The sheng is one of the oldest species of Chinese instruments. It is a gourd type free reed instrument. It consists of a bundle (17 to 36) of pipes seated on a small wind chamber. At the root of the pipe is a free brass reed. The reedy tone with its resonance in the bamboo pipe gives great clarity of tone. The sheng is capable of playing chords and can be played by both exhaling and inhaling.
Shengs come in different sizes and ranges. The consort of sheng somewhat compensates for the absence of brass instruments in Chinese orchestration.
Traditional shengs are played help up to the mouth by both hands. Keyed shengs utilize keyed systems and are chromatic. Modern shengs may utilize metal pipes to amplify the sound. Modern shengs are also typically larger than their traditional counterparts, and contain more pipes/notes.
The sheng is considered the mother of many western free reed instruments such as the accordion, harmonica, and pipe organ.
The sheng was introduced into Japan during the Nara period. The Japanese sheng, called sho, contains 17 pipes and is quite similar to traditional 17 piped shengs today. Remarkably, the sho has seen very little change after all this time and is likely closer to ancient shengs than modern traditional shengs are today.
The sheng was also introduced to Korea as the saenghwang and is almost identical to the sheng, but with different tuning.
Traditional shengs originally had around 17 pipes of which only 13 or 14 where actually fitted with reeds. The others were to maintain aesthetic balance. After the introduction of guoyue music, the sheng was expanded to 17 to 21 pipes all of which had reeds.
In recent years, traditional shengs have been expanded to include more notes and keyed mechanisms for certain notes.
The sheng is lifted up to the mouth to play. A finger hole serves as the activating mechanism for each pipe/note. When the hole is covered and air inhaled or exhaled, the reed would vibrate and a pitch would be produced.
Because of the finger holes, the traditional sheng is capable of techniques that keyed shengs are not capable of. An example of which is bending a note – which requires the player to go from a fully cover hole to a semi-covered hole. This fact and the lack of chromatic ability resulted in the traditional sheng being mainly used for solos and concertos.
The keyed sheng came about around the 1950s as a result of the guoyue movement. The movement introduced more notes/pipes as well as a fully keyed mechanism. The instrument is chromatic meaning it can play more than just the traditional folk songs that were previously played. The wider range and chromatic notes lends means the keyed sheng feels more at home within the orchestra.
Different types of keyed sheng exist. Some use keys not dissimilar to those found on a western flute or saxophone, others use buttons, and some may even you a keyboard. Keyboard shengs are also known as pai shengs.