Double-reed Renaissance woodwind instrument, ancestor of the oboe. Its conical bore and bell are wider than the oboe's. A disk called a pirouette usually supports the player's lips. Shawms were constructed in many sizes, from treble to great bass. They were in use in the Middle East perhaps 2,000 years ago, and they were introduced into Europe during the Crusades. With their powerful tone, shawms were classed with the “loud” or “outdoor” instruments and were used in dance and ceremonial music.
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The shawm was a medieval and Renaissance musical instrument of the woodwind family made in Europe from the late 13th century until the 17th century. It was developed from the oriental zurna and is the predecessor of the modern oboe. The body of the shawm was usually turned from a single piece of wood, and terminated in a flared bell somewhat like that of a trumpet. Beginning in the 16th century, shawms were made in several sizes, from sopranino to great bass, and four and five-part music could be played by a consort consisting entirely of shawms. All later shawms had at least one key allowing a downward extension of the compass; the keywork was typically covered by a perforated wooden cover called the fontanelle. The bassoon-like double reed, made from the same Arundo donax cane used for oboes and bassoons, was inserted directly into a socket at the top of the instrument, or in the larger types, on the end of a metal tube called the bocal. The pirouette, a small cylindrical piece of wood with a hole in the middle resembling a thimble, was placed over the reed—this acted as a support for the lips and embouchure. Since only a short portion of the reed protruded past the pirouette, the player had only limited contact with the reed, and therefore limited control of dynamics. The shawm’s conical bore and flaring bell, combined with the style of playing dictated by the use of a pirouette, gave the instrument a piercing, trumpet-like sound well-suited for out-of-doors performance.
Instruments resembling the medieval shawm can still be heard in many countries today, played by street musicians or military bands. The latter use would have been familiar to crusaders, who often had to face massed bands of Saracen shawms and nakers, used as a psychological weapon. It must have had a profound effect, as the shawm was quickly adopted by Europeans, for dancing as well as for military purposes. The standard outdoor dance band in the fifteenth century consisted of a slide trumpet playing popular melodies, while two shawms improvised countermelodies over it. In many Asian countries, shawm technique includes circular breathing allowing continuous playing without pauses for air.
By the early 16th century, the shawm had undergone considerable development. The harsh tonality of the medieval shawm had been modulated somewhat by a narrowing of the bore and a reduction in the size of the fingerholes. This also extended the range, enabling the performer to play the notes in the second octave. Larger sizes of shawm were built, down to the great bass, two octaves below the soprano. However, the larger sizes were unwieldy and impractical, making them somewhat of a rarity; the great bass, for example, could only be played with the performer standing on a small platform. The smaller sizes of shawm, chiefly the soprano, alto and sometimes the tenor, were more often coupled with the Renaissance trombone, or sackbut, and the majestic sound of this ensemble was much in demand by civic authorities. The shawm became standard equipment for town bands, or waits, who were required to herald the start of municipal functions and signal the major times of day. The shawm became so closely associated with the town waits (die Stadtpfeifer in German and I piffari in Italian) that it was also known as the wait-pipe.
The shawm was reserved almost exclusively for outdoor performance—for softer, indoor music, other instruments such as the crumhorn and sordun were preferred. These were double reed instruments fitted with a capsule that completely enclosed the reed, which softened the sound but still did not allow for any variation in dynamics.
The 16th century proclivity for building instruments in a full range of sizes was naturally extended to the shawm, but the shawm consort provided to be a short-lived experiment. The extreme length of pipe of the bass instruments meant that few were built and played; instead, an ingenious solution was devised whereby the bore was in effect “folded back” upon itself, creating a much more manageable instrument. The new instrument was called dulcian in England, Fagott or fagotto in Germany and Italy, and bajón in Spain, and it became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument, even in refined settings where shawms were considered inappropriate. The dulcian is the forerunner of the modern bassoon.