Instruments | Double-Reed Instruments Around the World | Woodwind

At its simplest, to make a double reed the end of a piece of reed or similar plant tube is flattened so its sides nearly touch. Putting this flattened end into the mouth and blowing causes the two sides to briefly close against each other then spring back, hundreds of times a second. This causes a regular stream of air puffs – a squeak.

When this squeaking reed is inserted in the top of a tube, the reed is forced to vibrate at a pitch determined by the length of the tube – the longer the air column, the lower the note – and this is effectively varied by making a series of finger holes.

Squashed-tube reeds are used in some instruments, but more often the reed is made by binding the narrow ends of two thin wedge-shaped pieces of reed, cane or similar material to a small metal tube (known in English as the staple), which is then inserted into the top of the playing tube.

The Global Shawm

Members of the shawm family are by far the most numerous and widely played of the double-reed instruments across the globe. Details vary worldwide, but the prime features of a shawm are a double reed fitted into conical bored tube that usually ends in a flared bell. A strident sound is also characteristic. The western classical oboe and its orchestral relatives have key systems and a tamed tone, but are nevertheless types of shawm.

Turkey and the surrounding area are shawm heartland, and many other shawms of the world have their origins in the Ottoman Empire. The English name ‘shawm’ – that of a Renaissance instrument developed from the oriental form – could derive from the Latin calamus, meaning a reed or stalk, or (perhaps more likely since shawms seem to have arrived in Western Europe during the Crusades) from an old Arabic name for a reed instrument, salamiya or salameya, to which the Latin word also appears to be related. Some other instrument appellations are similar, such as the Italian ciaramella, which is characteristically played in duet with a zampogna (bagpipe) and chirimia, a historical instrument in Spain, and a folk shawm still played in Guatemala.

Eastern Double-Reed Instruments

The Ukrainian shawm, introduced from Turkey or the Caucasus and once played by Cossack armies, is called a surma. The word suggests a link between the salamiya name-line and another name family tree – the shawm of Turkey and Armenia is called zurna, which is believed to be a modification of the Persian name for the instrument, shahnai (from the Persian words shah and nai, meaning ‘king’ and ‘reed’ respectively).

Many other shawms – most of them very similar in design – share that derivation, with spelling or transliteration differences even within the same region: the Indian shehnai, Afghan, Iranian, central Asian and north African shawms variously spelt sornai, surnai, sorna and surnay,...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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