The Persian Ney

The Persian Ney (sometimes spelled as nay, or nai) is a wind instrument from Iran. It consists of a hollow cylinder with finger-holes. Sometimes a brass or plastic mouthpiece is placed at the top to protect the wood from damage, but this plays no role in the sound production. It has a very compelling and engaging sound, perhaps “gut wrenching” is the right term in English, unlike any other wind instrument.

The ney is blown in a unique manner, which gives it its characteristic sound. The upper edge of the ney, which is just the top of a hollow cylinder, is placed between the two upper front teeth, inside the mouth. A small stream of air is directed with the tongue, and the upper lip surrounds the upper part of the ney. Moving the lip and tongue changes the pitch (up to a whole tone in both directions) and tone quality. Both timbre and loudness have infinite variety. This technique is very difficult to learn but once mastered gives great control over the sound, comparable only to the human voice. Advanced players control the amount of turbulence in the air stream allowing a large variety of sounds from pure tones to extremely breathy sounds.


Neys come in all sizes, in a range limited only by the reach of the fingers (for big neys) and the thickness of fingers (for small neys). Long neys are low pitched, and short neys are high pitched. Most of musicians usually indicate the ney by the lowest note it produces, though another group of musician nomenclature identifies a ney by a fifth above the lowest note. So, a ney with lowest note A (which is called an “A-ney”) is officially called E, or Mi too. To add to the confusion, the Arabic and Turkish neys are named after the pitch produced when you play the note just above its lowest note.
The shortest ney is F (or C). It is so small and hardly it fits the fingers on the hole as they are crowded so closely together. The longest ney is F (or C) again but an octave lower than the shortest one, and more than twice as long as the longest. It is so long that the right hand can just barely reach the holes.
A similar instrument also called ney is used throughout the middle east but is blown with the lips and has a much more limited sound. A Persian ney can also be blown with the lips, but this style can not be mixed with the interdental technique as the ney sounds a semitone higher when blown with the lips. Neys have been found in Egyptian tombs dated 5000 years ago.