© 2003 - 2018 P. Missin - Details


After such basic free reed instruments as the enggung, the next evolutionary stage was to couple the free reed with a resonator of some sort, resulting in many different instruments across the Far East. I have catalogued the basic forms and given some specific examples of each.

Free reed noisemakers

Into the general category of "noisemakers" (which I hope does not sound too negative a description) I place musical toys and signalling devices, mostly incapable of melodic playing.

A. C. Moule describes the ku kuai and the similar sheng tzu, given to pilgrims at certain Chinese religious festivals. These both consist of a two chambered piece of bamboo with a couple of idioglottal free reeds cut into the sides.

Commonly found in many parts of South East Asia are free reed horns, such as the Burmese kwai, the Cambodian sneng and the Vietnamese tödiap. These are made from cow horn, water buffalo horn, or elephant tusk; open at either one or both ends, with a free reed placed over an opening midway along the concave side. The pitch of the note produced can be varied by covering and uncovering the open end(s). These instruments are chiefly used for alarm signals, funeral rites and other ritual purposes.

Free reed pipes

Widespread throughout Southeast Asia, but conspicuously absent from most of the standard musical instrument reference books, are the various free reed pipes. These consist of a length of bamboo or cane, with varying numbers of fingerholes and a free reed set into the wall of the pipe. These days the reed is usually of metal, typically a brass or bronze alloy, although examples with palm bark or bamboo reeds can still be found. This suggests that it may be possible that these instruments date as far back as the Stone Age.

Most commonly they are end-blown, such as the Thai pi joom, the Cambodian pey pok and the Vietnamese pi lao luong. In these the reed is located towards the closed end of the pipe and the end of the pipe is placed in the player's mouth, with the instrument held downwards at an angle. Often they are played using circular breathing.

Sometimes two such pipes are fastened together to form a double instrument, as with the Vietnamese pi doi and the Burmese pibat. Usually only one pipe has fingerholes, the other being used to provide a drone. The drone pipe is also sometimes thinner than the melody pipe.

Some free reed pipes, such as the well-known Chinese bawu and the somewhat lesser known Vietnamese ala, are transverse or side-blown instruments. In these, the reed is set part way down the pipe, with the instrument being played in a position similar to that of the typical Western flute.

Free reed pipes with gourd windchest

Often free reed pipes are given a gourd windchest, with the neck of the gourd being used as a mouthpiece. Single pipe instruments are still found amongst some of the hill tribes of Northern Thailand and bordering areas, but more commonly they have two or more pipes, such as the Chinese hulusi. Traditionally, these instruments have one melody pipe with fingerholes, the other pipe(s) being drone pipe without fingerholes. Recently "improved" models have appeared that have two melody pipes.

Mostly these instruments are end-blown, but there is at least one example of a transverse gourd reedpipe, the Vietnamese ding tac ta.

Free reed pipes with resonator

The mangtong (芒筒) is used as a bass instrument in the lusheng ensembles of various Chinese provinces. It consists of a fairly typical free reed pipe inserted into a large bamboo tube with a diameter of about 20cm and a length of between 60cm and 200cm, acting as a resonator to increase the sound of the reed pipe. A large lusheng ensemble might include up to two dozen mangtong players.

Mouth organs

The free reed pipes described above have a few disadvantages when compared with beating reed instruments and flutes. As free reeds cannot be overblown in the same way as flutes or the more common woodwind reeds, they tend to have a very limited range, rarely much more than an octave and often less. Also the timbre of the notes produced tends to change the further they depart from the natural pitch of the reed.

One solution to these limitations is to connect several reedpipes to the same wind source, each pipe being optimised for a particular pitch, making a small hand-held mouth-blown free reed organ. Each pipe has one reed (of palm bark, bamboo or more commonly of a brass or bronze alloy), its pitch being determined by the shape of the reed and often further tuned with a blob of wax added to weight the tip of the reed. The pipe itself (usually of bamboo) is tuned to the appropriate pitch either by simply cutting it to length, or by cutting tuning holes or slots into the wall of the pipe. Several such pipes are then inserted into a windchest of gourd, carved wood or metal, having some sort of mouthpiece. Usually a fingerhole is made in a convenient place on each pipe, without this hole being covered, the resonance system of pipe and reed is inactive and no sound is produced. In some mouth organs certain fingerholes are sometimes stopped stopped with a piece of wax in order to provide a constant drone behind other notes selected by the player's fingers. In some instruments, such as the sompoton of Borneo, certain pipes lack fingerholes and the notes are selected by covering and uncovering the open ends of the pipes. On most mouth organs the reeds respond to both blowing and drawing.

Mouth organs could be further classified according to several more or less arbitrary schemes, such as the number of pipes, tuning system, reed materials, etc. I have chosen to group them together according to the way the pipes are arranged.

Mouth organs with bundled pipes

In these instruments, a bundle of pipes is inserted into a windchest, usually of gourd. Examples include the hulusheng used by several minority groups in Southern China and neighbouring countries, as well as the increasingly rare keluri and enkulurai of Northwestern Borneo.

Mouth organs in double raft form

These have two rows of pipes side by side along the instrument, in line with the mouthpiece of the instrument. Examples include the sompoton of Northeastern Borneo, the Thai/Laotian khaen and the lusheng played by various Chinese minority groups (the latter two having windchests of carved wood, contrasting with the gourd windchest of the former).

Mouth organs with pipes arranged in crosswise row(s)

These have one or more rows of pipes arranged across the windchest, at a right angle to the direction of the mouthpiece. Examples include the Chinese fangsheng, the Bangladeshi plung and the Vietnamese m'buot.

Mouth organs with circular arrangement of pipes

Probably the most familiar type of Asian mouth organ to most people is the Chinese sheng, its most common form having 17 pipes of varying lengths forming an incomplete circle around a windchest of either carved wood or metal. Tradition credits the invention of the sheng to various semi-mythical characters such as the Emperor Huang Di (AKA Huang Ti, etc.) or the Empress Nu Gua (AKA Nu Kua, Nu Qua, Nu Koua, Nawa, etc.) in the third millennium BCE, its shape said to have been inspired by the phoenix at rest on its nest (with the shape of the Chinese panpipes paixiao representing the phoenix in flight). The word sheng (笙) has become something of a standard term for mouth organs, however the earliest written descriptions (as far back as the fifteenth century BCE) use the name he (和, meaning "harmony") to describe a small mouth organ, chao (巢, meaning "nest", presumably referring to its resemblance to a bird's nest) to describe a medium sized one and yu (竽) to describe a somewhat larger one, all having varying numbers of pipes often arranged in crosswise rows. Later the seventeen pipe circular arrangement became more or less standardised, with the name yu denoting an instrument primarily used for melodic purposes and the name sheng denoting one used for mainly harmonic purposes. These older instruments often had much longer mouthpieces than those used on modern ones - it is suggested that this was so the emperor could see the faces of the female court musicians that serenaded him!

Of the seventeen pipes of the typical sheng, traditionally three or four were blocked and had no reeds, however by the mid-twentieth century these silent pipes were often given reeds to add some chromatic notes to its traditional diatonic scale. Also larger instruments with more pipes started to be produced and resonators added to give more volume. New variations on the traditional sheng have been invented, such as the keyed sheng or jiajian sheng (加键笙). As its name suggests, instead of the notes being selected by the player's fingers, there is a system of keys or buttons which open and close the ends of the pipes. The most recent versions of this instrument have 37 pipes, covering three fully chromatic octaves. Larger ensembles sometimes use the da paisheng (大排笙, "large row sheng"), a large floor-standing organ-like instrument and the somewhat smaller baosheng (抱笙, "held sheng"), supported by a stand or held in the player's lap.

The sheng was introduced into Korea during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE to 668 CE), where it became known as the saeng (생) or saenghwang (생황). Typically the saenghwang has seventeen pipes, with one of them being silent. It is not a commonly featured instrument in Korean classical music, although it is sometimes used in duet with flute or dulcimer.

By the sixth century CE, the Chinese mouth organ had also spread to Persia, where it was known as mushtaq sini, bisha-i mushta and later as chubchiq. The instrument is depicted in several illustrations from that period, but seems not to have entered the mainstream of Persian music.

Around the eight century CE, the Chinese presented a gift of three sheng and three yu to the Japanese court. The yu fell almost immediately into disuse, but the sheng took root and became known by the Japanese name sho (represented by the same character used by the Chinese, 笙). Slimmer and higher pitched than the typical sheng, the sho has seventeen pipes, of which two are traditionally silent. Its most common application is in playing long sustained tone clusters to accompany gagaku performance, but in recent years some composers have started to exploit the melodic capabilities of the sho, the late John Cage being one of them.

Various specimens of sheng also made it as far as Europe, where they are often said to have been one of the main inspirations for the development of the Western free reed instruments.

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

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