A reed is a thin strip of material which vibrates to produce a sound on a musical instrument. The reeds of most woodwind instruments are made from Arundo donax ("Giant cane") or synthetic material; tuned reeds (as in harmonicas and accordions) are made of metal or synthetics.
Single reeds are used on the mouthpieces of clarinets and saxophones. The back of the reed is flat and is placed against the mouthpiece, the rounded top side tapers to a thin tip. These reeds are roughly rectangular in shape except for the thin vibrating tip, which is curved to match the curve of the mouthpiece tip. All single reeds are shaped similarly but vary in size to fit each instrument's mouthpiece. Reeds designed for the same instrument may look identical to each other, but may vary in thickness ("hardness" or "strength"). Hardness is generally measured on a scale of 1 through 5 from softest to hardest. This is not a standardized scale and reed strengths vary by manufacturer. The thickness of the tip and heel and the profile in between affect the sound and playability. Cane of different grades (density, stiffness), even if cut with the same profile, will also respond differently.
How reeds are made
The cane used to make reeds for saxophone, clarinet, and other single reed instruments is grown in the southern coastal regions of France. Once the cane is cut, it must lay out and dry in direct sunlight for about a month. The cane is rotated regularly to ensure proper and complete drying. Once dry, they are taken to be stored in a warehouse. As the cane is needed, it is pulled from the warehouse and taken to the factory. Once at the factory, the cane is taken to the cutting department where it is cut into tubes. The tubes are graded by diameter and wall density. The tubes are then cut into "splits" which are transformed into reed blanks. The blanks are tapered and cut using laser cutters into reeds. After the reeds are completed, they are taken to a machine that tests them for stiffness.
Double reeds are used on the oboe, oboe d'amore, English horn, bass oboe, Heckelphone, bassoon, contrabassoon, sarrusophone, shawm, bagpipes, nadaswaram and shehnai. 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 Rauschpfeife, 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 from hard to soft.
There are two types of free reeds: framed and unframed. Framed free reeds are used on ancient Asian instruments such as the Chinese shēng, Japanese shō, and Laotian khene, and modern European instruments such as the harmonium or reed organ (consisting of reed pipes), harmonica, concertina, bandoneón, accordion, and Russian bayan. 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.
The ancient bullroarer is an unframed free reed; it consists simply of a stone or board of wood tied to a rope which is swung around through the air to make a whistling sound. Another primitive unframed free-reed instrument is the leaf (the bilu), used in some traditional Chinese music ensembles. A leaf or long blade of grass is stretched between the sides of the thumbs and tensioned slightly by bending the thumbs to change the pitch. The tone can be modified by cupping the hands to provide a resonant chamber.
Most reeds for woodwind instruments are made from cane, but synthetic reeds are used by a small number of clarinetists, saxophonists, and double reed players, as well as by bagpipers. Synthetic reeds are generally more durable than their natural counterparts and do not need to be moistened prior to playing. Many players consider them to have inferior tone quality.
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.
Commercial vs. handmade
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.
Care and maintenance
Reeds made from cane (used on woodwind instruments such as saxophones, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc.) are affected highly by climate changes. Sometimes musicians use the joke "my reed doesn't work because it's raining." While this is a joke, it's only a slight separation from the reality of the situation. As the temperature and amount of humidity changes, the reed also changes. It is a common occurrence for a musician's reed to behave vastly differently from the cold rehearsal room where he/she warms up, to the stage which is often hot due to onstage lights being used. While these changes in climate and the reeds are unavoidable, there are certain things that can be done to alter the reed.
First, it is important to explain that reeds are sold in different strengths (most commonly 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 5). This is a number determined by a machine in the reed-making process that presses against the vamp (the part of the reed that includes the tip -where you place your tongue- and the heart -just behind the tip) of the reed and determines how stiff the reed is. They are given a number, and separated into boxes by that number. Reeds could be categorized by strength as far as 1/10 of a strength (3, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, etc.), but too many strengths would not sell. What this means is that, for example, a box of 3 strength reeds would include all reeds from 2.75 to 3.25 strengths. In a box of 10 reeds, not every reed will be usable. This needs to be understood from the beginning.
Because reeds change with climate, reeds that are too soft can be kept in the hopes that they will eventually change with the climate and become thicker, but there is nothing else that can be done to them. If a reed is too stiff however, there are solutions. The most simple solution is to turn a piece of paper over (so that there is no ink) and gently rotate the reed around the paper while gently placing your fingers at the tip and the butt of the reed to ensure even distribution on the paper. This method works if the reed is just barely too stiff or the reed is warped (the tip is not flat). If the reed is more than just a little too stiff, you can use sand paper (preferably 300-500 grain) and repeat the same process as just described. Be careful not to damage the tip of the reed.
Sometimes the reason a reed doesn't play well, is because it was not cut properly (machine error). This cannot always be fixed, but it can be helped with a reed pen. Reed pens are expensive, but can be used to realign or re-cut the filing on the reed.
In order to get the longest life out of a reed, the reed should be soaked in water for 2 minutes or until fully moist, but not soaked. They should be played for about 5 minutes the first day, 15 minutes the second, and 45 minutes on a third day. After this, they should continue to be soaked in water, but can be played as long as needed.
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 and 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, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor and baritone saxophones. Through intricate doubling, the arranger can simulate the sound of a much larger woodwind section. (The West Side Story woodwind section would require twelve "classical" players instead of five "reed" players.)
- Reed aerophones
- Free-reed instrument
- Mouthpiece (woodwind)
- Uilleann pipes reed-making workshops in Ireland.
- Henry Doktorski, "The Classical Squeezebox: A Short History of the Accordion and Other Free-Reed Instruments in Classical Music," The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. (1997).
- The Roots of Reeds - an exhibition curated by the Museum of Making Music, Carlsbad, CA - detailing the history and migration of reed instruments.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Reed instruments". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.