Persian Ney

Ney the Persian Knotgrass Reed

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The "ney نِی" is the Persian knotgrass reed having five finger holes in front and one thumb-hole in the back. The ney is the chief wind instrument in Persian classical music. Different versions of the ney are also used in Persian folk music. This is a brief introduction to the ney.

A lexical discussion of the word "ney". The word "nay نای" is a Pahlavi name meaning trachea, but in music, it is a general term having different forms used in the names of wind instruments such as the "ney نی", "nay-e-ruyin نای‌ رویین", "neylabak نی‌لبک", "neyanban نی‌انبان", "gharahney قره‌نی", "nay-mashkak نای‌مشکک", "sorna سرنا", and "karna کرنا".

The word "nay نای" in the sense of a reed has been used in Persian poems extensively. For example, Ferdowsi says:

چه آوای نای و چه آوای چنگ     خروشیدن بوق و آوای زنگ

Ferdowsi has mentioned a kind of metal reed called "nay-e-ruyin نای‌ رویین" in his Shahnameh several times. As an example, I bring the following verse:

بزد نای‌ رویین و رویینه‌خم     برآمد ز در ناله‌ی گاودم

Note that "ney نی" and "na نا" are abbreviations of "nay نای". Today, the word "ney نی" is the most popular name for a reed in Persian, but it has been also quite popular in the past. The "Masnavi مثنوی" is an extensive Persian poem by Rumi starting with the following well-known verse:

بشنو از نی چون حکایت می‌کند     وز جدایی‌ها شکایت می‌کند

The above verse can be translated as:

Listen to the "ney" how it complains      and it tells the tale of separations

The word "ney" is seen as a component in the names of some musical instruments. The "neyanban", which is a Persian bagpipe and popular in today's folk music of Bushehr city in Iran, has been mentioned in a verse by Toqra:

دم آهنگرش چون شد نی‌انبان     بزرگ آید صدا بر گوش سندان

The Persian word "anban انبان" is synonym to the Persian name "mashk مشک" and the "mashk" is a traditional inflated skin bag for water or wine. The expression "nay-mashkak نای‌مشکک" is a combination of "nay" (reed), "mashk" (waterskin), and "k" (a diminutive suffix) and it was used for a bagpipe.

The "gharahney" is a kind of clarinet. The name "gharahney" is a combination of the Azerbaijani word "gharah قره" and "ney", meaning "black" and "reed", respectively. In some references, the Persian name "siyahnay سیاه‌نای" has been used also. Note that the word "siyah سیاه" is a Persian word meaning "black".

The "neylabak نی‌لبک" is a small-sized reed (a kind of a recorder) that is placed between the lips. Note that the Persian word "lab لب" means lip.

Setayeshgar reports that the "na نا", as an abbreviation of the "nay نای", has been mentioned in a verse in Masnavi by Rumi:

حلم در حلم است و رحمت‌ها به جوش     نشنوی از غیر چنگ و نا، خروش

Similar to the "ney", the word "nay نای" is seen as a component in the names of some musical instruments like "sorna" and "karna".

The "sorna سرنا" is an abbreviation of "surnay سورنای", and "surnay" is the combination of the words "sur سور" and "nay نای", meaning "festival" and "reed", respectively.

In his book "Safarnama سفرنامه", "Nasir Khusraw ناصر خسرو" has included the term "sorna سرنا" once. A couple of ancient and contemporary poets have mentioned "sorna" in their works. Rumi has mentioned "sorna" in his poems several times. For example, in one of his verses, he says:

بنال ای یار چون سرنا که سرنا بهر ما نالد     از آن دم‌های پرآتش که در سرنا دمیدستم

Another form of "sorna" is "sornay سرنای" and this form has been also mentioned in Persian poems. For example, Rumi includes "sorna" and "sornay" in the following verse:

بانگ سرنای چه گر مونس غمگینان‌ست     از دم روح نَفَخنا دل سرنا چه خوشست

The "karna کرنا" is an abbreviation of "karnay کارنای" and "karnay" is the combination of the words "kar کار" and "nay". Note that the word "kar کار" has many meanings such as "action", "occupation", and "work", but in the past, it meant "battle" and "war". The "karna" which is also played today was an important part of the music played on battlefields for the courage of soldiers. Ferdowsi and other poets have used the name "karnay کرنای" (another form of "karna") extensively. For example, Ferdowsi says:

بیارای پیلان بزنگ و درای    جهان پر کن از ناله‌ی کرنای

On the ney performed in Persian classical music

The "ney" performed in Persian classical music is called "ney-ye-haft-band نیِ هفت‌بند" meaning literally "seven-segment ney". The "ney" is an end-blown flute typically having six finger holes, one of which is on the back. The ney is a hollow cylindrical-shaped woodwind musical instrument. The technique that the ney is played in Persia is unique. A Persian ney player holds the ney vertically and puts the ney inside the mouth between the two upper front teeth. While surrounding the upper part of the ney with the lips and blowing, the ney player runs the air inside the ney with the help of the tongue. The ney used in Persian classical music has a range of two and a half octaves.

One of the earliest known masters of Persian ney is "Ebrahim Agha Bashi Esfahani" who was also a vocalist. He trained some students including "Isa Agha Bashi" (vocalist and master of the tonbak) and "Nayeb Asadollah" who became a famous ney player.

Nayeb Asadollah. One of the earliest known masters of Persian ney is "Nayeb Asadollah نایب اسدالله" who was born in c. 1852, in Isfahan. Nayeb was a student of his father "Nayeb Hossein Khan" and "Ebrahim Agha Bashi Esfahani". Once Nayeb had traveled to England accompanying Naser al-Din Shah and had participated in a big concert organized by the Queen of England. By the end of the concert, Naser al-Din Shah ordered Nayeb to play the ney. After his performance, the Queen was so impressed that she dedicated her necklace to Nayeb. Nayeb passed away in c. 1925.

Nayeb trained a couple of students including "Abdolkhalegh Esfahani عبدالخالق اصفهانی" and "Mehdi Navayi مهدی نوایی" who were both great ney players. Mehdi Navayi (1883 - 1947) trained a couple of students including "Hossein Yavari حسین یاوری" and "Hassan Kassai حسن کسایی". Hassan Kassai (1928 - 2012) was a talented and world-famous ney player. He always considered himself a grandson of Nayeb in ney.


[P] Mehran Poormandan, The Encyclopedia of Iranian Old Music, Tehran, 2000.

[S] Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).

Keywords. ney, nei, nai, nay, Persian, Iranian, flute.

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