The recorder is a member of the flute family of woodwind instruments. Originating in medieval times, it became very popular in art music during the Renaissance and continued in popularity throughout the Baroque Era. Its use declined after the 18th century, however, in favor of more traditional woodwind instruments. Now it is most recognized as an easy-to-learn teaching instrument in elementary schools. Many people, however, are confused by the instrument's name.
People–especially grade-school children–often wonder why this instrument is called a recorder because the word “record” seems to connote something much more modern and technology-based. According to linguist Eric Partridge in his book "Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English," an early English definition of the word was "to practise a piece of music,” hence "record."
Although it has been known in England as a recorder since the 14th century, other countries in Europe have continued to refer to it by variations of the word “flute,” such as “flauta dulce” (sweet flute) in Spain. The use of varying terms in different languages has sometimes led to confusion, causing pieces written for recorder to be played on the flute, for example.
Recorders are also known as English flutes, to differentiate them from traditional or transverse (to the side) flutes. Recorders belong to a subgroup known as fipple or duct flute –instruments that use a whistlelike mouthpiece. The Irish tin whistle is another example of a fipple flute. Rather than being held to the side like a traditional flute, fipple flutes are end-blown and held straight away from the mouth. Recorders are identified by seven finger holes on the front of the instrument and one thumb hole on the back (as opposed to a tin whistle, for example, which has six holes).
Recorders are known for their clear and sweet sound. Until the modern era, this was created by the use of different hardwoods. Now, however, high-quality plastics can achieve much the same result. Although we normally think of one standard size for a recorder, the size actually varied greatly through history–anywhere from a few inches to more than 6 feet long. Size determines what key a recorder is tuned in, and recorders are labeled by the lowest note they can play.
Although variations of the flute have existed since man first began to play music, "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" places the earliest mention of an instrument known as a recorder in 1388 in England. Recorder expert Nicholas Lander states on his website the Recorder Home Page that surviving instruments (and fragments) from that time have been found throughout Europe, including in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Greece.
For a variety of reasons, the popularity of recorders waned after the 18th century, and they were largely replaced by flutes and clarinets in ensemble pieces. In the 20th century, however, the recorder had a bit of a renaissance of its own (in addition to elementary schools), being used occasionally by historically accurate music ensembles and even in music by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other popular artists.