Type: Free Reed > Aerophones.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 412.132
Region: Far East Asia.
Description: The shō [in Japanese, Kanji 笙] is a Japanese free reed musical instrument that was introduced from China during the Nara period (AD 710 to 794). It is descended from the Chinese sheng, although the shō tends to be smaller in size. It consists of 17 slender bamboo pipes, each of which is fitted in its base with a metal free reed. Two of the pipes are silent, although research suggests that they were used in some music during the Heian period.
Usage: The shō is one of the three primary woodwind instruments used in gagaku, Japan’s imperial court music. Its traditional playing technique in gagaku involves the use of tone clusters called aitake [合竹], which move gradually from one to the other, providing accompaniment to the melody. A larger size of shō, called u (derived from the Chinese yu), is little used, although some performers, such as Hiromi Yoshida, began to revive it in the late 20th century.
Playing Techniques: The instrument’s sound is said to imitate the call of a phoenix, and it is for this reason that the two silent pipes of the shō are kept—as an aesthetic element, making two symmetrical “wings”. Like the Chinese sheng, the pipes are tuned carefully with a drop of bees wax. As moisture collected in the shō’s pipes prevents it from sounding, performers can be seen warming the instrument over a small charcoal brazier when they are not playing. The instrument produces sound when the player’s breath is inhaled or exhaled, allowing long periods of uninterrupted play.
Citations: Sho and the Gagaku [court orchestra music] Music of a Thousand Autumns; By Robert Garfias.