beating-reed instrument

Reed (instrument)

A reed is a thin strip of material which vibrates to produce a sound on a musical instrument. The reeds of woodwind instruments are made from Arundo donax or synthetic material; tuned reeds (as in harmonicas and accordions) are made of metal or synthetics.

Single reeds

Single reeds are used on the mouthpieces of clarinets and saxophones. They have a flat (back) side which fits against the mouthpiece and a top side which tapers to a thin tip. They are rectangular in shape except for the thin vibrating tip, which is curved to match the curve of the mouthpiece tip. Although all single reeds are shaped similarly, they vary in size to fit the appropriate mouthpiece.

The most obvious variation in reeds designed for the same instrument is a variation in thickness ("hardness" or "strength"), generally measured on a scale of 1 through 5 from softest to hardest. This is not a standardized scale and reed strengths vary between manufacturers. The thickness of the tip and heel and the profile in between also affect the sound and playability. Cane of different grades (density, stiffness), even if cut with the same profile, will also respond differently.

Double reeds

Double reeds are used on the oboe, oboe d'amore, english horn, bassoon, contrabassoon, and bagpipes. They are typically not used in conjunction with a mouthpiece; rather the two reeds vibrate against each other. However, in the case of the crumhorn, bagpipes, and shawm, a reed cap that contains an airway is placed over the reeds and blown without the reeds actually coming in contact with the player's mouth. Reed strengths are graded, as an approximate guide to users, from 1 through 5, as with single reeds.

Free reeds

There are two types of free reeds: framed and unframed. Framed free reeds are used on ancient Asian instruments such as the Chinese shêng, Japanese shō, and Laotian khene, and modern European instruments such as the harmonium or reed organ, harmonica, concertina, bandoneón, accordion, and Russian bayan (a type of accordion). The reed is made from cane, willow, brass or steel, and is enclosed in a rigid frame. The pitch of the framed free reed is fixed, unlike the reeds of the single- or double-reed instruments.

One example of the unframed reed is the primitive bullroarer; it consists simply of a stone or board of wood tied to a rope which is swung around and around through the air. It makes a whistling sound. Another primitive unframed free-reed instrument is the leaf (called bilu), which can be heard in some traditional Chinese music ensembles. A leaf, or a long blade of grass, is stretched between the sides of the thumbs and tensioned slightly by bending the thumbs, thereby raising or lowering the pitch. The tone of the instrument can be modified by cupping the hands so as to provide a resonant chamber.


Most reeds are made from cane, but synthetic reeds made from various substances are used by a small number of clarinetists and saxophonists, as well as bagpipers, particularly the Italian Zampognari, who often use synthetic double reeds for the Italian Zampogna. Synthetic reeds are generally more durable than their natural counterparts, do not need to be moistened prior to playing, and can be more consistent in quality. Many players consider them to have poor sound, or use them only in a context where tone quality is less important, such as a marching band.

Recent developments in synthetic reed technology have produced reeds made from synthetic polymer compounds , and as technology in this area has progressed, synthetic reeds have gained more acceptance. Synthetic reeds are useful when the instrument is played intermittently with long breaks in between, during which time a natural reed might become dry.

The dizi, a Chinese transverse flute, has a distinctive kind of reed (a di mo), which is made from a paper-like bamboo membrane.

Commercial vs. hand-made reeds

Musicians originally crafted reeds from cane using simple tools, a process which was time-consuming and painstaking. Specialized tools for cutting and trimming reeds by hand reduce the time needed to finish a reed.

Today, nearly all players of single-reed instruments buy manufactured reeds, although many players adjust them by shaving or sanding. Some professionals make single reeds from "blanks", but this is time-consuming and can require expensive equipment.

Among double reed players, advanced and professional players typically make their own reeds, while beginners and students often buy reeds either from their teachers or from commercial sources.

Reed players

Especially in musical theatre orchestras, woodwind players are commonly referred to as "reed players" or "reeds". These players are not restricted to one particular woodwind instrument group, but play ("double on") several different instruments. (Although the flutes are not reed instruments, they are included as well.)
There are usually only four or five reed players in a pit orchestra who perform on all woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone). A basic reed part usually has three or four instruments (flutes, clarinets, saxophones being the most common), but can include up to eight instruments, such as the "Reed 3" part in Bernstein's West Side Story, which calls for the player to use piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor, and baritone saxophones. Through intricate doubling, the arranger can emulate the sound of a much larger woodwind section. (The West Side Story woodwind section would need twelve "classical" players instead of five "reed" players.)


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