It is thought that Johann Wilde and traveled to China and brought the first shengs back to Europe in 1740 and 1777 respectively, although some believe shengs were known in Europe centuries earlier. However, it was only in the early 1800s that Amiot's sheng inspired the invention of the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ.
Traditionally, the ''sheng'' has been used as an accompaniment instrument for solo ''suona'' or ''dizi'' performances, in ''kunqu'' and some other forms of Chinese opera, and in small ensembles. In the modern symphonic Chinese orchestra, it is used for both melody and accompaniment. Its warm mellow sound expresses lyrical melodies well, while its ability to play chords makes it a highly prized accompaniment instrument.
The sheng has been used in the works of a few non-Chinese composers, including Lou Harrison, Tim Risher, Brad Catler, and Christopher Adler.
Shengs are broadly classified into two categories: traditional ''sheng'' and keyed ''sheng'' . Keyed shengs have only been developed in modern times, c. 1950 onwards.
The traditional sheng is the original type of sheng, which has seventeen, twenty-one, twenty-four or thirty pipes . Uses treble clef when in western notation, but more often uses jianpu, Chinese numerical notation.
The difference between a traditional and keyed sheng lies in its mechanism. On a traditional sheng, the holes on the pipes are pressed directly by the player's fingers. On a keyed sheng, the holes are opened and closed by means of keys or levers. Without keys, the great number of pipes and the size of the alto to bass instruments makes it impractical for operation by hand.
Covering a hole causes the entire length of the pipe to resonate with the reeds' frequency. If the hole is open, the resonance frequency would not match, and hence no sound is produced.
Currently, there are four main ranges of keyed sheng, forming a family of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. All of them are chromatic throughout their range, and tuned to the equal temperament scale.
* Gaoyin sheng
36-pipe sheng with a soprano range of G3 to F#6 . Uses treble clef
* Zhongyin sheng
36-pipe sheng with an alto range of C3 to B5. Perfect 5th lower than Gaoyin sheng. It has an additional row of 12 keys coloured in black, which when depressed plays all 3 pipes corresponding to the same note in different octaves. E.g., pressing the black "C" causes the notes C3, C4 and C5 to be sounded simultaneously. Uses treble and alto clefs.
* Cizhongyin sheng
36-pipe sheng with a tenor range of G2 to F#5. One octave lower than soprano sheng. Uses alto clef, or treble clef transposed down an octave.
* Diyin sheng
32-pipe sheng with a bass range of C2 to G4. Uses bass clef.
Notable sheng players
*Feng Haiyun .
*Hu Tianquan - introduced several technical improvements on the construction of the instrument