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"Musical" Wind Machines

Updated on December 28, 2012

The wind machine I'm writing about here is neither a fan nor a wind tunnel; in fact, it creates no wind at all! Instead, it is a mechanical device used as a percussion instrument in large orchestras to produce a facsimile sound of wind blowing. As we shall see, it is not frequently used, but it has been used to great effect.

Wind machines are also found in the arsenal of sound makers used by foley artists, those clever people who create live (non-sampled, non-synthesized) sound effects for films, radio, and stage plays.

The wind machine photo used as the icon for this page comes from an informative presentation called "Foley: Live Sound Effects", all about making sound the old-fashioned way: by hitting things and throwing things around.

Description of the Wind Machine

Imagine a cylindrical drum, perhaps two feet in diameter and two feet wide. The curved face of the cylinder is lined with slats, and the device is mounted in a support with its axis parallel to the floor.

Across the drum (see the illustration above or the photo below) is draped a length of silk or other material, perhaps a light-weight cardboard. When the drum is rotated by means of a handle at the side, the fabric brushing against the drum slats makes a sound very much like rushing wind.

To achieve more realistic imitation wind sounds, the drum is never rotated at a constant, uniform speed, but at constantly changing speeds, since wind tends to blow in gusts.

Of the wind machine, Cecil Forsyth wrote in his book Orchestration (published c. 1914):

"The Wind-Machine is not strictly a Percussion -Instrument at all. On the other hand, it is certainly not a Wind-Instrument, except in a facetious sense. However, it may conveniently be described here, and a few words will suffice for its description.

The sound-producing mechanism in the Wind-Machine is a sort of barrel from which most of the staves are missing. In their place is a covering of black silk. The barrel is laid on its side in a "bearing" supported by an open "cradle". It is then churned round with a handle, so that the silk comes in contact with a "face" of wood or cardboard.

On the other hand, it does fall into the category of "noise makers", so let's leave it in the percussion section where the musicians know what to do with it.

Here is a fascinating set of photos showing steps in the assembly of a wind machine -- a sheet of paper being draped over the slatted drum -- as used in a comedic play called "Big Idea", by Nigel Holloway.

Older Music with Wind Machine

The wind machine seems to have been first used musically by Richard Strauss. It certainly is a romantic sound-maker par excellence, depicting a sound from nature with remarkable fidelity.

  • Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloë

    Ravel wrote his pastoral ballet in 1912. It's portrays the mythical love story between the handsome young goatherd, Daphnis, and the beautiful young shepherdess, Chloë, as they discover what love is. The story is confusing, but the music is luscious. Look for a recording of the complete ballet -- I don't remember whether the wind machine appears in the suites.

    While you're listening, browse through a gallery of Daphnis et Chloë lithographs by Marc Chagall, one of my favorite artists. (And thanks to NPR's piece on Daphnis et Chloë for pointing out the links.) (Hear sample below.)

  • Gioachino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia ("The Barber of Seville")

    I don't imagine that Rossini specified a wind machine in the orchestra for his famous opera buffa, but there is a storm near the end of the work and I have read the occasional review suggesting that some productions employ a wind machine for added verisimilitude. If I happen upon a trustworthy recording with wind, I'll add it to the list below.

  • Richard Strauss: Don Quixote

    Subtitled "Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character", this is probably the first orchestral work in which the use of wind machine was specified. Strauss wrote it in 1897. It's hardly surprising that it was Strauss who did it, his being an exemplary romantic with a predilection for very large orchestras. The work itself is patterned on the literary work of the same name by Cervantes. The music tells the story in a series of 12 episodes, using the 'cello to portray Don Quixote, and the viola as his companion Sancho Panza.

    The wind machine appears in Variation 7 (or segment 8), called "The Ride through the Air". These concert notes about the piece from the Los Angeles Philharmonic give a nice analysis. (Hear sample below.)

  • Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie ("An Alpine Symphony")

    Strauss premiered this work in 1915; it was the second time he had used the wind machine to great programmatic effect. It is meant to represent a day spent in an excursion on a mountain in the Alps. This time out he uses the device to depict a violent thunderstorm (in section 19), complete with thunder and lightening.

    The Alpine Symphony (not actually a symphony, by the way) -- along with its wind machine! -- has another distinction. According to Philips, co-creator with Sony of the audio CD: "The first CD that was pressed in Hanover was a recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Alpine Symphony by Richard Straus."

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony No. 7)

    Vaughan Williams wrote this work in 1952, when he was 70, basing it on his film score for the 1948 film "Scott of the Antarctic". In addition to the chilling sounds of the orchestra, Vaughan Williams calls on an organ, a choir of women and a solo soprano (who never sing words, just oohs and aahs), and a wind machine. The effect is amazingly realistic and chilling.

Newer Music with Wind Machine

Twentieth-century composers made some use of the wind machine, particularly when they wanted to evoke a strongly realistic sound of nature. The sound created by the wind machine is hard to misinterpret.

  • Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 10 in c minor

    Brian (1876-1972) is a surpringly little-known British composer, despite the 32 symphonies he managed to produce (among lots of other orchestral works). Many people seem devoted to him largely because he is so neglected. For resources and links, visit the Havergal Brian Society.

    The Symphony No. 10 is in one movement and short by Brian's standards, only about 24 minutes long. It was premiered in 1953. Despite our being nearly the same age, this symphony is completely unknown to me. It has been recorded, and at least one is currently available. (Hear sample below.)

  • Morton Gould: Audubon (from "Birds of America")

    Some of Gould's pieces suffered an "americana" resurgence some years back and are passingly familiar. This 1969 piece is not one of them, however. His publisher (Schirmer) verifies that the multi-movement work, which lasts 84 minutes, calls for a wind machine.

    In 1994, two years before his death, Gould was a Kennedy Center Honoree; the biography written for the occasion is short but informative.

  • Ferde Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite (1931)

    It must have been influential: one of the first pieces of "classical" music I ever heard, from an old recording of my parents, was this suite, complete with its violent thunderstorm in the fifth and last movement, "Cloudburst". In addition to the apt use of wind machine, I've always loved the piano evocation of lightening strokes.

  • Olivier Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Etoiles ("From the Canyon to the Stars") (1974)

    Messian was known primarily as an organist and a composer of rather mystical and highly individualistic music for the organ, but occasionally he took up orchestral writing. Although it's written for a rather small orchestra (only 43 players), it is a huge, challenging work: 12 movements lasting more than 90 minutes. It's a piece people either love or hate -- sometimes both!

    Here are two fascinating reviews: The first is from 1994, by Alex Ross. The second is a review of the British premiere in 1976 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, from the Musical Times.

  • Olivier Messiaen: Saint François d'Assise

    This is the only opera by Messiaen. It premiered in 1983; it's first American performance wasn't until 2002 by the San Francisco Opera (see this excellent review). Among its oddities: there's only one female role. Not only is a wind machine included in the score, but Messiaen also called for the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument. (Hear sample below.)

    This review, of a 2002 revival of the opera in Paris, discusses the music and gives a good synopsis. (Before I started writing this lens I'd never heard of this piece; now I want to hear it!)

  • Michael Tippett: Symphony No. 4

    This symphony by British composer Tippett (1905-1998), which the program notes say is programmatic and represents a journey through life from birth to death, was premiered by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on 6 October 1977. In fact, as I am writing this paragraph, I am listening to that recording on a retrospective CSO radio broadcast celebrating the late Solti's 95th birthday. The program notes and a chance to listen to the program are online.

    The wind machine certainly made a brief appearance at the beginning; what the end of the piece holds I have yet to discover. I can't say yet how much I like the symphony, either. Tippett has never been one of my favorite modern composers, and that seems unlikely to change after hearing this symphony.

Newest Music Using Wind Machine

Modern composers seem to enjoy using peculiar and unexpected percussion effects, and some are not at all averse to calling on the wind machine to help them out.

Regretfully, none of these pieces is familiar to me, but my curiosity may soon overcome me.

  • David Benoit: Kobe (1998)

    Benoit is a new name to me: I found this piece listed in the catalog of music publishers Boosey and Hawkes. They provide no details beyond the instrumentation and the fact that it was premiered in 1998 by the Kobe Philharmonic Orchestra. Its US premier was in 2003, by the Berkeley Philharmonic, directed by Kent Nagano. Here's a review of that performance.

    Benoit will be familiar to some as a jazz musician and arranger. I have seen Kobe described as a ballet in six parts, with a scenario concerning a Japanese girl named Keiko, who survives both the bombing of Hiroshima and the earthquake in Kobe. Fortunately, the work has been recorded. I enjoyed reading this biography of David Benoit.

  • Detlev Glanert: Symphony No. 1, op. 6 (1984)

    For me, unfamiliar name number two. He was born in 1960 in Hamburg, Germany. He, too, is published by Boosey & Hawkes, whose catalog entry gives a short biography. Apparently he has been very active as a composer of opera. Also fortunate for us, his symphony has been recorded; unfortunately it doesn't seem to be listed in Amazon's catalog.

  • Dwight Winenger: "The Raven: A Reading for Trombone" (1990)

    Winenger's is the third unfamiliar name in this section for me, and I couldn't locate much information online, either. This piece is probably the only chamber music I came across that features the wind machine so prominently -- okay, the only chamber music with a wind machine at all! It's scored for tenor trombone, wind machine, thunder sheet, and staged lightening. I am aching to hear a performance now.

Videos Featuring our Musical Choices

This excerpt from Daphnis and Chloe is not the part with the wind machine, but it gives a good impression of the piece.

The excerpt from Don Quixote includes "Variation VII"; watch for the vigorous wind-machine performance at the 1:30 mark.

The video of the Brian Symphony is a rehearsal recording of not very good quality, but the wind machine can be heard in the first minute. You'll be able to see a shot of a percussionist cranking out the wind, but the wind machine itself isn't visible.

The Messiaen excerpt is from the opera, but it does not seem to be a seqment in which we can hear the wind machine, unless it escaped my notice.

The Gould, Detlev, and Winenger excerpts are not from the pieces featuring the wind machine, but I liked hearing them to get an idea of the composer's style. Besides, it was hard to resist a "Concerto for Tap Dancer" (Gould).

"New Wind Machine Excerpts" is just for fun. The guy plays his machine to soundtracks of pop songs that mention the wind. But, it's the longest solo wind-machine performance I found!

Recordings We Can Recommend

Ravel Daphnis Et Chloe
Ravel Daphnis Et Chloe

A good performance of the complete ballet score.

Strauss: Don Quixote/ Variations on a Rococo Theme
Strauss: Don Quixote/ Variations on a Rococo Theme

A performance featuring a favorite cellist and a trustworthy conductor.

Strauss: Alpine Symphony
Strauss: Alpine Symphony

I like the way Andre Previn does big, romantic symphonies.


More Recordings we can Recommend

Havergal Brian - Symphonies 10 & 21 (Unicorn Kanchana)
Havergal Brian - Symphonies 10 & 21 (Unicorn Kanchana)

This seems to be the only recording currently available of Brian's 10th Symphony.

Messiaen: Des Canyons aux étoiles, Oiseaux exotiques, Couleurs de la cité céleste
Messiaen: Des Canyons aux étoiles, Oiseaux exotiques, Couleurs de la cité céleste

An older recording, it includes some other pieces by Messiaen.

Messiaen: Saint François d'Assise / van Dam, Upshaw, Nagano
Messiaen: Saint François d'Assise / van Dam, Upshaw, Nagano

The recording I'll buy when I can afford it.

Orchestral Stories
Orchestral Stories

This album contains Benoit's "Kobe" among other works.


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    • Deborah Swain profile image

      Deborah Swain 

      8 years ago from Rome, Italy

      what a fascinating lens! I had always taken that sound effect for granted and never thought about it being created by a specific instrument before! i would maybe mix the videos in with the text a little, so we can an idea of what it sounds like earlier on the page!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      What an interesting and unusual site. Well done.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      This is great!

      Much more information about an unusual instrument than one can find almost anywhere...and the repertoire for it as well. What a find!

      Thanks for filling my mind with so many fun facts!


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