Why Does Every Kid Learn the Recorder?

(Last Updated On: March 6, 2022)

If you know what a recorder is and you have any memory of western elementary school at all, you were probably made to learn it. For those who remember, it was probably the worst noise ever to hear a room of children blasting into recorders one after the other in this cacophony of earsplitting chirps and whines. That probably has you wondering why any adult elementary school teacher would ever willingly consign themselves to this place. So why does every kid learn the recorder?

Why Does Every Kid Learn the Recorder?

Funnily enough, the recorder has historically been described as “soft and sweet”. Now this is something that might be true if you have someone who actually knows what they’re doing playing–but it’s most certainly not the case when it comes to a classroom of upwards 30 kids. 

So, the recorder. It’s within the woodwind family, and is categorized as a flute with a whistle mouthpiece. First documented uses of the recorder begin in the Middle Ages, finding their popularity in Renaissance and Baroque music. If you thought the history of the recorder’s name would be more interesting, it’s really not. The etymology of the recorder is literally just derived from the Latin recordārī. For those who guessed that this means to “remember or recall,” you win. By the time the word made its way to Middle French in the mid-1300s the word gained some connotation in the musical sphere. Eventually English picks it up by the 16th century. 

How Did Western Schools Pick Up the Recorder?

It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the recorder would worm its way into western schooling. For starters, we can thank a German composer named Carl Orff. He developed a method for musical education called the Orff Schulwerk (the Orff Approach). It stresses participation and creativity–which is something an instrument like the recorder is well-fit for. It’s cheap to make and relatively accessible. If you can exhale, you can make noise out of it.

Some of you might have stopped and done some math, and realized that Carl Orff’s music career would have lined up with Nazi Germany. This is true. For a long time the Nazi Party really didn’t like Orff’s music, though he tried to ingratiate himself to Nazi elites–eventually his music would be celebrated within the Nazi Party by the 1940s. 

Orff’s denazification began after WWII, and he claimed to have helped establish a resistance movement within Germany–though his claim had (and continues to have) no evidence in his support beyond Orff’s own word. The American denazification committee ended up classifying Orff as “gray acceptable,” and Orff was permitted to continue composing music for the public.

As far as why the Orff Approach ended up leaning on recorders, it was likely a result of how easy they are to mass produce in combination with their accessibility. By the 1960s recorders made out of plastic could just be pumped out–and they didn’t even have to be tuned (at least to the extent that an eight year old is playing Hot Cross Buns). Soprano recorders fit really well in children’s hands too, and wrapping a kid’s head around one isn’t too hard. It lowers the skill-floor to focus on the other aspects of the Orff Approach that lean into rhythm and memorization. 



About Kyler 685 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.