To understand the cornamuse one must first get to grips with two close relatives: the French bagpipes and the German crumhorn.
The origins of the woodwind cornamuse lie in the chanter of the French cornemuse (same spelling as cornamuse except for one letter) or bagpipes. Both the cornamuse and cornemuse have a range of only nine notes. But the cornamuse is more closely related to the crumhorn, another woodwind renaissance instrument that derives its name from the German for ‘bent horn’, since the wood is bent into the shape of a letter J. The crumhorn has a capped double reed, meaning it has two reeds you can’t see, since you blow into a mouthpiece that covers them, and it was popular in Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries.
Now straighten out your crumhorn (or, even better, don’t bend it in the first place). Don’t give it a bell to push out the sound, but instead make a series of holes around the bottom to let the sound out. Keep the capped double reed. Now you have a cornamuse.
Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) was an influential and versatile German composer. His description of the cornamuse ran: “Cornamuse are straight … They are covered below, and … have several little holes, from which the sound issues. In sound they are quite similar to crumhorns, but quieter, lovelier, and very soft. Thus they might justly be named still, soft crumhorns.” Since no historical cornamuse have survived, Praetorius’ account, together with a careful study of paintings of them, have helped us to reproduce this lovely and distinctive instrument.
Cornamuse playing Goddesses, anon., English, 17th century