Articulation and the Oboe: A Guide for Composers

At the bottom of this page is a demonstration video of these techniques.

Articulation is an important subject to discuss simply because it often seems to be little understood by composers and many get confused, or at least give the impression of being confused in this area.

The basics are simple, the oboe uses the tongue in order to articulate. When there are no articulation marks, slurs, staccato etc. the performer will either tongue everything or make their own decisions as to what should be done. When everything is placed under broad phrase marks the performer has to make a decision as to whether the markings are only phrase marks or if in fact they also represent slurs. Sometimes it is obvious but frequently it is not and, therefore, leaves a great deal of freedom for the performer.

Ideally the composer will give significant attention to this area of their work. It is best to offer phrase marks and under these phrase marks any necessary articulation marks such as slurs, staccato marks, tenuto etc. This will help the composer to communicate clearly what the correct articulation should be. It can save a lot of time in rehearsals as well.

Types of tonguing
When using the tongue oboists will, as long as the music is not too fast, use a single tonguing action in order to individually articulate pitches. Performers will differ to some extent as to what is their top speed for single tonguing but as a general guide a crotchet pulse of 144 for short bursts of semi-quavers will be possible for most professional performers. Longer bursts will probably require double tonguing. Additionally, the single tongue can be used in many different ways, creating a wide range of kinds of articulation from the soft attack through to a very sharp staccato.

Double tonguing is a double action by the tongue using a ‘TE-KE’ action, or something similar in order to create the double tongue. It is much faster than the single tongue when mastered though it tends to be less flexible with regard to the finer nuances. With many performers it is obvious when it is being used as it can have a distinctive sound. Its main purpose is as a fast tonguing and should not be used in slower sections.

Triple tonguing is the triple version of the double tongue. It is no faster than double tonguing but it the triple equivalent. The sound TE-KE-TE or something similar in order to create the triple tonguing is used. I frequently alternate TE-KE-TE with KE-TE-KE as I find it faster.
Combinations of these can be used in order to facilitate fast groups of 5, 7 etcetera. 

Single, double and triple tonguing can be used on any part of the range and on multiphonics. Composers usually do not notate which should be used but can leave the choice up to the performer. It should be noted that not all oboists can double or triple tongue so check with your performer or offer alternatives.

Flutter tonguing is also available on the oboe. This can be done two ways: either by rolling an ‘r’ at the front of the mouth or by producing a French style ‘r’ at the back of the mouth. Some oboists can use both. If the performer has both they can be used together for a particularly forceful and broken sound. Many oboists cannot flutter tongue and, for a significant number of those who can there are severe dynamic limitations – the technique works best from about mf through to very loud! 

Articulation without the tongue
I mentioned above that oboist uses the tongue in order to articulate. There is however one exception: This is when the performer begins the note without the use of the tongue. This can be effective but is better in the middle registers. It is used to great effect in Rainier’s work Pastoral Triptych, in the last movement.

Composers sometimes ask the oboe to begin from nothing. It is much easier on the oboe to go to nothing than it is to start from nothing. This marking must be used with care especially if writing in combination with the flute or clarinet who can both do this beautifully. I suggest that you do not use it in the lowest register of the instrument and only with care in the middle registers, And never in the altissimo range!