Getty Images
Getty Images

12 Educational Facts About the Recorder

Getty Images
Getty Images

Many of us know the recorder as the plastic pipe that gets handed out in elementary school music class. More closely resembling a toy than something a rock star would carry, it doesn’t have a reputation for being the coolest instrument in the world. But that doesn’t mean it deserves to get a bad rap—a long list of artistic geniuses from William Shakespeare to Paul McCartney have turned to the recorder for inspiration. Here are 12 facts worth knowing about this historic instrument.


Centuries before the clarinet, the harmonica, and the tuba were invented, early musicians were playing recorders. The oldest surviving example of the instrument dates back to 14th-century Europe. Back then—unlike the mass-produced, plastic items today’s grade-schoolers are familiar with—recorders were carved from wood or ivory.


Before the age of voicemail and tape recorders, the verb “to record” meant “to memorize by heart.” To this end, the simple recorder flute came in handy. One possible explanation for its name is that it was a good instrument for practicing, or “recording.” In languages other than English, the name doesn’t translate neatly and is usually referred to as a different type of flute.


King Henry VIII is better known for his notorious marriages than his musical talents. But he was also an accomplished composer, publishing several songs and instrumental works during his lifetime. His music hobby led to an ambitious instrument collection: Before he died in 1547, Henry VIII had acquired 76 recorders (the instruments, which were played in choirs, had such a limited range that several were needed for each song). Rather than letting them gather dust in a case, he made sure they were used for their intended purpose. According to the Metropolitan Museum the flutes were likely played by the royal professional recorder consort and other recorder masters when the King himself wasn’t playing them.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Serious musicians may turn their noses up at the recorder today, but it was an important member of the wind family during the Baroque period. Georg Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach all incorporated the instrument into their compositions. In opera, the clear, sweet sound of the recorder was used to evoke erotic themes and pastoral images like shepherds and birds.


The recorder was so popular during the 16th century that it was used to illustrate a metaphor by the age’s most popular writer. In the third act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks Guildenstern to play the recorder for him. After he explains that he doesn’t know how, Hamlet insists that “'tis as easy as lying.” Still he refuses, and Hamlet says that Guildenstern should have no trouble playing the simple recorder after “playing” him like an instrument:

“[Y]ou would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”

The comparison made its way into the common vernacular, but today you’re more likely to hear someone claim they were “played like a fiddle” than a recorder.


One reason that soprano recorders are a popular choice for grade school music classes is their child-friendly package. But the instrument’s simple form lends itself to several shapes and sizes, the largest being the sub-contrabass recorder, which stands 8 feet tall. To play it, musicians blow into a tube-shaped mouthpiece that swoops down from the top of the recorder. Then there’s the adorably-named garklein, which measures 6 inches long and emits high-pitched tones like a whistle.


While the recorder is technically a type of flute, it’s the transverse flute (a flute that’s held horizontally and blown into from the side) that we associate with the term. The transverse flute migrated to Europe from Asia in the 14th century, and by the 19th century, it was featured in most orchestras. The recorder, with its lack of range and volume, didn’t stand a chance against the bold sound of a flute piercing through a concert hall. As the 19th century progressed, the recorder was phased out of the modern orchestra altogether.


The recorder’s status as a relic from a bygone era is what helped make it cool again. At the turn of the 20th century, more museums were displaying historical instruments, and interest in pre-classical music began to rise. This helped pave the way for the recorder to make a comeback as a revivalist instrument. Soon it began appearing in arrangements of early music. In some cases, like the performance given at 1885’s International Inventions Exhibition, collections of old instruments were displayed at concerts.



Around the middle of the 20th century the recorder underwent its cheap, lightweight transformation. By that point, plastic was easy to come by, and using the material produced an instrument that was tougher than its wooden counterpart and a whole lot cheaper. Not only that, but the sound quality didn’t suffer as a result.


Music teachers might have an easier time selling the recorder as a hip instrument if they played up its connection to classic rock. Paul McCartney was a notable fan, incorporating it into the Beatles song “Fool On The Hill” and some of his solo pieces. It can also be heard in the music of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. Though plenty of rock stars used the instrument, not all of them were proud of it. According to one rumor, Jimi Hendrix was so ashamed to have played a recorder on “If 6 Was 9” that he asked for it to be listed as a flute on the album credits.


German composer Carl Orff is best known for his scenic cantata Carmina Burana (the first movement of which you've likely heard before), but he’s also credited with revolutionizing children's music education. One of the core principles of his "Orff Schulwerk" teaching style dictated that if children could sing the notes they were playing they’d have an easier time learning the music. The soprano recorder, similar in range to the voice of a child, was a natural fit. His ideas were becoming popular around the same time recorders made the switch to plastic, which meant more schools could afford to buy them in bulk.



If you want your child to fall in love with music early in life, steer them away from the recorder. At least that’s what one paper published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2002 suggests. For the study, researcher Susan O'Neill of Keele University surveyed 1209 students about the impact the recorder had on their musical ambitions. She said in a press release that the children “tended to view the recorder as 'not a real instrument' or 'a child's instrument' and limited in its ability to express the music they want to play.” As the students grew up feeling limited by instruments like the recorder, they stopped feeling motivated to play music.

Paradise Found Around, YouTube
A Very Special History of The More You Know
Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?


The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.


In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.


Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]


More from mental floss studios