Considering how widespread instruments such as the harmonica, the accordion and the reed organ have been over the last century and a half (the harmonica is often described as the most popular instrument in the world, in terms of units manufactured and sold each year) and the long history that free reed instruments have had in Asia, surprisingly little has been written about them. Much of what has been written is grossly oversimplified and often simply inaccurate. The usual "history" relates that a sheng was brought over to Europe in the 18th century and this started a wave of experimentation that lead to the development of instruments such as the reed organ, the harmonica, the concertina and the accordion. Whilst this is not exactly untrue, it ignores many facts - the free reed had been described in the West prior to this event, the sheng is just one of many free reed mouth organs from Asia and the mouth organ is just one of a wide variety of free reed instrument types.

Many problems have faced organologists (those who study musical instruments) who have enquired after the Asian free reed instruments. One is that similar names are often used for both free reed instruments and non free reed instruments. For example, in various parts of South East Asia, the word pi is used to denote various oboe-like double-reed instruments, as well as various free reed pipes. Similarly, the word kluiis used in Thailand as a generic term for pipes, including both free reed pipes and simple flutes. Also, many free reed instruments, particularly free reed pipes, when they are being played can look very much like flutes or clarinet-type instruments.

It may also be worth noting that the way in which words from Asian languages are rendered in the Western alphabet can vary a great deal and there are also many different languages and dialects found in most countries in Asia.

Although the free reed has a history in Asia going back many centuries, it is something of a newcomer to the West.

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. In 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.

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 nameMelodica. 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 Andrй 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.

Toys

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.

Harmonichord

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.

Claviola

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.