When it comes to music, the instruments are arranged in families. The woodwind section is just one of those families. Interestingly, a saxophone is considered a woodwind instrument rather than a brass one. This is partly because it has a reed. A single reed, this is. There are also instruments in the woodwind family that have double reeds. An example is an oboe. A flute does not have a reed but is considered a woodwind instrument because of how the sound is produced and it is played, rather than the classification be based on its material.
We shall, for this article, explore only the woodwind instruments that have a reed fitted as a part of their mouthpiece, beginning with the two types of reed.
Apart from a saxophone, a clarinet also uses a single reed. The reed is clamped to the instrument’s mouthpiece, leaving only a narrow opening remaining between the reed tip and the mouthpiece. When the player closes their lips around this mouthpiece and blows, a tone will be created when the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece.
You might have come across the word “embouchure”. This applies to woodwind and brass instruments and is the way a player applies their mouth to the mouthpiece. It affects sound production. The first thing someone learning an instrument that is blown will do is to practice their embouchure so that a consistent and pleasant sound is produced from their instrument. A music teacher will be looking for a nice tone from their student. As learning progresses, players will learn the fingerings of their instruments and be able to produce the higher notes that are possible, depending on the range of their instrument.
Double reeds can be found on musical instruments such as oboes and bassoons. They are fitted to the curved metal mouthpiece and consist of two blades that are slightly separated. A double reed works when the two pieces vibrate against one another.
You might think that a bassoon is quite an unusual instrument, but an orchestra will have between 2 and 4 bassoons. They have similar ranges to a cello.
Where do Reeds Come From?
The reed is made from a cane plant. The cane will have a hollow stem that will grow to its full height in just one year. To make the reed for a clarinet, for example, the cane is cut to the required length, then cut along its length and into four parts and then shaved. Because the reeds are sourced from a natural material, no two reeds are the same.
In a music shop, you will find that reeds for a clarinet or saxophone will be sold as specific to that instrument, although look fairly similar. This is because their mouthpieces are different in size. The reeds will then be graded in terms of how hard they are to blow. A beginner will start on a lower number and then, when more proficient a player, progress to a reed that is harder to blow but will produce a better tone.
History of the Reed
Reeds in music date to European art music and the 17th century. It was the experimenting with reeds that led to the development of the clarinet. The double reed, of ancient origin, was used in the Greek aulos and then in the shawm and related instruments. These were played in Mediterranean counties and lands eastwards to China.
So, hopefully, you now know a bit more about the reeds that the woodwind instruments use to play them. They can be found as accessories in music shops and online for players wanting a regular supply. It is important to have a good reed fitted to your instrument (whether a single or double) so that you can make a pleasing sound.