AskDefine | Define shawm

Dictionary Definition

shawm n : a medieval oboe

User Contributed Dictionary



From Old French chalemel (French chalumeau), from Latin calumel ‘reed’, from Greek καλαμος.



  1. a mediaeval double reed wind instrument with conical wooden body
    • 1985: There are four flutes, a harp of twenty strings, a mournful shawm, and a number of drums of oxhide, some to be struck, others spanked. — Anthony Burgess, Kingdom of the Wicked


wind instrument

Extensive Definition

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.
The Catalan shawm is a modernised variant still used in Catalonia, to accompany the Catalonian Sardana circle dance.


In German the shawm is called Schalmei or Pommer; the first word is believed to derive from the Latin calamus, meaning reed or stalk. However, it is also possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya or salameya, a traditional oboe from Egypt, as the European shawm seems to have been developed from similar instruments brought to Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. This is borne out by the very similar names of many folk shawms used as traditional instruments in various European nations, such as the Spanish dulzaina (also known as chirimía), the Catalan shawms (xirimia, dolçaina or gralla, tible, tenora), the Portuguese charamela, and the Italian ciaramella.

Use of shawms

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.

Progeny of the shawm

The shawm inspired the later 17th century hautbois, an invention of the French musician Martin Hotteterre (d.1712). He is credited with devising essentially a brand-new instrument, one which borrowed several features from the shawm, chiefly its double reed and conical bore, but departed from it significantly in other respects, the most important departure being the fact the player places his lips directly on the reed with no intervening pirouette. Around 1670, the new French hautbois began replacing the shawm in military bands, concert music and opera; by 1700, the shawm had all but disappeared from concert life, although as late as 1830 shawms could still be heard in German town bands performing their municipal functions (Baines, 1991). Curiously, the Germans and Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version of the shawm, called deutsche Schalmey, well after the introduction of the French hautbois. Several examples of this instrument survive in European collections, although its exact musical use is unclear.

See also


  • Woodwind Instruments and Their History

External links

shawm in Czech: Šalmaj
shawm in Danish: Skalmeje
shawm in German: Schalmei
shawm in Esperanto: sxalmo
shawm in Spanish: Shawm
shawm in French: Chalemie
shawm in Western Frisian: Skalmei
shawm in Italian: Ciaramella
shawm in Hungarian: Schalmei
shawm in Dutch: Schalmei
shawm in Japanese: ショーム
shawm in Polish: Szałamaja
shawm in Portuguese: Charamela
shawm in Finnish: Skalmeija
shawm in Swedish: Skalmeja
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