The Chinese sheng (pronounced something like "shung") is probably the best known of all the Asian free reed instruments. The example shown here is a fairly traditional one, having seventeen pipes inserted into a nickel plated brass bowl with a short mouthpiece. Up to the mid-20th century, such an instrument would have had several silent pipes, but this one has reeds in each pipe giving a 1 1/2 octave D major scale with several added chromatic pitches: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A B C# D E.
The pipes are arranged in a broken circle. Two of the pipes have finger holes located on the inside and the right index finger reaches through the gap in the circle to play them, this also assists in gripping the instrument securely. The remaining pipes have holes facing outwards operated by the other fingers and thumbs. Each pipe has a rectangular free reed mounted near its base:
The reeds are tuned by weighting the tips of the reeds with a substance called chu sha. This is a mixture of wax, rosin and oxide of mercury. The poisonous quality of the latter ingredient is said to be the reason that many older sheng players are of not of completely sound mind!
Rather than simply cutting the pipe to length to match its resonant pitch to the reed it contains, tuning slots are cut into the side of the pipe facing the inside of the circle, allowing the maker to select the length of the pipe for aesthetic reasons, rather than acoustical reasons. Partially uncovering the fingerhole as you play a note alters the resonant pitch of the pipe, allowing players to bend notes upwards in pitch:
Le sheng (in French)
The Asian Free Reed Mouth Organs, acoustical studies by James Cottingham
ECAI Silk Road Atlas - Instruments - Sheng
A Brief History of Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments
What Is A Free Reed?
Origins Of The Free Reed
Eastern Free Reed Instruments
A Selective Discography Of Asian Free Reed Instruments
Western Free Reed Instruments
Return to Main Index