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Spotlight on the Recorder

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“Why is it called a recorder when it doesn’t record?” I wondered as the unmistakable sound of recorders reached my ears.  We were on our way home from church, and the car radio was playing a Baroque concerto.

Later, a computer search showed that recorder is from the Latin word recordari, to remember, or to know by heart (re: again, plus cor: heart).  The recorder got this name when it appeared in the 1400s because it was considered easy to play, and thus a good instrument for children.  (The use of the word record [meaning to practice] continues among ornithologists describing birds learning their calls: “The young males continue recording for eleven months”—Charles Darwin, 1871.)

The recorder is like a whistle, getting its sound solely from the player’s breath.  The player uses finger holes to change the pitch.  This makes for a simple instrument, but a difficult one to play, as everything depends on a controlled flow of the breath.

The most familiar type of recorder is the soprano, but it comes in many sizes.  The sub-contrabass recorder is eight feet in length, and requires a long, tube-shaped mouthpiece.  At the other extreme is the Garklein, a high-pitched recorder only six inches long.

Although the recorder went out of fashion in the 19th century (replaced by the flute), it made a comeback in the past 50 years, in both classical and popular genres. My first encounter with it was not in a concerto, but in The Beatles’ song “Fool on the Hill,” where Paul McCartney played it.

The NLS music collection has a wide range of materials on the recorder.  Following are just a few of the many items we have, and most are also on BARD:


Digital Talking Book

Large Print

  • Come, the Recorders: for Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass Recorders in Various Combinations, arr. by Raymond Kane McLain (LPM00103)
  • Five Thirteenth Century Pieces (LPM107)

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