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Where Reeds Stem From
The first mention of reeds used in music stems from the earliest known civilization: ancient Sumer. Sumerians referenced reed pipes/flutes in cuneiform writings (which were imprinted in clay using pen-like tools made from reeds). "The Field of Reeds" was interwoven with ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs and considered a paradise and the soul of the Nile River Delta. Known for creating papyrus, baskets, and boats from the numerous reed plants growing in the Nile River Valley, ancient Egyptians also carved musical reed instruments including the memet. Similar to a double, bound flute with tone holes, the memet is a single-reed instrument. Its likeness spread over the Mediterranean to Greece where the aulos (single or double-reed pipe) became popular, as well as to Italy, Spain, and eastward to Asia.
Single and double-reed instruments persevered through Medieval Times such as the shawn and dulcian, and were transformed as they ventured across the globe into the modern era. Though present-day reed instruments contain a reed separate from the rest of the instrument's body, some ancient instruments were entirely carved from one continuous reed stalk.
Separate reeds are still used for certain woodwind instruments including clarinets, oboes, bassoons, saxophones, and tons of international instruments like the Armenian duduk, Basque alboka, the diplica of the Balkan Mountain region, Sardinian launeddas, Spanish dulzaina, and Chinese hulusi. On most instruments, the reed is visible from the outside, but the reed can also be found on the inside of a handful of instruments.
Though the well-known French translation of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Reed Flutes" is "Danse des Mirlitons", mirlitons are both the name of a rolled French pastry, and a class of non-reed, kazoo-family flutes with paper or another thin, vibrating membrane inside. No part was written for mirlitons in the Nutcracker Suite, only for standard concert flutes.
Types of Reeds
Most reeds are still carved from reed cane by independent reed makers and larger companies like D'Addario, Vandoren, Jean Baptiste, Gonzalez, Jones, Leblanc, Alexander, and Selmer. Made from wood, each cane reed is unique and embodies a natural, pure sound. Some of these companies, as well as Legere, Fibracell, and BARI Associates, also offer synthetic reeds that are made to mimic the sound of a cane reed, provide more consistency among different reeds, and often outlast the life of a cane reed.
Varying in shape, thickness, and density, different reeds are designed to capture the sound of their designated instrument, with some crafted to compliment a specific genre such as classical or jazz. They can also come filed or unfiled. Unfiled reeds give the player more air resistance, resulting in a darker tone, while filed reeds are free-blowing, giving off a brighter tone.
Single reed instruments (clarinets, oboes, and saxophones) use one reed and require a mouthpiece to work with the instrument. Double reed instruments (bassoons) use two reeds joined together and do not require a mouthpiece.
Find the Right Reed for You
Sam Ash is always stocked with a comprehensive selection of reeds for standard concert instruments to fit every player's needs and preferences. We also want to help you keep your reeds lasting as long as possible with our reed cases, caps, vitalizers, reedgards, trimmers, reed adjusters, other woodwind accessories, and of course, extra reeds to switch off with. That being said, don't forget to rotate your reeds, let the natural cane ones soak a little prior to using them, and keep them in a temperate area to prevent them from drying out or warping.
If you need help finding just the right gear, give us a call at 1-800-472-6274, where real musicians are standing by with the musical knowledge and expertise to help you satisfy all your musical needs!