The shawm is an ancient instrument, which was brought to Europe from Asia during the Middle Ages. Considered to be the ancestor of the modern oboe, it is constructed using a conical bore and takes a short, broad reed at the top for the player’s mouth. The shawm (like all Renaissance instruments) comes in a family of different sizes from soprano to great bass. While the soprano has no keys, the larger sizes have at least one to make the finger reach easier on the player. One of the loudest, most piercing instruments of the period, the shawm was considered an outdoor instrument, although it can be used to great effect in large reverberant indoor acoustics such as the Gothic cathedrals of the age. In addition to being one of the most popular wind instruments from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the shawm required great skill, and its players were some of the highest paid in courts and municipalities.
Known to millions even today, the recorder was in fact at its height in popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods as a virtuoso instrument. Its design has changed relatively little in the last five or six hundred years except for the width of the bore, the size of the holes, and a few cosmetic differences. Otherwise, it is much the same instrument, being a flute with a mouthpiece to direct the air over an aperture. Like the shawm, the recorder came in families ranging in size from the tiny garklein to the massive great bass. While the origin of its English name is uncertain, other languages are more descriptive of its form and function: Italian flauto dolce (sweet flute), French flûte à bec (beaked flute), and German Blockflöte (blocked flute).
Probably the least changed of all early wind instruments, the sackbut is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with the modern trombone. In fact, the word sackbut is the true English name for the instrument as trombone simply means “large trumpet” in Italian. The word sackbut actually derives from the French sacquer (to pull) and bouter (to push). As evidence of its relation to the tromba, the sackbut probably developed from the slide trumpet of the Middle Ages. The main features of the instrument that have changed since its development in the Renaissance are the shape of the mouthpiece, which was more cup-shaped, and the bell, which was much narrower resulting in a softer, more covered sound than that of its modern counterpart.