Exactly when and where the free reed was invented will never be known, although it is almost certain to have happened in South East Asia, perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. The free reed is most likely to have evolved from the mouth-resonated plucked idiophones (or lamellophones) generically termed guimbardes and more commonly known as Jews harps, or jaw harps. Like free reeds, guimbardes can be both heteroglottal and idioglottal in construction. The variety most commonly found in the West is the heteroglottal type, where the reed or tongue is attached to a separately made frame. These are also found in Asia, however idioglottal types are almost as common, where the entire instrument is made from a single piece of wood, bamboo, metal, or whatever. Although the mouth technique is similar for both types of instrument, the heteroglottal type is sounded by plucking the tip of the reed directly, whereas with the comparatively delicate idioglottal types the reed is sounded by plucking the frame with a finger tip, or by jerking a piece of string attached to the frame.
Idioglottal guimbardes are widespread throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands in a variety of shapes and sizes. At some point (very possibly in several different places at several different times), it was discovered that if you make the reed of the guimbarde small enough, it is possible to set it into motion merely by blowing it, thus the free reed proper was born. As an example, here is a hun toong from Thailand played first by plucking it, then by sounding it by breath:
The free reed is represented in its most basic form by the enggung (or ngo) of Bali.
This is a piece of bamboo or palm bark fashioned into the shape of a handle with free reed cut into one end. This end is placed over the player's mouth and with the appropriate mouth shape, various notes can be produced.
This instrument is used to imitate the call of frogs in certain pieces of ritual music and its link to the guimbarde is made obvious by the fact that they are traditionally made by the same craftsmen who make the Balinese guimbarde called the genggong.
Another fact suggestive of the link between the free reed and the idioglottal guimbarde is that the character 簧 (huang), meaning tongue, is used in China to describe both the reeds of such instruments as the sheng, as well as certain types of guimbarde. The construction method of the metallic idioglottal guimbardes is essentially the same as that of the metallic idioglottal free reed. A piece of brass or bronze (although certain Asian guimbardes are also made of steel) is hammered to the correct thickness, this hammering process also serving to work harden the metal, giving it a "springy" quality. The outline of the reed is scratched into the metal using a sharp tool, then this outline is worked over and over again until it is just visible on the other side of the metal, but not quite cut through all the way. This other side of the brass is then sanded lightly until the reed is freed, with a cut of extremely close tolerance around it.
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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