The three branches of the woodwind family have different sources of sound. Vibrations begin when air is blown across the top of an instrument, across a single reed, or across two reeds. Reeds are small pieces of cane. A single reed is clamped to a mouthpiece at the top of the instrument and vibrates against the mouthpiece when air is blown between the reed and the mouthpiece. Two reeds tied together are commonly known as a double reed. This double reed fits into a tube at the top of the instrument and vibrates when air is forced between the two reeds.

Conically shaped, the saxophone is the only woodwind instrument made of brass. Although it is found only occasionally in the symphony orchestra, it is considered a member of the woodwind family because it has a single reed like the clarinet.