The ney is an endblown cane flute, traditionally played all over the Islamic world, as far west as Morocco and as far east as Pakistan (of course, with the advent of globalism it's played just about anywhere you can think of now). The name derives from the Persian (farsi) word for reed and the authentic ney is constructed from the Arundo Donax reed, a large, bamboo-like, cane.

The sound is produced by the player blowing a stream of air onto a mouthpiece. Traditionally bone or wood, but now often made from plastic, the mouthpiece is fitted onto one end of the hollow cane cylinder, extending it by another inch or two. Unusually, the moutpiece doesn't provide a smaller aperture to blow through or onto - its open end has the same diameter as the open end of the reed onto which it's fitted - its main function is to provide a clean, sharp edge onto which the player's breath can be directed.

The sound producing technique is uniquely complex in the flute family. I can't play it myself, so I'll quote an explanation from someone who can:

Purse your lips slightly, as though you were about to say "who", and place the ney mouthpiece at the right corner of your lips, pressing into the flesh slightly. The ney should not be pointing straight down in front of you, but to the right, at, say a fifteen degree angle (with your feet at zero), and your head tilted somewhat to the right. This varies, though, according to the instrument. The player needs to discover the correct placement to get the best sound. That is the only way to learn.

Now, keeping your lips in the "who" position, blow directly through them. Do not attempt to direct the flow of air to the side or downward with your lips as you might with a flute. I started to get my first sounds by whistling into the ney, which approximates the correct lip position. The airflow is adjusted by moving the ney with relation to the lips, versus moving or altering the formation of the lips to change the airflow.

This technique is known as a bilabial embouchure, since both lips are used to partially close off one end of the hollow cylinder. The player's breath is directed onto the mouthpiece's sharp edge, splitting it and producing a vibrating column of air inside the instrument.

In Turkey and Persia, it's pronounced 'neigh', but outside that region, where dialects of Arabic are more dominant, it's often pronounced nai (to rhyme with 'thigh') and the details of the instrument, tuning, and style of playing will differ slightly. The Arab nai is more of a folk instrument, whereas (especially in Turkey) the ney is associated with the learned classical tradition; its music will be more complex and developed, less rhythmic and with more smoothly flowing extended melodies.

Depictions of the instrument go back at least 4,500 years - Egyptian tomb paintings from that era show endblown reed flutes closely resembling the modern ney.

In Turkey, the instrument is traditionally associated with the Mevlevi order of dervishes - the famous 'whirling dervishes' of Konya - whose school was founded by Rumi. During the Sema dance, where the dervishes do their whirling, it's used with the rebab, tef and tambur to accompany the proceedings, along with the human voice. The ney itself is often credited with the ability to help induce a mystical state in the listener, and the haunting tones achievable with the instrument make this believable. Indeed, Rumi's massive poetic work, the Mathnawi opens with the words:

Listen to the reed who tells a tale,
complaining of separations.

Here, the word 'reed' is ney, which carries a variety of associations in the complex symbolism of the sufis. The word also means 'not' (or 'nonexistent') in Persian, and so may refer to one who is 'absent' (fana) having 'lost themselves' in the search for God. Having thus 'emptied themselves', they are like the instrument under discussion, which is "but a hollow reed" (another Rumi quote) and is brought to life only by the breath of the player (which in the metaphor would be the divine breath). It also refers to a reed quill pen, signifying the writing of the poet himself...

Quote on playing the ney from:
Symbolism info from:

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