What Are Single Reed Instruments?

Whether your child is interested in playing the saxophone or clarinet or already does, you may be curious about what a single reed instrument is. Where did they originate? How do they make sound? Single reed instruments are woodwind instruments that use a single reed to produce sound. Very much in contrast to double reed instruments, which use two reeds to produce sound, single reed instruments only have one reed and require a mouthpiece to produce sound. This is why a mouthpiece is an essential part of single reed instruments and isn’t necessary for instruments in the double reed family.

The Memet: The First Single Reed Instrument

Most modern-day single reed instruments are descended from single reed idioglot instruments collectively referred to as the “memet”. The memet originated in Egypt circa 2700 BC and were frequently depicted on the walls of ancient Egyptian pyramids and tombs. Unfortunately, the instruments were extremely fragile and therefore, couldn’t be preserved outside of iconographic evidence. Most memets were double-clarinets, where two reed tubes were tied or glued together to form one instrument. Although the original memets likely produced out of tune, dissonant sounds, they’ve since evolved into producing the melodic sounds of modern-day saxophones and clarinets.

How Do Single Reed Instruments Produce Sound?

Sound on woodwind instruments, both those with single and double reeds, comes from the vibrating column of air inside the instrument. The reed in single reed instruments is clamped to the mouthpiece so that only a very narrow opening remains between the tip of the reed and the mouthpiece. When the player closes their lips around the mouthpiece and blows, a tone is created as the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece. On a very basic level the reed and the mouthpiece work together as valves that open and close. As the air presses the reed against the opening of the mouthpiece, the stream of air is blocked. Because the reed is elastic, it immediately swings back and the air streams in again, pressing the reed against the opening.

How is the Pitch Changed?

Now that you know how single reed instruments produce sound, you may be curious about how to change the pitch of the instrument. Whether you’re playing the saxophone or the clarinet, the pitch depends on the volume of air that’s vibrating inside the instrument. A larger volume of air vibrates more slowly and produces a lower pitch, while a smaller volume of air vibrates more quickly and produces a higher pitch.To better control the pitch, musicians can open and close the holes along the length of the instrument. As more holes are open or closed, the overall pitch of the instrument is effectively changed.

How Are Reeds Made?

Although some reeds are made from synthetic material, most reeds are manufactured from reed grass, or cane. The cane originally grows in the Mediterranean and is quite similar in appearance to bamboo. Reed makers cut rectangular pieces of wood from the cane, which are completely planed down and polished by machines. Since reeds are a naturally grown substance, no two reeds are alike- even those with identical measurements. This is why it’s important for clarinet and saxophone players to sort through a box of brand new reeds, throwing out those that are broken or dull sounding, and keeping the reeds that produce a sound they prefer.

How is a Single Reed Instrument Maintained?

While you should have your single reed instrument professionally serviced every year or two, there are several things you can do to prolong its life. First, take some time to learn how your child’s clarinet or saxophone works. Speak with your child’s music teacher and learn about what issues can be fixed by your child and which issues need to be addressed by a professional. Second, make sure your child’s instrument is cleaned and maintained on a daily or weekly basis. Here are some basic care and maintenance tips for single reed instruments:

  • Wipe the instrument with a cleaning cloth after each use,
  • Keep the wood (or plastic) free from dust,
  • Check the adjustment on a monthly basis,
  • Oil the mechanism every few months,
  • Take the instrument apart at least twice a year; clean everything, oil it, and put it back together.

Curious about how to choose a reed?  Check out Choosing a Saxophone Reed or How to Choose a Clarinet Reed.

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