Sheng (instrument)

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Sheng with 17 pipes, height is 55cm (22 inches)
Sheng player Guo Yi beside the River Thames, London, England

The sheng (Chinese: ; pinyin: shēng; Zhuyin Fuhao: ㄕㄥ)[needs IPA]is a Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes.

It is one of the oldest Chinese instruments, with images depicting its kind dating back to 1100 BCE,[1] and there are actual instruments from the Han era that have been preserved today.[1] 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,[2] although there is evidence that free reed musical instruments similar to shengs were known in Europe a century earlier.[3]


Buddhist art from the Yungang Grottoes, Datong, c. 465 AD (Northern Wei Dynasty), showing musicians playing the pipa and sheng

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.

Modern changes[edit]

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.[4] 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[edit]

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 a hole on the sheng's pipe causes the entire length of the pipe to resonate with the reeds' frequency. If the hole is open, the resonance frequency would not match, and hence no sound is produced.

The sheng is played by alternately blowing and inhaling, and a player can produce a continuous sound without pause. 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). Keyed shengs have only been developed in the 20th century, c. 1950 onwards.

The difference between a traditional and keyed sheng lies in its mechanism. On a traditional sheng, the holes on the finger pipes are pressed directly by the player's fingers. On a keyed sheng, the holes are opened and closed by means of keys or levers. Without keys, the great number of pipes, and the size of the larger instruments makes it impractical for operation by hand.

Traditional sheng[edit]

The traditional sheng (传统, 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 silent) sheng used in Jiangnan sizhu is tuned:

\relative c'' { a b c cis d e fis g a b cis d}


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.

\relative c' { d e fis g a b c cis d e f fis g gis a b c cis d e fis}

Keyed sheng[edit]

Chromatic 24 and 26 pipe keyed sheng were common during the 1950s, but current models usually have 36 pipes. There are four main ranges of keyed sheng, forming a family of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. All are chromatic throughout their range, and tuned to the equal temperament scale.

Soprano sheng (, pinyin Gāoyīn Shēng)[edit]

36-pipe sheng with a soprano range of G3 to F#6 (taking middle C = C4). Uses treble clef

Alto sheng (, pinyin Zhōngyīn Shēng)[edit]

36-pipe sheng with an alto range of C3 to B5. Perfect 5th lower than soprano sheng. It has an additional row of 12 keys coloured in black, which when depressed 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. Uses treble and alto clefs. It is a middle-pitched sheng. It is an octave lower than Gaoyin sheng, which is a high-pitched sheng. Zhongyin sheng uses treble or alto clef. It is a free reed instrument. It has a mellifluent and powerful timbre.

Alto sheng plays an important part in modern Chinese orchestra. Because it serves as accompaniment in an orchestra, while other instruments are given few melody. It usually has thirty-six keys. There are two kinds of Alto sheng in modern Chinese music. One is Bao sheng, which requires people to hold it when players play it. The other one is Pai sheng, which can stand on a table while players play it. Pai sheng is used a lot in student orchestra, because it is easier to learn Pai sheng than to learn Bao sheng.

Tenor sheng (, pinyin Cìzhōngyīn Shēng)[edit]

36-pipe sheng with a tenor range of G2 to F#5. One octave lower than soprano sheng. Uses alto clef, or treble clef transposed down an octave. The tenor sheng can also be used as bass sheng.

Bass sheng (, pinyin Dīyīn Shēng)[edit]

32-pipe sheng with a bass range of C2 to G4. Uses bass clef.

Much larger types of keyed sheng include the da paisheng (lit. large row sheng); a large floor standing organ-like instrument with foot pedals, and the baosheng (lit. held sheng), which is played resting on the player’s lap or on a stand.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sheng. Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. ^ Crossound, "The Accordion"
  3. ^ Missin, Pat. "Western Free Reed Instruments"
  4. ^ Frederick Lau (2008). Kai-wing Chow, ed. Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity. Lexington Books. pp. 212–215. ISBN 978-0739111222. 
  5. ^ Witzleben, J. Lawrence (1995). "Silk and Bamboo" Music in Shanghai: The Jiangnan Sizhu Instrumental Ensemble Tradition. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, page 42


Alan R. Thrasher; Sheng article, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online.

External links[edit]