Object: Mouth organ

E/1955/17/1
Mouth Organ (sheng or sho)
Japanese
Japan
Unknown date: prior to 1955
Materials: bamboo, lacquer, cloth, and brass

This object is a mouth organ, or sho from Japan. This type of musical instrument was developed in Japan based on a similar type of instrument, the Chinese sheng. Sho are used in Gagaku, the traditional orchestral music of the Japanese court. This type of instrument is played by blowing air into the mouthpiece or drawing air through the instrument, which circulates the air into the bamboo tubes where it vibrates tiny metal reeds. Because the instrument produces sound on both the inhale and exhale, long periods of uninterrupted sound are possible. The tubes are arranged to represent the folded wings of a phoenix, a symbol of the imperial house. It is also thought that the sho imitates the call of the phoenix.

The present day Japanese sho is thinner than the Chinese sheng, and plays at a higher octave. Traditionally sho were constructed from very old and blackened bamboo that was part of a thatched roof, directly above the kitchen in a traditional Japanese house. Today the pieces of bamboo use in the construction of a sho are still heated over a fire to eliminate moisture that could effect the sound.

The following video demonstrates how a Japanese sho is played.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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