Balaban, Mey, and Duduk comparison image

The Duduk & Mey: History, Info and Set-Up

Basic Info for Mey or Duduk

By David Brown


The Mey and Duduk are two closely related instruments of the double reed family. Perhaps best known in America are the duduk performances on the soundtrack to "The Last Temptation of Christ", where the mournful and plaintive tone of the duduk is used to great effect.

The Mey is the Turkish name, Duduk the Armenian term, for an ancient woodwind instrument that also includes the Balaban of Central Asia and the Chinese Guan among its varieties. The essential feature is a short cylindrical tube with 7 or more fingerholes and one thumbhole coupled to a very large flattened grass reed, with some sort of adjustable "bridle" affixed to the reed. Even though it is sounded with what looks like an inordinately large zurna (sorna, mizmar, raita, suona, shenai, shawm, etc.) reed, inviting classification in the oboe family, the double reed in question behaves more like a clarinet, in that unlike the zurna and other early and folk oboes, the mey/duduk is capable of dynamic shadings from a whispered pianissimo to a full forte- although it is not capable of the blasting fortissimo of the folk oboes, allowing the mey/duduk to be used indoors in intimate situations. It also is a significant voice in the Armenian orchestra, carrying significant melodic material. Several sizes are found, tube lengths ranging from 6 or 7 inches to over 16 inches.

Again acting like the clarinet, the cylindrical tube and reed function as a tube closed at one end, and thus play an octave lower than one would expect for a short tube. Bora Ozkok referred to the Turkish mey as the "grandfather of the bassoon", although the clarinet is a better analog. Indeed Turkish clarinet style is heavily based on the older styles of mey playing.

The basic 7 hole + thumbhole fingering is also the same as that of the zurna family; that is, it produces roughly a major scale plus one note above, the range of a ninth. "Roughly" a major scale because it produces a natural scale, not a tempered one, although the lip can bend a note enough to play any interval, plus half-holing is also used to fill in the many shadings of pitch used in Oriental musical systems. On the rarer models with more than 7 fingerholes, the additional holes are located at the lower end of the tube.

It is difficult to give a definitve pitch of the various sizes of mey or duduk as the same instrument may play as much as a whole step apart with different reeds. One can only be precise about the pitch of a specific reed and tube combination.


The following are some hints for setting up your mey or duduk:

First, the reed, although large, only goes in the mouth a short distance, something like a half inch more or less. The lips may be loosley drawn over the teeth, or even slightly forward as if saying the German (or Turkish) vowel "Ÿ". Do not use your teeth on the reed.

The reed must be wet; if the tip is closed it must be soaked until open. However, if the tip is too open, it will be almost impossible to play, so adjust the bridle to close the tip more. If this doesnÕt work, wet the reed and carefully press the tip of the reed closed; a gentle clamp of some sort, even a lightly sprung open paper clip will help.

The reed must fit the socket in the upper end of the mey/duduk. If it is too large as is often the case, gentle sanding or scraping on the base of the reed will adjust the size to match the socket. Wrapping the base of the reed with a bit of waxed dental floss or waxed hemp thread makes the fit exact and airtight, and minimizes the danger of the reed being accidentaly knocked loose while playing. Waxed floss or hemp is used in a larger amount to fit the smaller reed to a larger socket, if that be the case.

The reed must be free of cracks; the only exception is if the crack is directly along the crease dividing the two sided of the reed. I have played reeds with a split there and they continued to play well. It is notable that modern oboe, bassoon, shawm, bombarde and bagpipe chanter reed are made from two pieces of cane folded over. Thus the side-split mey or duduk reed would work, acting as if it was made in two parts like the modern cane reeds.

An emergency repair can sometimes ( and I mean SOME time only- not always!) be effected on a split reed by using Super glue; this is only a temporary solution and the reed should be replaced as soon as possible. Obviously one should be very sure the glue is dry before attempting to play the reed.

In many cases the reed must be tuned to the tube and its coupled air column. To test the internal tuning, play the lowest tone (all holes and thumbhole closed), then see how close the match is to the octave note (LH 1st finger only closed, thumbhole open. Then test the next octave pair, the tone produced with all holes closed but for the lowest, and its match, all holes open. If the higher octave notes are flat, then the reed must be shortened. Using a very sharp knife or scissors, trim a tiny sliver off the blowing end of the reed; test again. Continue little by litte until the octaves are accurate. I caution you to only remove a tiny amount of the reed tip at one time. You can always remove more if necessary, but it cannot be put back on.

In the traditional styles the mey/duduk is never overblown, but if it were, like the clarinet it would produce a note a 12th above the fundamental; without clarinet-like keywork there would be a gap in the scale. Playing is therefore confined to the fundamental range, and no overblowing used. Like the bagpiper, much use is made of a limited melodic range.

With care, the reeds can last for some time, but like all organic materials is unpredictable, so for the performing musician an extra reed, already fitted and tuned, is a must.

To care for the tube of the mey or duduk, regular oiling of the bore and the exterior is recommended. I prefer to use sweet almond oil, as it is human-friendly and unlike other vegetable oils resists rancidity.

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