The ney is one of the oldest instruments in the world. As it names indicates, the ney is made out of reed. This instrument is played in different cultures throughout the world and is seen in different shapes and names. In Iran itself there are various kinds of the ney in different regions which have different names like the ney, ney labak, shemshal, toy kik, ney labi, laleh, and others. The word “nay” in Iran has been always the reminder of all kinds of wind instruments. For example, in the old writings, we always encounter terms like sornay, karnay, marnay, donay, siyah nay, narme nay,shah nay, and….which are all considered as the members of the ney family.
There are abundant documents about the instruments related to the ney family in Iran. Farabi in his book “Musiqi al-Kabir” discusses the different neys prevalent in his time. Some of the neys Farabi referred to had mouthpiece and some like the present ney did not.
In comparison with other Iranian instruments, the ney has an especial status in Iranian culture. Even at the time when music was confounded with different sorts of limitations, the ney was played by shepherds, folk musicians, and sometimes by the performers of religious music. The famous poem by Rumi which opens his Masnavi has been always well-known among the masses:
Listen to this ney how it complains
It is telling the tale of separations
The sound of the ney is the closest sound to that of human being. And because of this, the sound of the ney is the reminder of human’s voice. In the past, the ney could be found almost in all Iranian houses. In other words, the ney has a status like that of the poetry book of Hafez which was kept by every Iranian in his house. This kin interest toward the ney can be related to the timber of the ney’s sound which has been always a sort of relief for emotional pains and separation.
Figure 1: One of the prevalent neys at the time of Farabi
The primary material of this instrument is being provided from the reed-beds of dried and half dried regions. Although the reed-beds of the humid regions are also good, most ney players prefer the one made from the reed-beds of desert regions.
After a reed (the plant out of which the ney is made) is cut, it will be transferred to a factory to be dried out. A wet reed will never be used.
The plant of reed has a tiny shell that must be removed in order to produce the ney out of the reed.
The ney should be straight and without any curves. Therefore, the first step is to inspect the reed so to make sure that it is straight. This inspection is usually done without any tools and just by looking at the plant of reed. The ney maker can recognize the good reed just by taking a look at the plant.
Then the length of the ney will be determined by cutting it as it desired. This length should be precise because the sound of the instrument is highly dependent on the length of the ney. In this regard, the different diameters are from 1.5 cm to 3 cm, and the lengths are from 30 cm to 85 cm. However, there may exist some neys with longer or shorter lengths.
When the ney is cut as much as desired, the places where the holes should be located on it are marked by a shablon. For each tuning there is an especial shablon, and it is possible that the shablons of different ney makers are not exactly the same. The ney makers usually follow the models of the distinguished masters. Each model is valid only for a certain length of the ney. If the length of the ney becomes shorter or longer, the ratio of the holes must be changed. In other words, it is not possible to determine the locations of the holes on the different neys by one shablon.
In the next step, six holes which are marked before are made on the ney. Five of these holes are on one side and the one is on the opposite side. In the traditional method, making the holes is done by using a hot metal stick as it is still common today.
Today, in order to produce more neys in shorter time, the ney makers prefer to use new machines. Both methods do not have any effect on the sound quality of the ney. The only different may be in the apparent beauty of the instrument.
The ney naturally has some abutments on it. But, for the matter of beauty and the strength, some ropes which are made from a cow’s or sheep’s tendon will be wrapped around the instrument. In the recent years, some ney makers replace the tendon with a layer of sheep skin. This skin will be wrapped around the ney. Then the rope will be colored in a light color. This process is done after the process of making holes.
Since one end of the ney is always located between the teeth of the player, it will be rusted by the humidity of the mouth. In order to prevent this matter, a small brass tube known as “sari” will be added to that end of the ney. The edge of this brass tube is so sharp that it can be located between the teeth. This edge or the top part of this brass tube was made out of the reed plant in the past. Today, plastic is also used for making of this part of the sari.
The sari not only makes the ney more beautiful; rather the brass sari will increase the strength of the ney. Because of this fact, these small brass tubes will also be used at the end part of the ney.
Most of the ney makers inscribe their own signature on the lowest part of the instrument. This is done usually by using a burning stamp. The stamp which has the name of the maker on it is heated so well by fire that when it is placed on the ney, it will leave its image on the instrument. These inscribed stamps are in fact the presenter of the name and fame of the maker. Moreover, some ney makers inscribe the image of some famous artists or some well-known poems by a burring stick.
The Persian ney has seven finger holes and abutments (band in Persian). Therefore, it is called haft-band ney (haft means seven in Persian). While playing the ney, the ney player blows his breath into the ney from the top end, and most of this breath exits from the other open end. Therefore, the ney player by putting and taking off his fingers on the hole fingers make the length of the vibrant air and the waves shorter and longer. As a result, the sound of the ney becomes baser or more soprano. Unlike the string instruments such as the tar, violin, and santur, the ney is not tunable. But, the skilled ney player can change the range of his instrument about half a tone flatter or sharper. If the ney is intended to participate in an ensemble or a bigger orchestra, then the closest ney in terms of tuning is selected, and the little changes are done by the breath of the ney player. A skilled ney player usually has almost thirteen different neys so that he can be able to choose the proper ney in terms of tuning and being able to accompany the other instruments.
The pitch range of the ney is almost two and a half octaves. In the shorter neys, this range is shorter. The figure 18 and 19 show the pitch ranges of the ney.
Figure 1: A reed-bed in a desert
Figure 2: A reed- bed in a humid region
Figure 3: The cut reeds are dried out in a factory
Figure 4: The tiny shell is being taken off
Figure 5: The reed is inspected by eyes to make sure that it is clear of curves
Figure 6: The raw reed will be cut after its shell is removed
Figure 7: The locations of the ney’s holes are marked
Figure 8: An example of a common model
Figure 9: Making the holes in the traditional method which is done by using a hot metal stick
Figure 10: Making holes on the ney by the new method
Figure 11: The sheep skin will become a rope
Figure 12: The abutment of the ney will be wrapped by a rope of skin
Figure 13: Adding the brass sari
Figure 14: The small brass tubes for the beauty purpose
Figure 15: The paintings and stamps on a ney
Figure 16: A collection of thirteen neys
Figure 17: The pitch range of the C and D tuned neys
Figure 18: The pitch range of the G, A, F, and E tuned neys
Throughout Iran the ney is played in two different styles. In the style known as dandani ( teeth style), the instrument is located between the two upper teeth of the player. The Turkmen and northern Khorasan ney players usually play in this style. Most of the urban ney players of Iran also play in this teeth style. The other style is called “labi” (lip style). In this style, the ney is held not straight and put in the corner of the lip. The ney player blows into the ney by his lips. Most folk musicians of Iran play in this style. In general, both styles of playing the ney are common throughout the country. But, in dastgah music style, the first style of playing (putting the ney between the teeth) is used. Since the breath of the player enters directly into the ney; therefore, a loud and bass sound can be heard from the instrument.
Some of the most recognized ney players in the last one hundred years are Solayman Esfahani and Ebrahim Aqa Bashi. But, there is no recording of these two. After these two figures, Nayeb Asadollah Esfahani is very famous. Part of his fame came from the fact that he is the first ney player that his music was recorded by the old recording devices. Another skilled ney player contemporary with Nayeb Asadollah Esfahani was Safdar Khan. Safdar Khan was initially a kamanche player. However, after the invention of the new style of ney playing by the Nayeb Asadollah, Safdar Khan paid more attention to the ney.The playing style of Nayeb Asadollah was passed down to the later generations through his students including Mehdi Nava’i and Hussein Yavari. Popularization of the ney in the contemporary era is owed to Hassan Kasa’i. Undoubtedly, all ney players of today are directly or indirectly the students of Hassan Kasa’i. By playing in the Iranian Radio for years, Kasa’i made the sound of the ney familiar for all people. His abilities and feeling had a very important impact on the ney to become such a touching instrument.The ney has been always accompanying the human voice since the old times. And, it might be right to say that most of Persian vocal music has been accompanied by this instrument.
In the contemporary era, the different kinds of accompaniments of the ney with other instruments are heard. Usually, the ney will produce a very good sound when it is accompanied by other instruments. In the contemporary Era, the ney has attracted a lot of people and many young people have chosen this instrument as their main instrument in their academic study of music. Some of these young professional ney players are: Pasha Hanjani, Siyamak Jahangiri, Morteza Sana’i, Ali Reza Basdast, Davood Varzideh, Borzu Tabibipur, Yasin Ajdari, Hushmand Ebadi, Nafise Tabataba’i, Ali Farbodniya, Mohammad Mehraban, Hussein Noruzi, Yaser Fatemi, Vafa Mesbahi, Ali Najafi, Ehsan Abedi, Saeed Dolat Zera’i, Shahu Andalibi, Hassan Mekaniki, and…...
Figure 1: Nayeb Asadollah Esfahani
Figure 3: Nay of Safdar Khan
Figure 5: Mehdi Nava’i
Figure 7: Hussein Yavari
Figure 9: Hassan Kasa’i
Figure 12: Mohammad Musavi
Figure 14: Mohammad Ali Kiani Nejad
Figure 16: Hussein Omumi
Figure 18: Hassan Nahid
Figure 20: Behzad Foruhari
Although all Iranian wind instruments have been always considered as the members of the ney family, because of the expansion of the family of the wind instrument and their playing styles, today the term “ney” does not encamps all wind instruments. In fact, only those instruments which the breath is blown into them without any mediation are called ney. On the other hand, the playing style of the ney is totally different from any other parts in the world. Therefore, today, we cannot count all of the wind instruments the members of the ney family. In this regard, the invention of the tunable ney which is done after Western models is an exception. The idea was taking from some Western instruments like the clarinet, flute, and oboe. In terms of blowing the breath into the instrument, there is not any difference between the tunable ney and that of the traditional one. The only difference is that the tunable ney has some keys on it which provide the instrumentalist with more options of tuning. However, the tunable ney has not been warmly accepted by the masters of the ney.
By shaping the different kinds of orchestras in the imitation of Western music in the last one hundred years, different pieces were composed for the ney and various kinds of orchestras. One of the most successful pieces composed in this regard is “Ney Nava” composed by Hussein Alizadeh for the ney and the string orchestra.
One of the new experiences in the contemporary style of playing is to pay attention to folk music. In this style, the ney player tries to produce a sound of folk or regional ney by the urban ney. Of course, the result is not the pure folk music; but, it sounds like folk music to some extent. In fact, this style is a new way for representing folk music by urban instruments.
Figure 1: Abdol Naqi Afsharniya
Figure 3: Jamshid Andalibi
Figure 5: Mohammad Ali Kiyani Nejad