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Although the free reed has a history in Asia going back many centuries, it is something of a newcomer to the West. As I said elsewhere, the usual story is that a Chinese sheng was brought to Europe some time during the 18th century inspiring Western experimentation with such reed types, however things are not quite so simple.

The Earliest Free Feeds in the West

In his book The World's Earliest Music, Hermann Smith suggests that the free reed was known to the ancient Greeks. This is quite possible, as many Asian instruments were brought to the West via the Silk Road, although this was established during the 2nd century BCE and by this point the Greek Empire had fallen into decline. With no real evidence to back them up, Smith's ideas have to be considered mere speculation

Also without any real evidence to support them are the claims that a Chinese sheng was brought to Europe by Marco Polo towards the end of the 13th century, or that one was brought to Western Russia by the Tartars. By no means impossible, but by no means fact.

There is a passage in Syntagma Musicum, Volume II written by the musicologist Michael Praetorius in 1619 that many interpret as being the earliest Western reference to the free reed. It describes how certain organs of that time had reeds which were no longer cut out of the same material as the pipe itself, but consisted of a separate part mounted over a slot through which it vibrated. This is certainly a description of a heteroglottal reed as supposed to an idioglottal reed, but it is less certain that it really describes a free reed. This description could perhaps just as easily apply to the beating reeds that were used in the regal, an early reed organ of that approximate time frame. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has a tantalising reference to a keyboard instrument called the organino, said to have utilised free reeds and which was invented by the Italian Filippo Testa around 1700. No further details seem forthcoming (but it may be worth mentioning that a free reed organ of the same name was invented by Alexandre Debain in the early 1800s).

The first unambiguous reference to a free reed instrument in a Western text is in Marin Mersenne's Harmonie Universelle of 1636. An instrument clearly resembling the Thai/Laotian khaen is depicted, although the description that goes along with it gives no indication that Mersenne knew that the instrument utilised an acoustic principle hitherto unknown in the West. The same is also true of the picture of the Asian mouth organ shown in Franciscus Blanchini's De Tribus Generibus Instrumentorum Musicae Veterum Organicae Dissertatio, said to have been brought to Rome in 1685 by Pater Phillippus Fouquet. Likewise the Asian mouth organ shown in Filippo Bonanni's Gabinetto Armonico (1722) is erroneously depicted as having flue pipes in the manner of a pipe organ, showing that the illustrator was unaware of the actual internal workings of the instrument.

The Royal Danish Kunstkammer had an example of a khaen in its collection in the 17th century. Described as "an Indian organ made of cane" was was first mentioned in an inventory dated 1674, although it is possible that it had already been in the museum for some time. It is possible that the Danish physicist Kratzenstein (see below) was aware of the instrument, although his writings do not seem to mention it.

By the mid 1700s, the Bavarian violinist and instrument maker Johann Wilde was regularly performing on the sheng for the Court Society of St. Petersburg, Russia, although it does not seem to have been recorded how he obtained the instrument. A few years later, a French Jesuit missionary called Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot returned from China with a sheng and devoted some space in his 1779 book Mémoire Sur La Musique des Chinois to a detailed description of the instrument's construction. The following year, La Borde published his Essai de la Musique Ancienne et Modern, which included some description of the sheng taken from Amiot's writing, again the author displaying a lack of understanding of the acoustic principles involved. It would seem that the first thorough study of the acoustics of the free reed as used in the sheng was published in 1821 by the famous acoustician Ernst Chladni, writing in the respected journal Allegemeinen Musikalischen Zeitung. By this time free reeds were already in use in European organs.

Development of Modern Western Free Reed Instruments

The person generally credited with the first free reed to be made in the Western world is Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), Professor of Physiology at Copenhagen, who used a free reed as the tone generator for his speaking machine. The Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg had offered its annual prize in 1780 for a physiological explanation of differences between the basic vowel sounds and for a device capable of reproducing them artificially. Kratzenstein's machine used a free reed to serve the function of the vocal chords, with variously shaped resonators to alter the timbre to resemble the different vowels. Apparently it did a convincing enough job and the prize was awarded to him. It has generally been assumed that his use of the free reed was inspired by having studied a sheng whilst in St. Petersburg, but researchers Christian Ahrens and Jonas Braasch have cast doubt up on this. Certainly Kratzenstein's own writings make no mention of a sheng, nor does the illustration of his reed bear much resemblance to a typical sheng reed. It would seem that this particular reed was Kratzenstein's own invention.

As stated elsewhere, the modern Western free reed is rather different to those used in traditional Asian instruments. How this difference came about is unclear, despite being a point of great importance. The positioning of the reed above the slot, rather than reed and reedplate being cut from one piece of metal and lying in the same plane, is the reason that the Western-style free reed can sound a given pitch without the need for an additional resonator. This is what makes it possible to have a dozen, or even a couple of hundred reeds in a small portable musical instrument - portability being a key factor in the worldwide popularity of the harmonica and accordion. Important as this point is, it is something overlooked by almost all histories of free reed instruments, Russian accordion historian Alfred Mirek being the only exception I have so far found. In his Reference Book on Harmonikas, Mirek has one small paragraph which credits Russian organ builder and associate of Kratzenstein, Franz Kirschnik (Kirsnik) as being the person responsible for this innovation. It remains unclear whether he had merely adapted the earlier type of free reed, or whether he had come up with the idea completely independently. Whichever it was, the new reed was quickly adopted by organ builders in the late 1700s and inspired a whole range of novel instruments in the 1800s.

Aeolina or aeolian

The aeolina (also called the aeolian) is the simplest form of the mouth blown free reed instrument, consisting simply of a reedplate to which one applies one's lips directly, without any sort of mouthpiece. Obviously, a great deal of osculatory dexterity is required to play even the simplest of tunes on an instrument like this, so it was not too surprising that means were added to make it easier for a player to direct their breath to particular reeds.

Pitch Pipes

A very common use of mouth blown free reeds, still popular today, is as pitch pipes to sound a given notes as a pitch reference for a choir, or to which to tune another instrument. An early example of this was the Typotone, patented by a Parisian gentleman named Pinsonnat in 1829 and later improved by Louis Julien Jaulin under the name Harmonica-Jaulin. At first, these devices were much like the aeolina, but later the reeds were placed inside some sort of chamber to make them easier to blow. It was almost inevitable that someone would eventually string a bunch of free reed pitch pipes together making what was known as the Pandean Aeolian. The person usually credited with being the first to do this is Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann in 1821, first calling his instrument the aura (a name which had been used just a few years earlier by Johann Heinrich Schleiber to describe a multiple guimbarde instrument), later changing its name to mundaeoline. As with so many chapters of the history of free reed instruments, however, the real story might not be quite so simple and straightforward. Buschmann's contributions to the development of the Western free reed instruments might have been somewhat exaggerated, but however it happened, the modern harmonica soon followed.

Other Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a variety of instruments were developed that had a mouthpiece with a single blow hole and keys or buttons to select the free reeds to be sounded by the player's breath. These include the Neu Tschiang (1828), keyed aeolian (late 1820s), Psallmelodikon (1828), Symphonium (1829), Apollo Lyre (1832), Harmonicor (1861), Couesnophone or goofus (early 1920s)

Mouth-blown reed organs

Another family of mouth blown free reed instruments were those where the reeds were selected by means of a keyboard like that used on the organ. An early example was the Harmoniphon, patented in 1836 by Paris, Lecrosnier and Tremblai. It had a two octave range and was sounded by blowing into a flexible pipe whilst the instrument sat in the player's lap or on a table. A bellows-driven version was developed later. A similar instrument of the same name was developed in the 1850s in Germany for one Captain J. Dresky. In both cases, the instrument was intended to replace the oboe or cor anglais. In the 20th century, the mouth blown reed organ became very well-known under the name Melodica. A trademarked name beloning to the Hohner company, Melodica quickly became the generic term for this sort of instrument as many companies started making their own versions of them.

Blow Accordions

Once a common feature of such things as the Sears Roebuck catalog, the blow accordion (sometimes also called mouth accordion or flute harmonica) is essentially an accordion without bellows. The most common form has ten buttons or keys, plus a pair of bass and chord buttons, just like the common diatonic accordion or melodeon, although the blow accordion usually only has a single set of reeds with just one reed per note. They have been made in a variety of forms, from the box-like Hohnerette, to cylindrical models such as Hohner's Organette and the Fluta by Christian Weiss. The Hohner Sax was a blow accordion made in the shape of a saxophone, perhaps inspired by the goofus.

Accordina and Vibrandoneon

The Accordina was invented in the early 1940s by André Borel of France. It is essentially a melodica-like instrument with a keyboard patterned after the chromatic button accordion, although other keyboard options are now available. A similar instrument is the Vibrandoneon, which is also available with a variety of different keyboard styles.


Over the years, a wide variety of toy instruments have been made that involve free reeds. Typically, they are in the shape of a trumpet or saxophone, but do not work in quite the same way. Instead, pressing a key opens a free reed to the player's breath. One particularly intriguing design resembles a trombone, with the position of the slide determining which reed is activated. Since the 1950s, integral reeds and reedplates formed from plastic have become increasingly common in such toys.


The Harmonichord was an intriguing offshoot of the free reed family, developed by Joseph Lederfine of Brooklyn. The original prototypes had much in common with the Accordina and the various blow accordions, but these never made it to the market. The only one that was commercially made was a plastic instrument resembling an ocarina, often sold under the name "The Amazing Hot Potato". Uncovering fingerholes allowed selected reeds to sound, much in the manner of the suifukin, an instrument used for music education in early 20th century Japan.


The basic principle of the Claviola's tone generation was devised by Hohner's resident genius Ernst Zacharias (inventor of the Clavinet, Pianet, etc.) back in the 1960s, although the Claviola itself didn't see the light of day until the 1990s, then was discontinued almost immediately due to poor sales. It looks like a piano accordion whose bellows have been replaced with a giant set of panpipes, but the way the reeds work in this instrument is a unique combination of both Eastern and Western free reed principles. The reeds resemble those of a typical melodica, except that they are mounted "backwards". They only reason they sound at all is that they are coupled with pipes of an appropriate length and this acoustic coupling gives the Claviola a unique tone - more like that of a clarinet than a typical free reed instrument. The brochure that came with the Claviola claimed that it was the first in a whole new line of free reed instruments, but sadly that does not appear to be the case. With the exception of a few church organs that have stops utilising the Zacharias reed, it appears to have been something of an evolutionary dead end.

NOT Free Reed Instruments

It may at this point be worth mentioning a few wind instruments often erroneously described as having free reeds. For some reason, bagpipes are often described as free reed instruments. Whilst it would be by no means impossible to make a set of pipes that use free reeds, bagpipes invariably use beating reeds, either single or double. Even more frequently described as a free reed instrument is the Martinsschalmei (also known as Martinshorn, Martinstrompete, or simply schalmei - although the latter term is the German for shawm, a clarinet-like instrument). Even the usually trustworthy Groves Dictionary of Musical Instruments makes this mistake, although personal communication with the author of that article blames a translation error. These spectacular instruments are essentially a set of signal horns of different pitches played from a common mouthpiece. Each horn utilises a metal beating reed, much like those used in automobile horns.

A Brief History of Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments
What Is A Free Reed?
Origins Of The Free Reed
Eastern Free Reed Instruments
A Selective Discography Of Asian Free Reed Instruments
Western Free Reed Instruments


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