it a crow. It’s actually a completely separate acoustical phenomenon – a multiphonic. Yes, just like the fancy multiphonic fingerings utilized in some contemporary music but without all those difficult cross fingerings.

So, what’s going on with this cackle? Let’s take a look. Here is the same reed [shown above in its peeping state] but this time ‘overblown’ into a multiphonic crow:

As you can see, there is still some residual evidence of the original peeping fundamental at H1 and H2, though lowered in pitch a bit. But look at all the other components. H3=1020 hz and H4=1360 hz point to further disorder above. These upper frequencies don’t fit into the integer calculated harmonic series, and they are highly unpredictable. Repeated tests of the spectrum of a crow gives a huge range of variability in these higher inharmonics. This volatility is entirely expected due to the extremely weak bore resonance for the internal volume of the reed alone. The resonances for this tiny volume are too weak to adequately dampen and control the very broad range of frequencies ‘contained’ within the reed membranes. So, the peeping pitch is easily overblown, creating wild non-harmonic components. The ‘crow’ is born.

My kingdom for a rooster.

Continued blowing, especially with newer reeds, often reveals yet a third state with the emergence of an ugly CACK, breaking up the multiphonic itself. You can overblow what is already overblown!!

The next graph shows the same reed, but now operating in this rather pathetic third state.

A different primary frequency has jumped out, H1=540 hz, a quarter tone sharp C5. This bears no relation to the reed’s original peeping pitch whatsoever; it’s just a strong natural frequency for the membranes themselves. Additionally, the other components from H2 thru to H6 don’t fit a harmonic series. Not until the very strong H7=1080 hz do we get a 2nd true harmonic [and another at 3240 hz] of the CACK frequency. And because all of these components remain undampened by strong standing waves they are more subject to frequency alterations caused by blowing pressure. When the reed is unattached to the strong bore resonances of a bassoon IT’S THE WILD WEST!!

So, we start with something predictable [the peeping pitch] and move to the crow [mostly multiphonic] and then often a third kind of wild behaviour. What does it all mean?

You will recall that early on in this blog I referred to a general misunderstanding of the crow. I referred to the assumption that the bassoon magically transforms cackling crows into all the notes on the bassoon. I’m hoping that the earlier chapters explaining the bassoon/reed dialogue has persuaded you to think of sound production as a two-way process.

Is there an ideal crow?

Different players look for different multiphonic mixes, and even within an individual’s reed box there will be considerable variety. Crows can reveal to the bassoonist how likely each reed may respond to certain aspects of the bassoon’s acoustical needs. We learn empirically how to associate certain crows with certain outcomes. Big, complex crows are typically indicators that a reed will be strong in the bottom end and have a large dynamic range. Small, simpler crows are usually associated with softer sonority, reduced dynamic range and limited character.

Different sizes of reeds require different peeping and crow behaviours. Larger dimension reeds typically have less overall compliance and will peep at a higher fundamental frequency. Smaller reeds tend to have greater overall compliance and need to peep at a lower fundamental. The character of a crow is associated with membrane profiles, which are themselves optimized to reflect the physical dimensions of the reed.

Remember that in the MCA model size is modified by compliance. Peeping pitches also reflect that relationship. Your narrow reed may peep at a D, my wider reed at an F# – yet both fulfill the formula for the missing conical apex. Equally important, each player’s comfort zone in terms of combined embouchure and air effort will lead them to choose higher or lower peeping pitches.

The variability of reed dimensions and of performers’ physiological preferences suggest that there is no correct crow. There is an unpredictable relationship between crow and bassoon tone that can frustrate expectations. We are often surprised by what we get when we begin to play. Sometimes a crow just reveals how well that reed crows… Have you noticed that a reed crow will vary according to who is playing it?

Over the years I’ve had students call to crow on a reed over the phone [more recently by video chat…]. But it’s very difficult to analyze while someone else is doing the crowing. We need to be the one doing it – sensing the resistance, placing the lips, opening up our oral cavities. Testing a crow is all about the real-time process of producing those multiphonics – what your breath and your embouchure do to create your crow.

So here is my simple advice. Analyze your crows not only by what you hear, but also by what you do to make the crow happen.

Next week in Chapter 17, we’ll look at how to utilize our understanding of input response and how crows can illuminate the mechanics of membrane behaviour and reveal input response. We might also touch upon the acoustical implications of shaping the oral cavity.


Read more about Christopher Millard. Chapter 1 – The Craftsman Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? Chapter 3 – Surf’s up! Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff… Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways Chapter 8 – Dialogue Chapter 9 – The Big Bounce Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Bassoonist Chapter 11 – A Useful Equation  Chapter 12 – Goldilocks’ Dilemma Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven  Chapter 14 – Reed MyLips Chapter 15 – Resonance Chapter 16 – Corvids & Cacks Chapter 17 – Lift Chapter18 – Chickens & Eggs Doodles & Design by Nadina



Contact Us

  • If you are a bassoon student of any age and looking for information.
  • If you wish to donate money, reeds, or a bassoon to the COCB.
  • If you are a corporation that would like to sponsor a Bassoon Day or special concert by major artists.
  • If you have ANY questions at all or comments to make on blog, write to us!

COCB Footer Contact Form


We send out regular (but not too regular!) newsletters.

bilingual logo

© The Council of Canadian Bassoonists. Website by Mighty Sparrow Design.

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 15 – Resonance

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 15 – Resonance

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 15 – Resonance

In previous chapters, I’ve presented a different interpretation of the term ‘response’.  It’s the idea of a two-way dialogue between bassoon and reed.  Let’s shift our attention to another word that has a big impact on our reed making: resonance.

The Latin word resonantia [echo] stems from the word sono, meaning sound.  So ‘re-sound’ -which makes sense to modern musicians, who think of the prolongation of sound through reverberation.  A resonant hall, for example. Resonance in speech is additionally enhanced by the action of the resonating chambers in the throat and mouth.  Resonance in human relationships describes mutual understanding or trust between people, a form of ‘rapport’.  These are all subjective – and meaningful – uses of the word ‘resonance’.

But resonance has a more objective meaning which we see in physics:

A vibration of large amplitude in a mechanical or electrical system caused by a relatively small periodic stimulus of the same or nearly the same period as the natural vibration period of the system.

In musical instruments, resonance occurs when a vibration of large amplitude is produced by a small vibration occurring at the natural frequency of the resonating system.  This is a pretty clear description of how bassoons react to reeds, isn’t it?  Small amplitude oscillations – like the relatively small vibrations in the reed membranes – sustain a much larger amplitude standing wave in a bassoon bore.

resonance, conch

Little Bassoonist hears the resonance in a seashell…

LB, tiny again, climbs back inside the cavernous bassoon reed and watches the flapping membrane activity above and below her.  It all seems enormous to a miniature bassoonist, but the actual movement of the cane is very small – displacements of less than a millimeter.  And yet, a 2.5-meter bassoon bore, with complex bore resonances pumping out over 90db of sound energy, is all being driven by these very small membrane oscillations.  This is resonance.

At the small end of the bassoon, periodic variations in pressure control the frequency of the reed oscillations.  When efficient input response to airflow matches the output response of cooperative membrane compliance, the coupled bassoon/reed system achieves ideal sonority.  Minimal energy supply achieves maximum acoustical efficiency.   This is resonance.

Resonance is getting more tonal ‘bang for the buck’.  Resonance happens when the MCA value of the reed creates the most in tune collaboration.  Resonance occurs more easily for a Papa Bear reed at the expense of increased effort; with a Mama Bear reed in the right register and sensitive air supply; and for a Baby Bear reed when embouchure can be relaxed sufficiently.  Resonance, in both its subjective and objective definitions, happens when appropriate tuning meets comfortable embouchure and air behaviour.  Resonance is the result of fruitful acoustical dialogue between standing wave and reed – when that faithful partner complies willingly.

Sometimes the simplest ideas reveal deep wells of meaning. 

In the study of bassoon reed making, the idea that tuning and tone are inextricably linked reveals a path to better outcomes.

Here is a spectrum analysis showing the relative energies of the component harmonics in a single note.  It’s a snapshot of C3 [in the bass clef staff] that I measured on one of my bassoons.  On this graph, the vertical axis represents the strength of a harmonic component and the horizontal axis represents its frequency.

Just as spectral analysis of light reflected off a distant object can tell us what elements it contains, so spectrum analysis of sound reveals what component frequencies it contains.

You can see above that the energy peaks show very clear harmonic relationships, because the frequency of each peak is a simple multiple of a fundamental.  In this case, the first harmonic [H1] measures 130hz, and the successive harmonics [H2 – H15+] are all logical members of the harmonic series for this note.  Incidentally, you might notice that the fundamental frequency of the note we hear – C natural at 130hz – is not actually the strongest measurable component in the spectrum.  But look at all those strong harmonics at 260hz, 390hz, 520hz, 650hz etc.  They all contribute richly to their fundamental H1 origin.  The reed chosen for the test was particularly compliant and rich in sonority because it was highly cooperative in supplying energy to all these higher harmonics.  It happily adapted its oscillations to the complex demands of the harmonic series for C natural.   Human ears create a strong perception of the fundamental H1 because of the reinforcing alignment and strength of the higher harmonics.  This is a great example of resonance!!  Small membrane activity = extraordinary harmonic complexity.

It’s important to note that graphs like this take a snapshot of the average harmonic components in a sustained bassoon tone.  They don’t reveal much about the more ephemeral and transient inharmonics, frequencies that are present in the attack of a note and pop up for brief moments throughout a long tone.  Inharmonics are not members of the harmonic series family, but they still contribute to the character of the sound.  As we will see in a later chapter, inharmonics are particularly relevant at the beginnings of notes.

Most of the sound energy in this graph is produced by the first 6 harmonics, but you can also see the significant contribution made by higher frequency components.  When a bassoon/reed coupled system is in a particularly resonant condition we tend to see more energy in the first few harmonics.  The bore resonances of the bassoon are asking for cooperation from the reed across a multitude of component harmonics.  When things go well, less blowing energy produces amplified standing wave behaviours.  This is resonance. 

Our little bassoonist is not sure what to make of all this information.  She just wants a good sound and to be reasonably in tune.  Of course, it’s the tuning itself that gives good sound.  We tend to use the word ‘tuning’ to describe sharp or flat, but I prefer a much broader definition that incorporates some of the ideas of the MCA concept.  A well-tuned engine runs efficiently; a well-tuned reed maximizes resonance because it is acoustically efficient.

Like many young bassoonists, LB often winds up playing quite sharp.  But she should take note that there’s a surprising maximum upper limit to her sharpness.  It’s quite difficult to play at A=446hz because a bassoon engaged in an acoustical dialogue with a small, stiff reed will only bend its natural resonances so much before the system is hopelessly compromised.  The native natural bore frequencies of a well-designed bassoon prefer to have their way.  Bassoons are carefully set up to work efficiently [with resonance] at either A=440hz or A=442hz.  Undersized MCA value reeds will sharpen the intonation, but the bore resonances quickly rebel.  Sonority quickly gets very unpleasant and very uneven. The distortions are not equally distributed throughout 3 octaves either.  Those 3rd and 4th harmonic ladder areas in the tenor range and above will sharpen significantly more than their ancestor 1st and 2nd harmonics.  Inertia increases with higher frequency oscillations.  The flow of acoustical dialogue diminishes and sonority is compromised. Resonance is lost.

So, what about flatter reeds? I have to confess one of my life-long goals was to achieve the resonance that a A=438hz setup delivers so easily, but somehow still operate in a 440/441 orchestral environment.  Flat reeds usually have sufficiently large MCA values to allow the bassoon to find all those cooperative resonances, but there are physical challenges involved in constantly supporting ‘from below’.

Designing and trimming reeds is primarily a process of finding an average pitch centre that serves to maximize resonance while optimizing embouchure and air preferences.

Looking back at 46 years of orchestral work, I know that balancing my own sound aspirations with reasonably balanced embouchure and air support remains a life-long quest.


LB asks a really important question: should she play slightly sharper reeds and relax down into the work pitch of her colleagues, play slightly flatter reeds and hold up her pitch with more effort, or play reeds that are perfectly balanced and comfortable, delivering optimal resonance with sensible demands on embouchure and air?

If you like that third answer, congratulations.  And best of luck.  Most of the time you are going to be dealing with one tendency or the other.  You need to be aware of the benefits and drawbacks wherever your fine tuning takes you.

LB is remembering her visit to the Bears’ House.  She couldn’t choose just one reed, so she took all three.  Now she’s experimenting with the relative comfort and effort the three reeds demand.  Like most bassoonists, LB is remarkably clever, and has come up with a way of evaluating her Bear reeds.

This is how LB is thinking about her Bears and their reeds, lines A, B and C.  Line D represents her own particularly crappy reed that she can’t seem to fix.

The graph x axis represents the ascending registers of the bassoon.  The y axis represents ‘Effort’, a theoretical ‘mash’ of embouchure and air.  The idea is that the plotted lines represent the change in workload.  The steeper the curve, or the higher its placement, the more effort is required to produce resonant sonority all the way up to the high end. 

Take a look and think of your own reeds.  Do some of them remind you of line A?  [Probably larger MCA values, more Papa Bear style?].  Does line C make you think of stuffy, sharp reeds that nevertheless give you a better shot at high D’s?  Perhaps most importantly, do you think the measurement of your work level could be plotted in a fairly straight line??  This is really important: the idea of response linearity [as in predictably even]. Line D has a big curve going up, which describes a reed that is okay until it reaches the tenor range, at which point the embouchure and air effort becomes relatively more demanding.

On the grid

Linearity is a concept that’s quite universally appealing in both instrument design and reed making.  For LB, it’s a way of describing a comfortable climb up the ladders in her Stairway to Heaven.

Next chapter, we’ll look at Crows, Roosters, Ravens and other Multiphonics.

Read more about Christopher Millard. Chapter 1 – The Craftsman Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? Chapter 3 – Surf’s up! Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff… Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways Chapter 8 – Dialogue Chapter 9 – The Big Bounce Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Bassoonist Chapter 11 – A Useful Equation  Chapter 12 – Goldilocks’ Dilemma Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven  Chapter 14 – Reed MyLips Chapter 15 – Resonance Chapter 16 – Corvids & Cacks Chapter 17 – Lift Chapter18 – Chickens & Eggs Doodles & Design by Nadina



Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 14 – Reed My Lips

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 14 – Reed My Lips

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 14 – Reed My Lips

As our Little Bassoonist climbed the ladders into the high register she found herself thinking about the adaptations she makes in the upper register. Her teacher often reminds her to increase air support as she ascend; scaling ladders and scaling registers both demand effort. We usually think supplying faster air or more ample air is an important part of ‘holding up’ the pitch of the upper registers. I’m going to present a slightly different take on all this.

Balance, Bassoon Reed Physics

Unless our reeds are too sharp [Baby Bear!] and stuffy, it’s usually not a problem to get a lot of sound in the lower fundamental register. In fact, most reeds with optimal compliance produce more sonority at the lower end and less at the top. The bassoon is a bottom-heavy instrument. Flutists, who struggle with the bottom octave, are frequently jealous of the ease with which we can honk out low Bbs, though flutists have a relative advantage in the upper octaves.

LB’s teacher demands she practice her scales with a bit of crescendo in the ascent and a corresponding diminuendo in the descent. This guidance isn’t because ascending phrases always require expressive growth or descending phrases always require diminishing tone, although that is frequently appropriate. Rather, the habit of adding more support in an ascending passage is a strategy to correct the imbalance inherent to bassoons: loud and edgy at the bottom and squeezed at the top.

Chapter 13 examined the acoustical reasons for this diminishing sound profile.Each step to a higher register is achieved by eliminating a strong lower harmonic; sonority can suffer as we optimize the remaining higher frequency resonances. Increased embouchure damping reduces the richness of sound by reducing the cumulative energy of these remaining harmonics. Even modest damping changes the contours of the membranes and thereby increases inertia. As we move to higher frequencies, the slight closure of the reed not only alters the MCA value but changes how the blades respond to the Bernoulli effect. Tenor register pitches in particular become less responsive to nuance and articulation.

How does our little bassoonist respond to this? By increasing air supply. Mimicking a crescendo during an ascending scale compensates for the reduced amplitude of the reed membranes. If we must lose the 1st and 2nd harmonics and all their energy, we need to rebalance input air supply simply to maintain the impression of even dynamics.


LB is sometimes confused by these discussions. The balance between air support and embouchure can be minefields in the pedagogy of both playing and reed making. She aspires to play in the third octave by moving the air faster, but she sometimes expects too much. Most reeds required a bit of help from the lips.

I think we can take some reassurance from the laddered acoustics that I outlined in Chapter 13. Ascending the registers demands a certain amount of embouchure damping which needs an increase in air supply to compensate. I’ve seen many young players get into throat and upper body tensions by over-reliance on air as the only tactic for holding up the upper register. I’m not necessarily advocating for larger MCA value reeds – effortless reeds are deeply appealing!! But embouchure serves a critical role in climbing the ladders. Reed making demands adaptation to the changing conditions of cane, weather, repertoire, performing environments and our emotional state. Respecting the physics will lead to better strategies in solving our reed challenges.

laddered bassoon accoustics

Chapter 10 saw our little bassoon character inside a huge, imaginary reed.

Climbing back inside, LB observes in slow motion the blades flexing. There are changes in the overall shape of the membranes as the player moves from low register to high register. In addition to an observable reduction in the aperture gap, she sees a reduction in the flapping motions in the wings. This concave collapse of the wings results from increased embouchure pressure, which transfers into these wider, thinner areas of the membranes. When blades are held a bit tighter, larger motions are restricted and help dampen the lower harmonics as well as move the reed into a Mama Bear or even Baby Bear dimension.



Wider flexing motions feed the lower harmonic standing waves for any bore length. Our typical reed profiles encourage functional concavity in the wings, reducing the amplitude of lower frequency vibration. Damping those wider motions reduces the lower harmonics in the dialogue. This strategy of damping the lowest available modes helps the reed more efficiently supply energy when we are utilizing higher bore resonances. As we climb the ladder past the 2nd harmonic area and up into the tenor range the embouchure, plus the manipulation of half-holes, vents and cross fingerings, helps eliminate the 1st and 2nd bore harmonics and allow for control in the upper range of the bassoon. My Chapter 12 assignment demonstrates this behaviour with all but the most extremely light reeds. You played the reed with your lips over the 1st wire and observed what happens as you climb the ladders. The pitches may continue to operate up into C4, but you will almost certainly find the bassoon reverting to its lower modes and sounding like a dying porpoise.

If you go back to the lips over wire exercise I suggested in Chapter 12, you will no doubt realize that if you blow REALLY hard, you can indeed extend the operation of the bassoon well up into the top of the third octave. It just takes a heck of a lot of air.

Repeating the experiment with lips on the reed but with only enough embouchure to seal the air will have taken you a little bit further – depending on how light your reeds are. But rather instinctively, we tend to dampen the embouchure and increase air support as we ascend.


LB remains slightly confused. Surely, she thinks, accelerated air supply must have an effect on pitch!? And indeed, it does.

Air speed

This is a very confusing phenomenon, because in other instruments excessive volume tends to lower pitch. We see this flattening effect in the clarinet when it’s overblown. However, the bassoon will usually sharpen with increased air flow. We see this in vibrato production when the intermittent acceleration of air several times a second not only causes repetitive increases in volume but also in pitch. Sufficient air flow into a bassoon reed will also sharpen the upper bore resonances, and at an exaggerated rate! In fact, the intonation effects of embouchure and air increase substantially as we move into higher bore resonances. That’s why vibrato is so hard to temper up high, and pitch bending in the high register can be so extreme. The physics are elusive, but we presume that increased air velocity through the aperture must raise the natural frequencies of the membrane ‘shell’ as well as cause greater inward displacement of the blades and decrease that theoretical missing conical aperture. So, there’s absolutely real physical reasons why air speed might sustain both register and pitch. The evidence is with us constantly.

Next week, in Chapter 15, we are going to explore Resonance. It may not be what you think…

Read more about Christopher Millard. Chapter 1 – The Craftsman Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? Chapter 3 – Surf’s up! Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff… Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways Chapter 8 – Dialogue Chapter 9 – The Big Bounce Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Bassoonist Chapter 11 – A Useful Equation  Chapter 12 – Goldilocks’ Dilemma Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven  Chapter 14 – Reed MyLips Chapter 15 – Resonance Chapter 16 – Corvids & Cacks Chapter 17 – Lift  Doodles & Design by Nadina