Arabic Nay

Maren on Nay performing with Chas at Drum Camp Norfolk UK


The Nay is an oblique rim end blown reed-flute that is open at both ends, has six finger holes along the front and one thumbhole on the underside. The nay is made in its traditional form from the Arundo Donax plant, the same as is used to make oboe, saxophone and clarinet reeds. The Nay has reached a high level of performance technique and sound, though in its structure it is a relatively simple instrument. Reed flutes like the Nay have been played for hundreds and possibly thousands of years all across the Middle East. According to the Oxford University Press 2007, the term Ney or Nay derives from the old Persian for ‘reed’ or ‘bamboo’ and by extension ‘reed flute. ‘A particularly striking example occurs on a ceremonial slate palette (c2900 BCE, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), on which a fox plays the instrument for a dancing giraffe and ibex. A Sumerian silver flute dating from 2450 BC has been found in the royal cemetery of Ur in Southern Mesopotamia.’ (Center For Arabic Culture, 2008)

The Nay has been used in classical, folk and religious music. ‘On the level of sound, an analogy is drawn between the often plaintive sound of the nay, thought to express the reed’s longing to be reunited with the reed bed from which it came, and man’s yearning for union with God.’ (Scott 2007, p.98)
The nay is born of a microtonal musical culture, where until recently no music was written down. I shall explain the technique for playing the Nay from a western trained musician’s perspective.

The Nay within the Middle Eastern music system :

The Middle Eastern musical system can be placed somewhere between Indian and Western Music. In one way Middle Eastern music is based on a Diatonic system like Western music, but the Maqam ( 1) system of the Middle East is very different to the Western Scales and is more closely related to Indian Ragas. Middle Eastern musicians have developed a high skill of melodic improvisation called taqasim (2) , which is rich in emotional expression and ornamentation. Traditionally there is no use of Harmony within Middle Eastern music: the musical emphasis is on the relationship between melody and rhythm. There are five main music systems that have developed in the Middle East: Arab, Persian, Turkish and Maghribi, or North African. The word Ney is used in Turkey, in Iran and in the Arab countries. The Nay can be found in all of these systems.

The Arab nay is still built in its most original design from a plain reed. Around 1200AD the Turks began using a turned wood, bone, or horn mouth piece, which softens and reduces the size of the top hole of the reed; this creates a clearer, more accurate sound, making it easier to play the correct pitch of each Microtone.

The Persian style of nay playing is known as the ‘tooth and lip’ technique. Players of the nay in Iran place a metal rim, which has been added to the top end of the nay, between their two top teeth, which produces a warmer and more powerful tone, a technique developed in the 19th century.

Production of Microtones of the Nay:

It might take quite a long time for the western ear to hear the fine-tuning of each microtone. It is like learning a new sound in a foreign language. The word quartertone can be misleading, because a quartertone is higher then the quarter of the whole tone. For example, E half flat is not pitched right in the middle between E and Eb, but pitched a bit higher than the litteral quarter tone would be.

The construction of the Arab Nay

The nay is made in its traditional form from the Arundo Donax plant, the same as is used to make oboe, saxophone and clarinet reeds. Some modern makers have experimented with some success with replacing the reed by a metal pipe or a PVC pipe; however good-sounding, though, the finest sound comes from a well made natural cane nay. The reed pipe from which the instrument is made should not be less than three years old; the tube must be straight, hard, smooth and compact, and the distance between the nodes needs to be of equal length. The nay flute contains nine segments. The nine segments are thought to have specific, acoustic and symbolic functions. The nine segments are sometimes related to the nine parts of the body. Professional Nays are ideally tailor made to suit the particular embouchure and natural pitch of each musician. The natural pitch that somebody plays in varies, depending on their embouchure and breathing style.

There are Nay players who predominately use a very strong, hard and focused style of Nay playing. Here the Nay needs to be tuned lower, while other players use a softer warmer style of playing, in which case the Nay needs to be tuned higher. Of course, every Nay player should aim to Master a wide range of sounds, style and expression and be able to play very softly and quietly as well as loudly and clearly, with a more compressed harder sound.

Tuning of the Nay

Musicians often have nays of several different sizes lying in different maqam rows on hand during a performance so that they can easily execute pieces. A nay virtuoso is perfectly capable of producing all the tones of the maqam row on a single instrument. To do this requires great control. Micro tones and Semi tones can be produced though moving the positioning of the head or moving the finger pads to cover the holes only half, quarter, or anything between a half and a quarter. In this way it is possible to modulate within a piece to the neighboring modes as well as to the distant ones, without having to change instruments. There are usually seven Nays within one set, each tuned to a different tonic. Every Nay is tuned with the same intervals. The distance between each hole on the Nay increases or decreases with the length and width of the nay, just like different seizes of flutes, recorders and whistles.

Music Notation for the Nay

There is no tradition of exact music notation within Arabic music. In Arabic music each tone has got a particular name. Some of these are also the name of a maqam that starts in this position. The names of the notes are different if the note is played in the octave below or above. For example: Middle G, which is called Nawa in Arabic, is called Yikah an octave below and Sahm an octave above middle G. The traditional form of notation is more a form of reference or reminder for musicians who have learned tunes and melodies by ear.

Western musical notation was introduced as part of the academic music education in Egypt, but it is ill suited to both microtones and improvisation styles. I personally believe that for western musicians the most effective method of learning how to play Arabic music is to listen to an original recording in the traditional Arabic style.

Sheet music can be used as a guideline but should never be relied on as the main source of information about a particular piece of music. Musicians use this name as reference to the tonic of a maqam, and notated basic melodies using the names of the notes without metric value. There are several limitations to the use of western notation in the Middle Eastern music system, namely the use of microtones and freedom of self-expression through individual characteristic use of ornamentation and variation of a melody. The pitch of the notated note can have microtonal variations that are not written into the piece. For example, the E half flat played in maqam rast on C is higher then the E half flat played in maqam Bayat. This can make it very difficult for musicians without comprehensive knowledge of the maqam system to read Arabic music. A musician needs to be able to recognise which maqam a piece of music is written in and he needs to have memorised the pitch and characteristic sound of each maqam in order to play the notated music appropriately.

1) Footnote: Maqam
A maqam is more then just a scale: it is a combination of motives and intervals that carry a distinct emotional feeling. There are important stations within the maqam that the melody follows. Each maqam can be played fast or slow, but some of the maqamat are naturally fast or slow. Maqamat have been passed on over many generations. A musician playing Arabic or Turkish music needs to understand the tradition and foundation of the maqam system, to be able to build the taqasim or composition on a solid foundation. Each maqam has got a different characteristic sound and feel to it. A traditional Middle Eastern musician would know how to structure a taqsim, so that the distinct characteristic and emotional flavor of each maqam can be experienced by the audience in its unique way. The notes on the instruments played in Asia and the Middle East are not fixed, which gives the musician the option to bend the notes and slide between the notes and play a variety of microtones.

2) Footnote: Taqasim
A taqsim (improvisation) on one or several Instruments is part of most folk and classical music. The structure of the taqsim is very important in Middle Eastern music. Even though there is a lot of freedom within the taqsim, there are still underlying rules that the musicians can lean on. The more traditional Arab and Turkish musicians will stick very closely to these rules to give the improvisation its most intense and original expression. One of the most significant elements in traditional Arabic Nay improvisation music is the principle of varied repetition of short motives on different degrees or resting notes of the maqam.

Tuning of the Arabic Nay

Similar to open hole flutes without keys like wooden transverse flutes and the western recorders, the length of the nay, varies depending on the pitch of its tonic . The simple structure of the nay and luck of keys makes it very difficult to play the chromatic scale. ‘Although an excellent nay player can play in any key on a single instrument, most musicians have a set of at least seven nay’s in different keys for the ease of playing.’(Raine-Reusch, 1999 ) Professional Nays are ideally tailor made to suit the particular embouchure and natural pitch of each musician. The natural pitch that somebody plays varies, depending on their embouchure and breathing style.

Names of the Arabic Nays:
Nay Tonic Size
Ajam Bb 37,5 cm
Hussaini A 40,5 cm
Nawa G 44,5 cm
Jihar Kah F 51,0 cm
Busalik E 54,0 cm
Dukah D 60,0 cm
Rast C 68,0 cm

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