Sweet Ancient Melodies of the Ney: One of the Oldest Musical Instruments Still in Use

Sweet Ancient Melodies of the Ney: One of the Oldest Musical Instruments Still in Use

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For proof that the ney (also spelled nay) is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use, you need look no further than the great Sumerian city of Ur. Archeologists have found the delicate flute-like instruments in excavations of the ancient city. But if you are still not convinced of the ney’s authenticity, you need only to behold the Great Pyramids of Giza, inside of which there are paintings depicting Egyptians playing the ney, perhaps to the tune of a funeral dirge. By all accounts, the ney has been in use for at least 4,500 years, perhaps even longer. The instrument is still played today by musicians from Morocco to Pakistan and from Bulgaria to Ethiopia.

Woman playing the Ney in a painting from the Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan, Iran, 1669

Woman playing the Ney in a painting from the Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan, Iran, 1669. ( Public Domain )

Shepherds, Folk Musicians, and Minstrels

The ney holds a special place in the hearts of Iranians and one can find many ancient documents discussing the instrument. Its simple design and sweet sound made it a favorite of shepherds, wandering folk musicians, and court minstrels.

With the onset of Islam, the ney was used to perform religious hymns, especially for the Sufis. Many people today associate the ney with Sufism. This connection was expressed by the Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi in part of the opening of his poem ‘Masnavi’:

Double-page illuminated frontispiece, 1st book (daftar) of the Collection of poems (Masnavi-i ma'navi), 1461 manuscript.

Double-page illuminated frontispiece, 1st book (daftar) of the Collection of poems (Masnavi-i ma'navi), 1461 manuscript. ( Public Domain )

Listen to this Ney when it narrates

it complains from the separation:

"Ever since I was cut from the rushy bed,
men and women have weeped from my wail
Whoever is kept away from his source
he again looks after the time of his being united
I wailed in each gathering.
I joined the happy ones and sad ones
Each one befriended me through his own thought,
but no one could find my inside secrets.
My secret is not far from my lament
but, no eye and no ear can see and hear it."

The lament of Ney is a fire.
who has not this fire be perished. (Rumi, 1999)

Making and Playing the Ney

In ancient times, the ney was made out of a hollow reed or piece of cane. The name of the instrument derives from an old Persian word for reed. Centuries later, neys were constructed out of wood, bone, or horn. Today, neys are made out of metal or plastic. Usually, neys have five or six finger holes. Sometimes, a ney will include a seventh hole on the back of the instrument to be opened and closed by the thumb. A skilled player can reach as many as three octaves. One can play a ney by “putting the mouth to one end of the flute and blowing in a somewhat oblique direction to the tube. The air bounces off one inner side of the flute and produces the sound, somewhat like blowing over a bottle” (MidEast Web, 2017)

A giant reed.

A giant reed. ( Public Domain )

Neys come in different lengths, each one tuned to a specific pitch. A devoted or professional ney player has a set of neys to use depending on the key of the song. A set usually includes seven flutes but could hold as many as 13. Each length of ney has a name based on the instrument’s second note, the note that sounds when the first hole is left uncovered.  “In the typical Ney, the note is ‘D’. It is usually called by the Turkish name, which is ‘Dokah’. For the Dokah Ney, when all the holes are covered, the basic note is 'C'” (Hazim, 2017).

Turkish ney (with its başpare), kız ney version.

Turkish ney (with its başpare), kız ney version. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Arabian ney musicians traditionally play shorter neys and their music has a rhythmic quality. This reflects the instruments venerated pastoral origins. In Turkey, another country where the ney is still popular today, the ney is longer and its music is played in a smooth, flowing fashion.

Centuries ago, the famed Turkish Sufi sect, the Mevlevi Order (Whirling Dervishes) adopted the ney as the principle instrument in their Sema ceremony. The Sema ceremony is a spiritual service in which a devotee evokes a near trance-like state by performing a spinning dance.

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