A late 19th-century sheng, housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Sets of free reeds)
Illustration from the Gujin Tushu Jicheng (c. 1700–25)
It is one of the oldest Chinese instruments, with images depicting its kind dating back to 1100 BCE, and there are original instruments from the Han era that are preserved in museums today. Traditionally, the sheng has been used as an accompaniment instrument for solo suona or dizi performances. It is one of the main instruments in kunqu and some other forms of Chinese opera. Traditional small ensembles also make use of the sheng, such as the wind and percussion ensembles in northern China. In the modern large Chinese orchestra, it is used for both melody and accompaniment.
The sheng has been used in the works of a few non-Chinese composers, including Unsuk Chin, Lou Harrison, Tim Risher, Daníel Bjarnason, Guus Janssen and Christopher Adler. Some believe that Johann Wilde and Pere Amiot traveled to China and brought the first shengs to Europe in 1740 and 1777 respectively, although there is evidence that free reed musical instruments similar to shengs were known in Europe a century earlier.
Chinese free-reed wind instruments named he and yu were first mentioned in bone oracle writings dating from the 14th to the 12th centuries BCE, and were identified in later texts as types of sheng. The first appearance of the word "sheng" is in some of the poems of Shijing (Book of Odes), dating back c. 7th century BCE. Ancient instruments with gourd wind chambers, varying numbers of pipes, with bamboo or metal reeds have been discovered in archaeological finds at the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (c. 433 BC) in present-day Hubei province, and the Han tombs at Mawangdui (c. 2nd century BCE) in Hunan province.
In the eighth century, three yu and three sheng were sent to the Japanese court and these have been preserved in the Shōsōin imperial repository in Nara. All the instruments had 17 pipes with a long curving mouthpiece and are very similar to the traditional sheng in use today. However variants with different numbers of pipes, and chromatic instruments have been documented over the centuries.
The kinds of sheng currently used are the products of changes made since the early 20th century that enhanced its sound and volume as well as increasing its range. Early changes were made by Zheng Jinwen (鄭覲文, 1872–1935) who increased the number of pipes to 32, expanding its range and allowing it to play harmony and chords. The air chamber and size of the pipes were also enlarged, changing the tone color of the instrument. Later various changes were also introduced by players such as Weng Zhenfa (翁鎮發) and particularly Hu Tianquan (胡天泉), with different variants of the instrument produced.
Acoustics and performance
The sheng's reeds vibrate at a fixed frequency unlike single reeds, double reeds, and pointed free reeds which vibrate at the pitch according to the length of the attached air column. Covering the hole(s) on a traditional sheng's pipe(s) would cause the entire length of the pipe(s) to resonate with the reeds' frequency. If the hole is open, the resonant frequency would not match, and hence no sound is produced.
The sheng is sounded by either exhaling or inhaling into the mouthpiece, and players can produce a relatively continuous sound without pause by quickly switching between the two - much like bow changes for stringed instruments. The traditional performance style is to sound two or three notes at the same time by adding a fifth and/or octave above the main melody note. When a higher note is not available, a lower note a fourth below the main melody note can be played instead.
Shengs can be classified into traditional sheng (传统笙; pinyin: chuántǒng shēng) and keyed sheng (键笙; jiàn shēng) (sometimes also known as "improved sheng" (改良笙;Gǎiliáng shēng)). Keyed shengs were only developed in the 20th century, c. 1950 onwards.
With more and more hybrid models being introduced, the difference between the two types of shengs are increasingly blurred. That being said, Shengs are generally categorized into either type based on the kind of fingering system that they adopt. This includes (on traditional Shengs) certain notes (namely the leading note, submediant, dominant, followed by tonic) present as a group on the left posterior side. Due to fourth and fifth harmonies being common in traditional Sheng repertoire, the fingerings on traditional shengs are optimized for such. As a result, fingerings for traditional Sheng tend to look jumbled up, and can vary regionally. Keyed Shengs, on the other hand, have sequenced fingerings that allow for easy key changes.
On a traditional Sheng, there are holes on the finger pipes which can be covered by the player's fingers to sound that particular note. On a keyed Sheng, the holes are opened and closed by means of keys or levers. The greater number of pipes combined with the size of the larger instruments makes it impractical to operate newer instruments without keys.
The traditional sheng (传统笙, pinyin: chuántǒng shēng) used in, for example, northern Chinese ritual music, kunqu and Jiangnan sizhu ensembles generally have 17 pipes but with only 13 or 14 sounding pipes. Its scale is mainly diatonic, for example the 17-pipe (4 of which are silent decorative pipes) sheng used in Jiangnan sizhu is tuned:
With the development of guoyue music in mid-20th century China, the sheng underwent changes to increase its range and volume. The guoyue sheng had all its 17 pipes fitted with reeds, then the number of pipes increased to 21, and metal tubes were attached to the bamboo pipes to amplify its sound. The other change was the development of the keyed sheng.
Nowadays, traditional sheng are usually only used for solo repertoire, due them not being fully chromatic (and also the fact that certain techniques - like glissandi - can only be achieved on a traditional sheng). For an orchestra setting, keyed shengs tend to be preferred for being fully chromatic. It is worth noting that many modern traditional shengs do come with some keys for ease of fingering; there are also fully chromatic traditional shengs. These are still known by the blanket term "traditional sheng" due to them retaining the typical traditional sheng-like fingering. Also, traditional shengs are usually held in the player's hands when playing, and a 37-reed fully chromatic traditional sheng tends to be too heavy to be for long performances.
Chromatic 24- and 26-reed keyed sheng were common during the 1950s, but current models usually have 32 to 38 reeds. There are four main ranges of keyed sheng, forming a family of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. All are chromatic throughout their range, and equal tempered. They have markedly different fingering from their traditional counterparts, having been redesigned so that key changes can be achieved without cumbersome fingerings. These also differ from their traditional counterparts by the fact that they tend to be placed on the musician's lap or on a stand while playing.
However, to suit the needs of modern repertoire, 38- or even 42-reed Shengs have become increasingly prevalent in the late 2010s. Some models even include levers that allow for sounding of chords (i.e. more than one note is sounded when one lever is depressed).
The Alto Sheng (中音笙, pinyin Zhōngyīn Shēng) is a 36-reed Sheng with an alto range of C3 to B5. They sound a perfect 5th lower than Soprano Sheng. They often sport an additional row of 12 black keys, that plays all 3 pipes corresponding to the same note in different octaves (e.g., pressing the black "C" causes the notes C3, C4 and C5 to be sounded simultaneously). It primarily uses the treble (octave down) and alto clefs (albeit less common as of the late 2010s - notably with SCO deciding to scribe Alto Sheng scores in treble clef). The Alto variants tend to have a more mellow timbre than the slightly more metallic sounding Soprano Sheng. It is worth noting the regional differences — while many countries have Alto Shengs with a range of C3 to B5, some regional variants tend to have a range of G2 to F#5 (i.e. the Tenor Sheng's range).
The Alto Sheng plays an important role in modern Chinese orchestras, serving to provide chordal accompaniment as well as supplementing lower-pitched instruments like the Cello. There are two main form factors of Alto Shengs in modern Chinese music: the Bao Sheng (抱笙, lit: hug Sheng) and the Pai Sheng (排笙, lit: Sheng in rows). The Bao Sheng (抱笙) is usually placed on the musician's lap; one would reach around to the buttons on its posterior (in effect hugging the instrument, and hence the name). It is cylindrical in nature, and tends to be smaller (i.e. less heavy and bulky) due to the pipes having been engineered to bend inside the body to make effective use of all available space inside the Sheng. This, however, presents the drawback of it being difficult to disassemble and reassemble for maintenance or repairs. The Pai Sheng (排笙) on the other hand, is typically placed on a Sheng stand. This form is so named as the pipes and resonators are arranged into 3 rows (in a linear manner) instead of a circular fashion. These are commonly seen in school orchestras, as there's a reduced likelihood of it being dropped (since it is placed on a stand), and is less difficult/expensive to repair (due to its simpler layout).
The Tenor Sheng (次中音笙, pinyin Cìzhōngyīn Shēng) is a 36-reed Sheng with a tenor range of G2 to F#5 that sound one octave lower than Soprano Sheng, and primarily uses the alto clef or treble clef (octave down), and at times the bass clef. This variant tends to have a warmer and richer timbre, despite being less common than its Alto counterpart. They are sometimes made with more reeds to cover the Alto Sheng's range as well, and also come in 2 form factors (Pai Sheng and Bao Sheng).
These similarly come in two form factors as well: the da paisheng (大排笙, lit. large row sheng); a large standing organ-like instrument that comes with or without pedals, and the baosheng (lit. held sheng, although it is placed on a stand due to its weight). With the Bass Sheng, the differences between the 2 variants are more pronounced; Bass paisheng tend to require a greater breath volume to play.
In the 21st century, Keyboard Shengs (键盘笙, pinyin Jiànpán Shēng), or Pai Shengs that have a keyboard layout instead of the typical buttons, have emerged. These can vary from 37-reed shengs all the way to 53-reed ones, covering a variety of ranges from Alto to Bass. That being said, these are more a niche at the moment, as very few repertoire make use of the keyboard layout. In fact, many of the chordal parts written for sheng are currently heavily clustered, and as such, a keyboard layout tends to result in slightly cumbersome fingering.
- Yu (wind instrument)
- Music of China
- Traditional Chinese musical instruments
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- YouTube video - A visit to the home of master sheng player Hu Tianquan (胡天泉) - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3