Our second medieval instrument is the shawm. It’s another woodwind instrument and it makes the sound that you probably most associate with medieval music. It can be rather raucous and rough, but it can also be very sweet.
At first glance it looks like a cross between a recorder and a trumpet, but it’s not really like either of them. It’s a wooden tube, like the recorder, with a trumpet-like flare at the bottom. There are two reeds in the top of the tube and the player makes the reeds vibrate to produce the sound. It’s a precursor of the oboe.
These are modern double reeds used with a bassoon and you can see that there are two separate bits of reed in the bottom left of the photograph.
The tube of the shawm has quite a wide bore and it flares out at the bottom. At the top there is much narrower tube and this is where the reeds are inserted. This is called the pirouette. Although it looks as if it is stuck into the shawm like a cork into a bottle, the shawm was usually made from a single piece of wood. The pirouette has a small piece hollowed out from it and the reeds are inserted through it into the top of the tube. As you can see from the photograph at the top of the page, not much of the reeds stick out from the pirouette. There’s just enough for the player to get their lips around them and the lips rest on top of the pirouette. As with all wind instruments, the shape the lips make (the embouchure) is important in producing a good sound, because it changes the way in which the musician’s breath interacts with the part of the instrument that makes the sound.
Shawms were loud instruments, as you’ll hear, and were useful for playing outdoors.
Here is David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London demonstrating the shawm.
If you enjoyed that and would like to hear more, with a bit of an explanation about the shawm as an instrument and medieval music in general, here is another video demonstrating the versatility of the shawm.
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca