Tutti Reedy

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The Reed Itself

For our purposes here there are two meanings to the word ‘reed’. One is for a plant whose hollow stem can be used as a musical instrument, whether blown across the top as a flute or in any other way that the player chooses.

The other meaning is that of a small segment of that plant, along with artificial imitations of such segments, with which a player can blow and cause vibrations and thus generate sound within a tube of any natural or artificial material. It is this second meaning that we are dealing with here.

There are five types of reeds used for musical instruments:

1) The single reed, a single surface beating against a solid frame;

2) The double reed, two surfaces beating against each other;

3) The retreating or dilating reed, one or more slits in the side of a tube, opening and closing;

4) The free reed, a blade vibrating to and fro between the sides of a frame;

5) The ribbon reed, a strip of suitable material vibrating as air streams across it;

6) The human lips, which we will not discuss here because such instruments are normally called the Brass, i.e. Horns and Trumpets of all sorts;

X) Not a reed at all but a diaphragm substituting for a reed.

All of these function in response to a current of air, normally but by no means always, coming from a player’s mouth. Some, especially the single and free reeds, are often blown mechanically, and single and double reeds are often blown by bellows or through an air-reservoir such as a bag.

Single reeds can either be a blade sliced from the side of a plant stem (I am trying to avoid using the word ‘reed’ in the first sense above, to avoid confusion), but still attached to the tube at one end, so that its edges and the free end beat against the edges of tube whence it was sliced. Because it is still part of the tube it is called idioglot (idio=same or self, and glot=tongue). Alternatively it can be a blade of suitable material tied against an aperture in a solid mouthpiece, such as that of a clarinet or saxophone. Because it is not integral with the mouthpiece but merely attached to it in some way, it is called heteroglot (hetero=other, and glot=tongue).

Double reeds can either be the end of a flattened tube, such as a plant stem, or they can be two blades of suitable material tied together, such as our oboe and bassoon reeds.

The retreating or dilating reeds are normally one or more slits cut vertically along a short length of a tube, usually that of a fresh plant stem. Henry Balfour in the Pitt Rivers Museum called them retreating reeds because, as they are blown, the sides of the slit seem to move away from each other when blown, but dilating seems a better and more understandable term because the slit dilates slightly when blown. Like the idioglot single reeds, the top end of the tube must be closed so that the air is forced to pass (and thus vibrate) the reed as it goes into the tube. The only slight parallel of the dilating reed among our orchestral instruments is the human lips on a brass instrument. This is because the single- and double-reeds normally stand slightly open and are forced by the air stream to close and open rapidly, whereas the human lips and the dilating reeds normally stand closed when silent and are forced by the air stream to open and close rapidly.

The free reed was probably originally, and sometime still is, an idioglot blade cut in the side of a tube, distinct from the single reed in that the cut is vertically through the tube so that the reed can swing freely to and fro through the aperture, but today it is more commonly a metal blade, either cut idioglottally in a small sheet of metal, or in our instruments heteroglottally fixed to one end of a close-fitting frame. Examples are mouthorgans, and in our culture also reed organs, concertinas and accordions of all sorts. It is arguable that it has a larger analogue in the jews harp.

The ribbon reed is seldom, perhaps never, part of an instrument but is simply of itself, a strip of almost any material held in a frame so that air can be blown across its horizontal width, thus making it vibrate, its pitch varying with its tension and the air-speed. A blade of grass held between the sides of the thumbs is one example. In normal use it is either a simply a noise-maker or else an animal lure or imitator, rather than a musical instrument in the normal sense. Whether such things as pieces of bark or carp-scales, held in the mouth, which are musical instruments proper, come under the same head is arguable, as is an analogue with the aeolian harp.

The diaphragm as a substitute for reeds is a very new development. It was first devised as a noise-maker for football matches and such occasions (a successor to the South African vuvuzela). It is a thin disc of plastic fixed to the top of a tube, that vibrates with its own pitch when air is directed against it though a nozzle. Subsequently, musicians have discovered that cutting fingerholes in the tube turned it into a musical instrument that could be played in the same way as a single- or double-reed instrument, whether mouthblown or blown through a bag – at least one imitation Northumbrian bagpipe has been seen and heard, and other instruments are developing rapidly, including those with a sliding trombone-like tube.

So much for the reeds, though we shall return to each of them in separate papers in this sequence. But what of the reed itself?

Most of the reeds, as the word suggests, are vegetable in origin, either grasses or cut in or from large grasses such as bamboos and canes. Those used in our orchestras with oboes, bassoons, clarinets, and saxophones, are made from the species Arundo donax, the best quality of which is grown in southern France. Others, especially the small idioglot double reeds used in the Near East and the Orient, may be made from short sections of a rhizome, a subterranean or subaqueous root.

An alternative today for many instruments is the use of plastics, partly as a cheap substitute for beginners, but also because good quality and properly matured Arundo donax is becoming difficult to find. However, as yet, nobody has come up with a plastic as responsive as a good quality natural cane.

And what of the reed instruments themselves?

Most instruments with single reeds use the reed to generate vibrations in an air column within a tube with fingerholes. One such tube without fingerholes uses a slide instead, the slide saxophone. There is also a number of single-reed instruments which simply use the reed to make a sound. One obvious example is the old-fashioned bulb motor horn, modern versions of which are often fitted to bicycles. Many others are hooters of all sorts, often children’s toys, and others are used in game lures by hunters. One major group is fitted into our church organs, such as trumpet stops and others such as the regal. While many of these organ stops have a pipe attached to them, looking like a post horn, it is said that these pipes are simply resonators to enhance the sound and the appearance; the pitch is controlled by the mass and length of the reed itself and the shape of the pipe controls the tone quality. Certainly this was true for the reeds of the late mediaeval and early renaissance regal, a very small organ. A large variety of resonator shapes for regals is shown in Praetorius’s De Organografia of 1619, and in other books on the organ.

Double-reed instruments show rather less variety. Though again a few appear as game lures, the vast majority are used to transmit vibrations to an air column with fingerholes. This lack of other uses is probably explained by the relatively delicacy of the reeds themselves. Whereas the single reed, whether idio- or heteroglot, has its quite solid mouthpiece against which to beat, the double reed is often made of two very delicate slips of cane with nothing to support them. Our oboists, for example, perpetually worry about making a good reed for their oboe, and then having made it, worry even more about how long it will last.

To digress here briefly, I have often wondered why our oboists and bassoonists very often make their own reeds, or have them made for them by a specialist to their specific requirements, whereas hardly any clarinetists make their own, but simply buy them from shops. Several professional clarinetists have told me that it is common to buy a box of reeds and toss half of them as inadequate, or pass the rather better ones on to pupils as sufficiently ‘adequate’ for their purposes. Why do they not take the same trouble as the oboists and bassoonists?

Dilating-reed instruments are almost invariably idioglot, simply the upper part of a tube with fingerholes, and their geographical distribution is very limited, as we shall see in due course.

Acousticians have told us that a free-reed can only produce a single pitch, but this is because they only deal with the instruments of our culture. In other areas, especially parts of South-East Asia, free-reeds can also generate vibrations in an air column with fingerholes. This is due, as Alan Thrasher has told me, to differences in the shape of the reed. They are also used for a single pitch, fitted into the side of a tube, and a set of these tubes is placed in an air-holder in oriental mouthorgans. These tubes each have a single fingerhole, but this fingerhole does not affect the pitch; when it is closed it couples the vibration of the reed to an air column of fixed pitch, controlled by the acoustic length of the tube, and so produces a single note. Those used in our culture, in reed organs, squeeze boxes, and harmonicas, produce each the single pitch of the reed itself, usually without a tube or any other form of resonator.

The ribbon reed also produces a pitch of itself and is used mainly to produce a squawk, though with skill the pitch can be varied quite considerably to produce different pitches, again often as hunting lures. If one can consider the pieces of bark, etc, mentioned above as possibly coming under the same head, then a really skilled player can produce elaborate melodies.

What do we know of the early history of these instruments? Not in fact very much. We do know that reed pipes have been used from time immemorial as folk instruments over most of the known world, but we do not know how immemorial that time has been. This is simply because such instruments, made from lengths of cane or lighter reeds, such as the poet’s ‘oaten stop’ simply do not survive in the earth for archaeologists to discover, though we do have examples from ancient Egypt, from ancient Rome and Greece as the tibia and aulos, and earliest of all the silver pipes from the royal tombs of Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia, before the days of the biblical Abraham. The Chinese record that their mouthorgans go back to somewhere around 3,000 BC, but I do not know whether any have been found in sites that can be dated so early. Equally early, it has been surmised that some of the Neolithic bone pipes found archaeologically may have been generated by such reeds. Most Neolithic pipes appear to have been flutes of various types, but some do look as though they might have had a reed in the end. If so, it is difficult to believe that such pipes did not exist earlier still in more ephemeral materials than bones, and so we might look even further back to the Mesolithic or even to the Upper Palaeolithic.

Keeping now to our initial order of the five varieties of reed (plus diaphragms), we shall take each in turn, in separate articles.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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