When Was the Oboe Invented?

When Was the Saxophone Invented

When Was the Oboe Invented

When it comes to wind instruments, the oboe isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The oboe is very much the lesser-known sibling of the clarinet. But it is still a beautiful and fascinating instrument.

The oboe produces very bright, clear, and penetrative sounds. It is a strange-looking instrument that produces a beautiful and enchanting sound. 

The oboe looks very similar to the clarinet, with the mouthpiece being the most obvious difference between the two. And the oboe and the clarinet were first introduced around the same time. They require similar techniques and are both woodwind instruments played with a reed. 

So, when exactly was the oboe invented? 


The exact date of origin of the oboe isn’t known. It became popular around the 1770s. This is when it received the most recent iteration of its name. Human beings have been creating music and musical instruments for tens of thousands of years.

The first instrument (that is, the earliest found by archaeologists) is a flute dating from the Upper Palaeolithic Period. This is around 40,000 years ago.

Woodwind instruments are some of the most complicated instruments to play but some of the simplest to make. A whistle is the most simple example of a woodwind instrument. Instruments can be made by simply hollowing out a piece of wood.

Of course, woodwind instruments have become much more complicated but their origins are very simple.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to exactly pinpoint the date of origin of the oboe. Although there are reports of it being used in its most recent iteration from the 18th Century, it may in fact be much older. We simply don’t know exactly. 

Before the oboe became the shape closest to what we have now, its earlier version was the Shawm. This is a conical bore, double-reed woodwind instrument. It is almost identical to the oboe but is still quite different. 

Name Origins

An earlier version of the instrument was known, prior to 1770, as the  “hautbois”. The exact origins of this word are unknown.

Hautbois (also written in English as “hoboy” or the “French hoboy”) is an amalgamation of the French haut meaning “high” and “loud” and bois meaning “wind” and “woodwind”. 

The spelling of “oboe” was first adopted in England in 1770. It comes from the Italian word oboé, which is the Italian version of the French hautbois. 

Eventually, the English word for this instrument became “oboe” and is pronounced “OH-boh”. 

The Historical Ancestors of the Oboe

As mentioned before, the oboe has not always looked as we know it today. Today, the oboe is a long bell-bottom woodwind instrument. It has a series of very complicated metal finger holes and keys arranged along its length.

It has a very distinctive mouthpiece that consists of two reeds (made from shaving wood, usually cane) which are set facing each other. The base of the reeds are then wrapped in metal. The metal is then stuck into a length of cork. The cork is then plugged into the body of the oboe. 

But what about older iterations of the oboe? What did its previous versions look like? As mentioned before, the current oboe was inspired by the shawm. The shawm is also a bell-bottomed woodwind instrument that has a bare mouthpiece that only features a reed.

But unlike the oboe which is separated into different pieces, the shawm is one single piece of wood.

The shawm was introduced around the 12th century and became most popular during the medieval and renaissance periods. The oboe could arguably be described as a descendant of the shawm.

But what about the periods between the 18th century and today? How did the oboe evolve across this large stretch of time?

Early oboes were much simpler than the versions we have today. Modern oboes have an intricate series of metal attachments covering the finger holes. Attached to these metal attachments are a series of keys that alter the sound of the oboe. 

But the earliest instrument that can be accurately called an “oboe” looks much like a shawm with one or two keys added. These were the most common styles used during the 18th century. 

During the 18th century, there were two different styles of oboe. These were the French style and the German style. The more simplistic French oboe was eventually transposed by the more complicated German oboe.

But eventually, an even more sophisticated mechanized style of oboe was developed in France and became known as the conservatoire oboe. This is the style most commonly used today. 

But what caused this change in popularity? It isn’t simply a case of one being more sophisticated or better sounding than the other. The story (apparently) goes that in the 19th Century, the French and German oboes were of equal popularity.

But then Richard Strauss announced that he preferred the French style. So the French style surged in popularity and became the most commonly used and most fashionable style.

But the German style isn’t entirely forgotten. It was still popular in Vienna and is still used today by the Vienna Philharmonic.


So, in answer to the question “When was the oboe invented?”, the answer is “nobody is sure”. When it comes to instruments, especially wind instruments, their origins are difficult to pinpoint. The exact origins may one day be uncovered but this is unlikely. 

Instruments appear in every culture as music is an intrinsic aspect of human nature. The voice itself is an instrument so every human has the ability to make music (although some sound much better than others).

So the exact origins of an instrument such as the oboe might be a matter of interest but it is not necessarily important. The oboe as we know it today has been through many different iterations.

And it will likely go through many more. So the origins of the oboe might be interesting but the current version and any potential future versions are just as fascinating.