orig. China The sheng is a mouth organ made of metal, wood or a gourd with a blowpipe and at least 17 bamboo or metal pipes extending from the top of the bowl. The elegant symmetrical arrangement of the pipes represents the folded wings of the mythical phoenix. Inside the bowl, each pipe has a hole covered by a metal tongue that interrupts the air current to produce a strikingly clear, metallic sound. Western harmonicas, reed organs and concertinas use the same basic acoustical principles.
Mouth organs similar to the sheng are first mentioned in Chinese texts dating from the 14th to 12th centuries B.C.E. Today, the sheng is used primarily to play Chinese classical music with other traditional Chinese instruments, such as the pipa and erhu. However, some innovative musicians, such as Wu Tong of the successful Chinese hard rock band Again, have also been recontextualizing the sheng in popular music.