Also:       nai      nāī      nay      ney      

Title: The Music of Islam--Nay Solo; Mohammed Foda, nay. Label: Celestial Harmonies. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 13140-2. Track: 5.

Title: Sufi Music of Turkey--Aksak Semai; Kudsi Erguner and Suleyman Erguner, ney. Label: CMP. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CMP CD 3005. Track: 7.

Contextual Associations

The nāy is a beveled-rim end-blown edge aerophone (flute) of the Middle East (Arabic-, Turkish-, and Persian-speaking regions) and Central Asia. Related instruments are also found in southeastern Europe (see kaval and kavall). The first instrument pictured in the gallery is of Egyptian origin and will be referred to here as a nāy, the second of Turkish origin and written as ney. Such flutes today are used in the performance of urban art/classical music of their respective cultural regions, both as a solo and an ensemble instrument. In Turkey, the ney is also used in the samā’ ceremony of the Mevlevi order of Sufis; in Egypt, a shorter nāy called kawala is used in Sufi religious ceremonies. Throughout the vast region of distribution of this type of beveled-rim end-blown flute, models of it, often shorter in length than the classical nāy and ney, are used in myriad folk music traditions. Traditionally an instrument played only by males, recently in Turkey female practitioners have emerged (Bates, p. 49). A metaphorical representation of the nāy by the 13th century Turkish Sufi poet Rumi describes both the flute and the human body as “hollow vessels needing the breadth of life to come alive,” and relates the plaintive sound of the reed flute to “longing to be reunited with the reed bed from which it came” as being analogous to “man’s yearning for union with God ” (Marcus, pp. 98-99).


The nāy/ney is made from a straight open-ended stalk of aged Persian reed with nine segments articulated by eight nodes, which must be bored out to make a narrow cylindrical bore. The rim at one end of the stalk is beveled to a sharp edge (see first detail image), which serves as the target of the airstream provided by the performer; it is therefore an end-blown flute. On the Turkish ney a beveled mouthpiece made from wood, horn, or plastic is fitted over the end of the reed (see second detail image). The instruments each have six fingerholes and, on their reverse sides, one thumbhole (see third detail image). The pictured nāy has cotton cord wound around it creating a band just below the beveled rim to discourage the splitting of the reed; on the ney, metal bands at both ends of the flute serve the same purpose.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The nāy/ney can be played either standing or seated, the performer holding the flute in front of him at an oblique angle to the right so that the beveled rim rests on his lower lip. The thumb and first three fingertips of the left hand cover the thumbhole and top three fingeholes, respectively; the first three fingers of the right hand cover the bottom three fingerholes. Due to the design of the mouthpiece and how the airstream is directed across the rim, a distinctive, somewhat breathy sound is produced. The ‘nāy is a melodic instrument, its player rendering composed music or improvisations set in melodic modes called maqamat (sing., maqam) in the Arabic tradition. The scales of maqamat utilize intervals not found in the Western equal-temperament system. The pitch of a given flute is determined by its length, which, like the pitch system in which it is performed, is not standardized. A professional player will always have at hand a number of instruments of varying length to accommodate the selected tonal center for a given performance. That said, the Egyptian nāy pictured here is a nāy dūkāh and has as its lowest tone of C3, while that of the Turkish ney is A2 and is called a kiz ney. In the hands of an experienced player a three-octave range can be attained and a variety of intervals, including ones outside of the equal-tempered chromatic scale, can be produced through complicated fingerings and careful breath control.


The basic design of the nāy is very old, often traced back at least to Ancient Egypt in the 3rd millennium BCE. It does not appear that much has changed in regard to the design of the instrument itself, but what it was named and what was done with it musically has most likely evolved over this vast expanse of time as it was introduced to or appropriated by new peoples and their musical practices. These myriad changes have by-and-large not been chronicled. Its current distribution undoubtedly was significantly shaped by the spread of Islam from the 7th century CE onward.

Bibliographic Citations

Bates, Eliot. 2011. Music in Turkey: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hassan, Scheherazade Q., and Jean During 1984. “‘Nāy [nai, nāī  nay, ney].” NGDMI v.2: pp. 751-752.

________. 2002. "Musical Instruments in the Arab World." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 6. The Middle East. ed. Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds. New York: Routledge, pp. 401-423.

Marcus, Scott L. 2007. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, Sibyl. 1975. A Survey of Musical Instruments. New York: Harper and Row.

Touma, Habib Hassan. 1996. The Music of the Arabs. trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: North Africa

Nation: Egypt

Formation: Arab

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.111.12 aerophone--single end-blown flute (a narrow stream of air is directed against an edge to excite a column of air in a tube or a body of air in a cavity); with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled rim at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


24 in. length (Egyptian nāy) 28.1 in. length (Turkish ney)

Primary Materials

reed - cane
cord - cotton

Entry Author

Roger Vetter