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The oboe is the soprano of the family of double-reed woodwind instruments which includes the oboe d’amore and the english horn. The principal oboe of an orchestra typically sounds the pitch when an orchestra tunes. Generally, orchestral music calls for two oboes which play independent voices or unison.
The oboe originated circa 1660 at the French court. The French word “hautbois” (high-, strong-, loud- or principal-wood) was applied in its various spellings to the smaller members of the shawm family (an instrument of medieval France and England). National characteristics emerged by 1750, so that today one hears distinctly different sounds from French, English, German and American oboists.
The reed is crucial to sound production. It is made of carved cane bound face to face to a narrow metal tube (a “staple”), and must have a very specific suppleness to vibrate properly. An oboist will typically spend hours each day making and refining his or her hand-made reeds. Condensation in the instrument accumulates quickly while it is played, and must be swabbed out frequently.
Source: The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.,  ISBN 0-333-43236-3