Also:       haidi      aizai      suerna      laba      so-na      

Title: China: Shantung Folk Music & Traditional Instrumental Pieces—Tien Chang; Lu-sheng Ensemble. Label: Nonesuch. Format: LP. Catalogue#: H-72051. Track: A-1.

Contextual Associations

The suona is a double-reed aerophone, or shawm, of China. In northern China the suona, often referred to by the name laba, is central to village chuida (‘blowing-hitting’) ensembles. These ensembles are exclusively male and often familial organizations. Chuida musicians, and by association the suona, are viewed as lower-class professionals. Performance settings include calendric rituals like New Year and harvest festivals and birthdays of gods; life-cycle rituals such as weddings and funerals; and other ritual occurrences. The suona is found in many other parts of China as well where it is an indispensable member of many regional types of outdoor ensembles. Additionally, it is used in Beijing opera for martial scenes, and has in recent decades been introduced into the evolving modern Chinese orchestra tradition.


Three suona are pictured in the image gallery of this page; the first two are approximately the same length, the third considerably shorter and goes by the names ‘haidi’ and ‘aizai.’ All have a scalloped body made out of a hardwood such as redwood, a conical bore, seven fingerholes and, on the reverse side (see Detail image), one thumbhole, and a loosely-attached flaring metal (usually brass) bell. At the top end of the body there is a staple (a tapering metal tube) that on two of the specimens is ornamented with metal spheres and discs. Just below the open end of the staple is a firmly attached disc or pirouette. A relatively small double reed caps off the exposed end of the staple. The reed is made from folded and cut river reed bound together with copper wire.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A suona player holds the instrument in front of himself with both hands. He completely encloses the reed in his mouth without touching it, his lips pressed firmly against the pirouette. A great deal of air pressure is required to activate of the double reed, and it is not uncommon for players to utilize the circular breathing technique while playing this instrument. The concussion action of the reeds allows rapid bursts of energy into the air column of the instrument to produce various modes of pressure waves that we hear as sound. The active acoustical length of the air column at any given instant is determined by which finger/thumbholes are covered. The player can also overblow many fingering combinations to sound the first or second harmonic partial overtone above a fundamental. The range of the suona is given variously as from one-and-a-half to just over two octaves; Liang (p. 270) presents its range as A4 to B6. The haidi/aizai range would certainly differ considerably from that of the two longer suona, perhaps by as much as an octave. Players frequently produce bends and other sorts of pitch inflections when playing the suona through manipulating the airstream and with special fingering techniques. This instrument is generally played at full volume to produce a penetrating sound, perfect for outdoor performance.


Pictorial evidence suggests that early forms of the suona entered northwestern China from Central Asia via the Silk Road starting in the 3rd century CE. The word ‘suona’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘zurna’ (‘oboe’). It was well established in China by the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE) and much of the repertoire can be dated to the 13th and 14th centuries. During the early decades of the Peoples Republic of China (established in 1949) and especially during the Cultural Revolution (the 1970s) ideology brought about the cessation of much of the ritual life in China, but the suona has seen a revival in ritual usage since the 1980s. 

Bibliographic Citations

Jones, Stephen. 2002. "Ensembles: Northern Chinese." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 199-204.

Liang, Mingyue. 1985. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.

Thrasher, Alan R. “Suona [so-na].” 1984. NGDMI v.3: 474-475.

________. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

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


20.3 in. length (first instrument) 23.2 in. length (second instrument) 12.8 in. length (third instrument)

Primary Materials

reed - cane

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin