Single-reed Instrument
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Single-reed Instrument
The reeds of alto (left) and tenor saxophones. They are of comparable dimensions to alto and bass clarinet reeds, respectively.

A single-reed instrument is a woodwind instrument that uses only one reed to produce sound. The very earliest single-reed instruments were documented in ancient Egypt, as well as the Middle East, Greece, and the Roman Empire.[1] The earliest types of single-reed instruments used idioglottal reeds, where the vibrating reed is a tongue cut and shaped on the tube of cane. Much later, single-reed instruments started using heteroglottal reeds, where a reed is cut and separated from the tube of cane and attached to a mouthpiece of some sort. By contrast, in a double reed instrument (such as the oboe and bassoon), there is no mouthpiece; the two parts of the reed vibrate against one another. Reeds are traditionally made of cane and produce sound when air is blown across or through them.

Most single-reed instruments are descended from single-reed idioglot instruments called 'memet', found in Egypt as early as 2700 BCE.[2] Due to their fragility, no instruments from antiquity were preserved but iconographic evidence is prevalent. During the Old Kingdom in Egypt (2778-2723 BCE), memets were depicted on the reliefs of seven tombs at Saqqarra, six tombs at Giza, and the pyramids of Queen Khentkaus.[3] Most memets were double-clarinets, where two reed tubes were tied or glued together to form one instrument. Multiple pipes were used to reinforce sound or generate a strong beat-tone with slight variations in tuning among the pipes.[4] One of the tubes usually functioned as a drone, but the design of these simple instruments varied endlessly.[5] The entire reed entered the mouth, meaning that the player could not easily articulate so melodies were defined by quick movement of the fingers on the tone holes.[1] These types of double-clarinets are still prevalent today, but also developed into simplified single-clarinets and hornpipes. Modern-day idioglots found in Egypt include the arghul and the zummara.[1]

Examples include clarinets, saxophones, and some bagpipes. See links to other examples below.


Single reed instruments fall under three Hornbostel-Sachs classes:

  • 412.13 Free reeds.
  • 422.2 Single reed instruments: The pipe has a single 'reed' consisting of a percussion lamella. These are the percussion reeds including clarinets and saxophones.
  • 422.3 Reedpipes with free reeds: The reed vibrates through [at] a closely fitted frame, and there are fingerholes.

Comparing clarinets and saxophones

The following is a list of clarinets and saxophones, relative to their range and key of transposition from the opposite family:

Note that if one was to compare clarinets to their saxophone counterparts while considering their approximate lowest (concert) pitch+, the order would shift:

+The lowest possible pitch of each clarinet and saxophone is dependent on its manufacturer and model (the pitches used are typical of professional instruments).

List of single-reed instruments

The ligature, mouthpiece, and reed of a clarinet. These three components are present in many modern European Classical single-reed instruments and tend to be aesthetically and mechanically similar.




Middle Eastern
Southeast Asian


  1. ^ a b c Hoeprich, E (2008). The Clarinet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 
  2. ^ Midgley, R, ed. (1976). Musical Instruments of the World. United States: Diagram Visual Information Ltd. 
  3. ^ Rice, A.R. (1992). The Baroque Clarinet. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 
  4. ^ Rendall, G.F. (1971). The Clarinet: Some notes upon its history and construction. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 
  5. ^ Kroll, O (1968). The Clarinet. New York, NY: Taplinger Publishing Company. 

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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