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Title: Shehnai Nawaz—Rag Des; Bishmillah Khan, sahnai. Label: Odeon. Format: LP. Catalogue#: EALP.1289. Track: B-1.

Contextual Associations

The sahnai is a north Indian (Hindustani) double- and quadruple-reed aerophone that is used in a variety of folk and urban settings. Its sound is considered auspicious and it is therefore used to celebrate events such as weddings and the birth of a male child. Typically played by hereditary male Muslim musicians, it is also used at mosques and mausoleums of Muslim saints, and at Hindhu temples. It is used as well in ensembles that accompany urban and rural folk theatre and dance genres such as nautanki, chau and bande pather, to name a few. Additionally, it has been introduced to the classical concert stage of Hindustani music largely through the popularizing efforts of Bismillah Khan beginning in the 1960's.


The sahnai is an oboe with a conical shaped wooden body, a nickel-plated brass bell, and a cane reed. Its wooden body has a row of seven equally distanced fingerholes and one vent hole; it does not have a thumbhole. The conical shape of the bore is more pronounced than the exterior profile of the instrument suggests. It starts out at the reed end with a very small diameter, basically that of the base of the reed itself. At the distal end it has widened to more than an inch before the final flare of the attached brass bell. The instrument pictured here lacks a reed; some sources report that a medium-size double reed is used, others that a shorter and broader quadruple reed is used. Whether this distinction is a matter of choice or a product of regional variation is unclear. Regardless of which type is used, a reed’s base is affixed to a conical metal tube staple wound with thread, which in turn is slipped into a hole at the top end of the instrument’s body. A decorative string is used to hold spare reeds, staples and a metal mandrel used to make adjustments to the reed.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Sahnai players either stand or sit cross-legged on the ground when playing. The instrument is usually held at about a 45-degree angle to horizontal by both hands. Either hand can be used to cover the top three fingerholes, the other hand the bottom four (the eighth hole is a vent hole that is either left uncovered or partially or fully stopped with wax to change the tuning of the instrument). The sahnai pictured here is tuned approximately to D4 with all fingerholes covered and the vent hole open. Its range is about two octaves. The player forces an airstream against the tip of the reed, which is inserted into his mouth, while applying various degrees of pressure on the reed surfaces with his lips. Control of these two variables (airstream and lip pressure) shapes both intonation and ornamentation subtleties. Fingering and tonguing techniques further add to the intricacy of the melodies produced on this instrument. The sahnai ensemble used today for concert performance of Hindustani music consists of a sahnai soloist, one or a few further support sahnai players who shadow the soloist’s melody, a drone sahnai, and a tabla.


Uncertainty surrounds the origins of the sahnai, in large part because of the ambiguities of terminology for reed instruments found in the ancient treatises that scholars consult. The most often voiced speculation is that this instrument descends from the Turko-Persian surna/surnay, which was part of the naubat military ensemble that served as a model for court outdoor ensembles throughout much of Asia, including northern India from at least the 13th century CE if not earlier.

Bibliographic Citations

Dick, Alastair. 1984. “The Early History of the Shawm in India.” The Galpin Society Journal 37: 80-98.

Flora, Reis. 1984. “Sahnai.” NGDMI v.3: 283-284.

________. 1995. “Styles of the Sahnai in Recent Decades: From naubat to gayaki ang.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 27: 52-75.

Mahabharati, Sangit. 2011. “Shehnai.” In The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India. v. 3. ed. Nikhil Ghosh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 970.

Miner, Allyn. 2000. "Musical Instruments: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 331-349.

Natavar, Mekhala Devi. 2000. "Music and Dance: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 492-506.

Wade, Bonnie. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Wolf, Richard. 2000. "Music in Seasonal and Life-Cycle Rituals." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 272-287.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: India

Formation: Indo-Aryan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.112.2 aerophone--single conical-bore reedpipe with double (or quadruple) reed: the pipe has a reed (usually a flattened stem) of paired lamellae which periodically open and close, controlling the flow of air; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

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

Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed concussion (multiple) reed

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


19.1 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin