Zurna FAQ

Historic page, maintained in the period 1996 - 2002

© Satilmis Yayla 1996 Oslo, Norway

Frequently asked questions about the open air wind instrument for the folk music and archaic military music of Türkiye (TR).

1. What is Zurna?

Orta zurna, Cura zurna, and Kaba zurna Zurna is a musical instrument of the wind family, with a reed for generating the voice, and a tubular body with fingerholes like in a flute. The body is of a progressively opening type.

It is the same instrument more or less as sunay in china, shenay in India, tzurnay in Iran, zorna in Greece, zurla in Yugoslavia, bombarde in France, zokra in Tunis, Ghaytah or raita in Morocco mizmar in egypt. zamr in Lebanon and Iraq. It is found all along the bamboo belt of the old world as a folk instrument for the open air. It has been used in the military music during middle ages. You can still hear it played by the "Mehter" bands in historic "Yeni Ceri" soldier clothes performing for tourists in Istanbul. The ceremonial brass bands often in military-like uniforms you see all over the world are internationalized versions of the yeni ceri - mehter bands (Janissar-orkester), probably spread thru France, central europe and Germany

2. What is it like?

Several varieties of zurnas and their parts It looks like a wooden trumpet or "carry as you play" version of an alp-horn except for the fingerholes and the reed.

Bagpipes are related to zurna, except that zurna has no bag. The zurna players use their cheeks instead of the bag.

Clarinet and saxaphone are related to zurna, except that these use flat reeds.

Obo/Hautbois is also related but has a slightly different reed. Obo has two reeds leaned agains each other.

The reed of zurna is a cylindrical bamboo pipe thinner than the little finger, where the stiff and shiny glaze is peeled off, the zurna side is attached to a conical metal body, and the mouth side is flattened to a very narrow ellipse. This design requires considerable air pressure on the reed to get any voice, and gives a high volume.

3. How is it played?

Diaphragm to help lips You should play it cheeks blown up, with the reed free in the center of your mouth cavity.

The high pressure needed to get the sound makes it hard to keep lips tight together over longer stretches. The lips need support from a device like a pacifier diaphragm. as the one here to the right.

You can control the exact frequency you get from any key by controlling the air pressure applied.

The finger holes are wide. That gives you the possibility to get any note by opening your finger just as much as needed

This double control of the frequency both by air pressure and by finger aperture makes zurna a highly controllable by the expert but also highly inaccurate for the newbeginner type of instrument. The scale is therefore any scale you can recollect and regenerate.

Transposition is done just like with the flute, not like the clarinet as one might easily think it shoud be.

Tweaking of the reed: make it wet. make sure there are no cracks/leaks along the reed fiber. Make sure it is almost closed at the tip and has a resistance to complete closure.

Tuning: The length of the reed conus must be adjusted. Some degree of tuning may be found there. Adjusting the reed distance to the first hole is usually done by adding/removing wrapping thread at the base of the metal pipe where the reed is attached. The small holes at the bell might have to be closed or opened to change the timbre/last tone.

The holes should be placed to give the scale that YOU need. If the holes are not correctly placed you will still be able to get your scale by using semi open holes and air pressure variations. In the long run you might notice that they do affect your playing comfort.

Specially if a hole is misplaced, getting that note right will be difficult, as it will require sudden changes in air pressure and fine control of finger aperture, several places under a melody that can otherwise be played relatively care-free.

In my case the scale has the pause tone at re(D) and has the aproximate interval structure of the white keys in a piano when the pause tone is placed at re(D).

The in between tones(commas,fractions etc..) must be adjusted by the ear while playing. Zurna can not trust the zurna to give a precise tone each time; you must trust your ears, fingers and breath. It is therefore that one plays a rithmless prelude before a song/session in a given scale just to get the ear ready for that scale.

If you want to train your ear, you may want to hear the tones from a precise instrument. A good approximation (some say the true frequencies) for the tones used in middle eastern music are calculated by dividing an octave in 53 equal intervals (12 i piano/72 in south indian music) whose frequency ratios are given by the following formula
(2**(1/53))**i ( (2**(1/12))**i in piano ) and chosing the following 7 (from low re to high re):
0,9,13,22,31,40,44,53 (0,2,3,5,7,9,10,12 in piano)

Another scale would be a different set of 7 numbers.

This scale is called "hüseynî" or "divan" in turkish. There are some 200 such scales picked from the set of 53, A dozen of them are the usual ones. Hüseynî makami(/divan ayagi) is the most usual and probably accounts for more than half of all turkish folk songs. That is the reason for tuning the turkish zurna to it.

Common fingering: lower thumb and upper little finger are free. The other 8 fingers cover the 8 holes of the zurna. Pause tone (La/A or Re/D) is obtained by opening the lowest two fingers.

Sound effects:
vibrato: by fluctuating pressure in the mouth
ritm: by flashing/tapping the uppermost open hole.
tone shifts: either sliding by gradual opening or closure of the finger, or accompanied by tapping of the hole below or accompanied by flashing of the hole a few fingers above.

These may not apply to zurna types and zurna music that I am not familiar with.

The shape of the instruments internal cavity is like a parabole and therefore optimized to send the voice straigh ahead. You will notice it very well if a zurna player turns your way.

4. The challenges of learning to play zurna

The biggest hinder to learning to play zurna is this need to exert intense air pressure all the time. In order to manage that you MUST learn to breath circularly: you have to breath in thru your nose while you use the walls of your mouth to supply the air flow, with the required pressure, and the vibrato on it. Many people can do that. The hardest part is to let air from the new breath into your mouth cavity without and unwelcome surge or drop in the air pressure there.

It is worth noting that zurna and obo players are those among musicians at most risk for occupational hasard (trouble with saliva secretion) because of the need to exert high pressure over long stretches of time. Circular breathing makes it worse because then the pressure lasts as long as the song, instead of as long as each breath.

The next biggest hinder is availability of reeds. You must learn to make them yourself. Humidity and molds are the keywords there. If you know of anyone who markets good ones please .

Another thing to be aware of is that zurna either gives a lot of voice or nothing at all. That is why it is mostly shephards that play it in Turkey. City folks with neighbours have a handicap.

Because of the loud voice it is invariably played along with a huge double sided drum. If you have an enthousiastic drummer companion then beware of the neighbours during practice.

5. How can I learn circular breathing

You can practice this with a straw and a glass of water. Blow with the straw to the surface of the water. Keep your cheeks blown up in order to store some extra air in the mouth cavity. Breath in thru your nose while you continue playing with this extra air pushed out -not with your lungs this time, because they are busy inhaling- but with your cheeks,chin and tongue. Watch the depth of the depression on the water surface. Try to keep it constant. It is likely to jump up from the depression at the moments the lungs hand over the blowing job to the cheeks (sudden drop of air pressure), and will usually jump even more when the lungs are to get back to work. Use the mouth walls as shock absorbers when you let each fresh breath into your mouth.

6. How can I make my own reeds?

7. How do I select a good zurna?

8. How do I renew a reed?

reed on pipe for a small zurna reed on pipe for a regular zurna reed on pipe for a large zurna reeds placed on their respective sockets

9. How do I maintain a zurna?

Just like any other wooden wind instrument.

Do not subject it to extremes of heat, cold, sunshine, dry air and mechanical shock. Keep it saturated with an oil. Sweet almond oil is usual.

If it cracks you may close the cracks with bee wax. Metallic rings on the outside may be used to control or protect against cracks. In southeastern Turkey it is usual to decorate the zurna with silver. That also fortifies it against cracks.

...and now the local stuff...

10. Hvor får jeg tak i en Zurna i Skandinavia?

Det er tvilsomt om du kan få tilsendt zurna fra Tyrkia eller få tilsendt/kjøpt noe som er brukbart uten å ha undersøkt med profesjonelle spillere der. Musikkbutikkene selger oftest turistkvalitet (ser pent ut, kan i noen tilfeller gi lyd, og er du heldig kan du også til nød spille noe på den).

Det beste ville ha vært å nærme seg en besøkende musikant og prøve å kjøpe det han spiller på når han er ferdig her.

Det finnes en i Sverige som dreier og spiller selv : Ziyaettin Aytekin heter han og bodde på Stockholm området sist jeg hadde kontakt med ham. Han er en av de beste zurna mestere som jeg har hørt. (her er et lite eksempel i waw-format). Jeg kan ikke tro at han dreier noe av tvilsom kvalitet.

I nødstilfelle finnes det noen butikker i vesten som du kan bestille fra (Søk i internett etter zurna, en sådan butikk heter " Lark in The Morning" og ligger i California). De har (av naturlige grunner) høye priser.

Some links

http://www.angelfire.com/art2/otken/giris.htm A VERY INFORMATIVE SITE, MOSTLY IN TURKISH, ABOUT KABAZURNA.