Station: [6] Single Reed Instruments

Imagine a beautiful summer’s day. As you’re walking through a field; you pluck the stalk of a plant, cut into it, put it to your lips and blow, producing a sound. Perhaps you have fond memories of doing something like that in the past. Anyway, that’s how a reed instrument in its simplest form works. Even now, wind instruments are often made of reeds or canes – but also of other natural or synthetic materials. The best known single-reed instruments are the saxophone, the clarinet and – the bagpipes. 

A reed is a strip of material that vibrates to produce a sound. A single reed is known as a beating reed, while a double reed, which you’ll find out about later, is a concussion reed. 

The technique is best explained on an instrument that’s like a set of bagpipes without the bag – for example, the Egyptian arghul. That’s the instrument with two pipes bound together. The reed is slit lengthwise, creating a tongue that forms a beating reed. The player blows into this slit between the reed and the tongue, causing the reed to vibrate. As it vibrates, the reed strikes the beating reed. This periodically interrupts the airflow and causes a vibration, which produces a sound.

The arghul is a special type of bagpipe consisting of a melody pipe and a drone pipe. The player’s mouth replaces the missing bag. Players use what’s known as circular breathing to play this kind of instrument. This breathing technique enables a continuous flow of air from the mouth even while inhaling. The Italian equivalent of the arghul is the Sardinian launedda, or triple-pipe. It has two melody pipes and a longer drone pipe. 

Another single reed instrument is the chalumeau, a woodwind instrument that’s the precursor of the clarinet. Here’s a piece called "Owe dirre not" by the poet Neidhart von Reuental from the 13th century.

All depictions: © Dagmar Trüpschuch