When people think of Chinese instruments, the first that comes to mind is usually the erhu, pipa, or dizi. The only instrument in the Chinese orchestra capable of playing chords of 3 or more notes simultaneously, the sheng is a woodwind instrument that is not commonly known. Its variants come in vastly different shapes and sizes, which may form a point of confusion for those who do not know much about it.
Nevertheless, in recent years, ensembles such as Resonance – the Sheng ensemble have helped bring this lesser-known instrument into the spotlight, showcasing its versatility as both an accompanying and solo instrument. As such, this blog post aims to introduce the different types of sheng commonly seen today.
The sheng is an ancient instrument that has undergone extensive reformation in the 20th century in order to cater to the demands of the Chinese orchestra. Hence, aside from the traditional shengs (of which there are also many), there are a series of reformed shengs that cover extensive pitch ranges. These are the two major types of sheng – the traditional shengs, which have fingerholes, and the reformed shengs, which are keyed instruments.
Shengs can also be differentiated according to shape – the bao (lit. “hug”) sheng, and the pai (lit. “line”) sheng. As their names suggest, the bao sheng refers to any sheng that has a circular base or windchest, while the pai sheng refers to any sheng that has a flat surface on which keys are affixed, much like a piano. These terms are usually used to differentiate between types of zhong yin (alto) and di yin (bass) shengs, though they may be applied to any.
Students usually prefer to learn the pai sheng, at it allows them to look at the keys while playing, thus making it easier for them to learn. However, it has been argued that the timbre of a bao sheng is far superior to that of a pai sheng.
Within the reformed shengs – those that we commonly see in Chinese orchestras – there are three major types: the gaoyin (soprano) sheng, the zhongyin (alto) sheng and the diyin (bass) sheng. There is also a cizhongyin (tenor) sheng, but that is not often used as its range overlaps with both the zhongyin and diyin sheng. The gaoyin and zhongyin shengs usually have 36 keys (though there is a 38-keyed variant of the gaoyin sheng which is growing increasingly popular), while the diyin sheng has 32 keys.
Traditional shengs – otherwise known as chuangtong shengs – come with varying numbers of reeds as well, the most common being the 17-reed, 21-reed and 24-reed variants. While they may have a limited number of notes as compared to the fully chromatic reformed shengs, they are able to perform fingerhole-related techniques such as the huayin (portamento), which the keyed reformed shengs cannot.
Metal pipe resonators are often added in order to raise the volume of a sheng considerably, especially for reformed shengs.
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