The sheng mouth organ is a free-reed aerophone of the Han Chinese that is especially prevalent in the central, eastern and northern regions of China. Its precise design, performance practice and usage differ from one region to another, even within a single region. The sheng pictured in gallery #1 and described on this page is characteristic of the instruments found in the central region of China, where it is a basic component of sizhu string-and-wind ensembles and most accurately referred to as xiaosheng (‘small sheng’). In central China the sheng is found in outdoor chuida (‘blowing-and-beating’) ensembles, and in northern and northeastern China in outdoor guchui (‘drumming-and-blowing’) ensembles. The sheng also plays a melodic accompaniment role in the kunqu opera tradition of eastern China. The body of the sheng with its circular array of bamboo pipes is intended to symbolize a phoenix and is a yin symbol. In ancient times it was classified as a gourd instrument in the Chinese eightfold bayin instrument classification system. In the second half of the twentieth century the sheng underwent numerous morphological changes and developments as it was brought into the then emerging professionalized modern concert hall tradition, including membership in the modern Chinese orchestra.
An incomplete circle of seventeen cylindrical bore bamboo pipes of lengths from 5.5 to 15.5 inches are mounted in a wooden bowl-shaped windchest with a short, curved blowpipe. Free-beating reeds, traditionally made of a copper and tin alloy called xiangtong, are affixed with wax at the bottom of fourteen of the pipes; the remaining three pipes do not have reeds and are therefore mute. Detail #1 shows a close up of the end of a pipe that is inserted into the instrument's windchest. The free reed is clearly visible, as is the small drop of red wax that is crucial to its tuning. A fingerhole is located on the outer side of each pipe; only when the fingerhole is covered will the pipe sound. The actual acoustical length of the tube is not its total length. A pipe’s acoustical length is determined by the location of a rectangular vent hole cut out from the inside wall of the tube. Detail #2 shows a completely dismantled sheng. At the top is seen the windchest and the hoop that assists in the support of the pipes on the fully assembled instrument. The four clusters of pipes (referred to, from left to right, as 1, 2, 3 and 4) each illustrate some acoustical or aesthetic facet of this instrument. Cluster 1: variety of pipe lengths; placement of the reeds and the fingerholes that must be covered to activate them. Cluster 2: rectangular vent holes which determine the acoustical lengths of the tubes; middle two tubes are of different total lengths but identical acoustical lengths. Cluster 3: all three pipes are of same total length, but their acoustical lengths differ. Cluster 4: silent pipes (no reeds). Some pipes are physically longer than they need to be and silent pipes are included for aesthetic reasons, to create the visual balance of the instrument (see gallery #1). Since the middle of the 20th century, one innovation to sheng construction has been the addition of open metal amplifying tubes (kuoyin guan) around the exterior of the instrument to increase its volume (see gallery #2, detail #3, and video #1). On such instruments the vent holes of sounding pipes are located on their exterior and each pipe’s kuoyin guan is attached so that an opening in its side is in alignment with its vent hole. These added resonators increase the volume of the instrument.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The sheng performer holds the windchest in the palms of his hands with the pipes pointing upwards and slightly tilted to the right. He uses the tips of the thumb and the first three fingers on each hand to cover the fingerholes, which are situated around the circle of pipes just above the windchest. The instrument sounds both when the performer exhales and inhales through the blowpipe located on the side of the windchest (see video #1). The notes of the D major diatonic scale (two scale degrees have two pipes each) plus one pipe tuned to pitch C are available, and the range of the instrument is A4 to D6. In essence, the sheng performer produces a melody that is enhanced with harmonious tones. A system, called ‘peihe’ (‘cooperation’), exists that guides the performer in selecting one or more pitches to sound in addition to the melodic note. Generally speaking, only open harmonies involving intervals of fifths, fourths and octaves are used (listen to audio #1).
While different in form from the modern sheng, the developmental history of instruments of this form can be traced through time in both historical documents and actual instruments that have survived. Early forms of the sheng known as the yu and the he are mentioned in Shang dynasty sources (1766-1122 BCE). Surviving sheng have been excavated from the Marquis Yi of Zeng tomb (5th century BCE) and Han dynasty tombs (206 BCE - 220 CE). Since the 8th century CE the sheng has survived largely unchanged, and instruments similar to the one pictured here are still in use in traditional ritual and regional instrumental ensemble contexts. Only in the latter half of the 20th century was there a burst of design experimentation catalyzed by the introduction of traditional instruments such as the sheng to the conservatory context and their incorporation into the modern Chinese orchestra, chamber ensemble, and solo idioms. Such a modernized sheng with many more tubes and with kuoyin guan resonators can be seen in video #1.
Region: East Asia
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)412.132
aerophone--set of free reeds (lamella vibrates through a closely-fitting slot): interruptive free reeds
Design and Playing Features
Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end
Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation and inhalation through mouth creates airstream through instrument; bidirectional
Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed free reed mounted on wall of tube
Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none
Overblowing utilization: not used
Pitch production: multiple pitches - multiple single-pitch tubes bundled together and activated directly by player
19.3 in. height
reed - metal
Roger Vetter, Toby Austin