Many of us know the recorder as the plastic pipe that gets handed out in elementary school music class. More closely resembling a toy than something a rock star would carry, it doesn’t have a reputation for being the coolest instrument in the world. But that doesn’t mean it deserves to get a bad rap—a long list of artistic geniuses from William Shakespeare to Paul McCartney have turned to the recorder for inspiration. Here are 12 facts worth knowing about this historic instrument.
1. The recorder dates back to the Middle Ages.
Centuries before the clarinet, the harmonica, and the tuba were invented, early musicians were playing recorders. The oldest surviving example of the instrument dates back to 14th-century Europe. Back then—unlike the mass-produced, plastic items today’s grade-schoolers are familiar with—recorders were carved from wood or ivory.
2. Its name used to make more sense.
Before the age of voicemail and tape recorders, the verb “to record” meant “to memorize by heart.” To this end, the simple recorder flute came in handy. One possible explanation for its name is that it was a good instrument for practicing, or “recording.” In languages other than English, the name doesn’t translate neatly and is usually referred to as a different type of flute.
3. King Henry VIII collected recorders.
King Henry VIII is better known for his notorious marriages than his musical talents. But he was also an accomplished composer, publishing several songs and instrumental works during his lifetime. His music hobby led to an ambitious instrument collection: Before he died in 1547, Henry VIII had acquired 76 recorders (the instruments, which were played in choirs, had such a limited range that several were needed for each song). Rather than letting them gather dust in a case, he made sure they were used for their intended purpose. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the flutes were likely played by the royal professional recorder consort and other recorder masters when the King himself wasn’t playing them.
4. The recorder was a classical music staple.
Serious musicians may turn their noses up at the recorder today, but it was an important member of the wind family during the Baroque period. Georg Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach all incorporated the instrument into their compositions. In opera, the clear, sweet sound of the recorder was used to evoke erotic themes and pastoral images like shepherds and birds.
5. The recorder makes an appearance in Hamlet.
The recorder was so popular during the 16th century that it was used to illustrate a metaphor by the age’s most popular writer. In the third act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks Guildenstern to play the recorder for him. After he explains that he doesn’t know how, Hamlet insists that “'tis as easy as lying.” Still he refuses, and Hamlet says that Guildenstern should have no trouble playing the simple recorder after “playing” him like an instrument:
“[Y]ou would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”
The comparison made its way into the common vernacular, but today you’re more likely to hear someone claim they were “played like a fiddle” than a recorder.
6. The recorder comes in a variety of sizes.
One reason that soprano recorders are a popular choice for grade school music classes is their child-friendly package. But the instrument’s simple form lends itself to several shapes and sizes, the largest being the sub-contrabass recorder, which stands 8 feet tall. To play it, musicians blow into a tube-shaped mouthpiece that swoops down from the top of the recorder. Then there’s the adorably named garklein, which measures 6 inches long and emits high-pitched tones like a whistle.
7. The flute led to the recorder falling out of use.
While the recorder is technically a type of flute, it’s the transverse flute (a flute that’s held horizontally and blown into from the side) that we associate with the term. The transverse flute migrated to Europe from Asia in the 14th century, and by the 19th century, it was featured in most orchestras. The recorder, with its lack of range and volume, didn’t stand a chance against the bold sound of a flute piercing through a concert hall. As the 19th century progressed, the recorder was phased out of the modern orchestra altogether.
8. The recorder was saved by early music enthusiasts.
The recorder’s status as a relic from a bygone era is what helped make it cool again. At the turn of the 20th century, more museums were displaying historical instruments, and interest in pre-classical music began to rise. This helped pave the way for the recorder to make a comeback as a revivalist instrument. Soon it began appearing in arrangements of early music. In some cases, like the performance given at 1885’s International Inventions Exhibition, collections of old instruments were displayed at concerts.
9. The recorder went plastic in the 1960s.
Around the middle of the 20th century, the recorder underwent its cheap, lightweight transformation. By that point, plastic was easy to come by, and using the material produced an instrument that was tougher than its wooden counterpart and a lot cheaper. Not only that, but the sound quality didn’t suffer as a result.
10. The recorder found a place in rock ‘n’ roll.
Music teachers might have an easier time selling the recorder as a hip instrument if they played up its connection to classic rock. Paul McCartney was a notable fan, incorporating it into the Beatles song “Fool On The Hill” and some of his solo pieces. It can also be heard in the music of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. Though plenty of rock stars used the instrument, not all of them were proud of it. According to one rumor, Jimi Hendrix was so ashamed to have played a recorder on “If 6 Was 9” that he asked for it to be listed as a flute on the album credits.
11. A famous composer brought the recorder into classrooms.
German composer Carl Orff is best known for his scenic cantata Carmina Burana (the first movement of which you've likely heard before), but he’s also credited with revolutionizing children's music education. One of the core principles of his "Orff Schulwerk" teaching style dictated that if children could sing the notes they were playing, they’d have an easier time learning the music. The soprano recorder, similar in range to the voice of a child, was a natural fit. His ideas were becoming popular around the same time recorders made the switch to plastic, which meant more schools could afford to buy them in bulk.
12. According to one paper, the recorder turns kids off music.
If you want your child to fall in love with music early in life, steer them away from the recorder. At least that’s what one paper published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2002 suggests. For the study, researcher Susan O'Neill of Keele University surveyed 1209 students about the impact the recorder had on their musical ambitions. She said in a press release that the children “tended to view the recorder as 'not a real instrument' or 'a child's instrument' and limited in its ability to express the music they want to play.” As the students grew up feeling limited by instruments like the recorder, they stopped feeling motivated to play music.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.