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What is a Shehnai?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The shehnai is a woodwind instrument that is of Indian origin. It is sometimes called the North Indian Oboe, and it does resemble the more traditional Western Oboe in appearance. It is a long, often wooden instrument that has two double reeds at the top — called a quadruple reed — and a slightly widening bell at the bottom. Like a recorder or song flute, different notes are produced by covering or uncovering the six to nine holes on the instrument, while using breath control to “blow” or vibrate the top reeds. The shehnai takes considerable skill to master because mouth control and how the mouth is held (ombrachure) require practice.

There are several different possible origins for the shehnai. Some say it descends from a Persian instrument called the nai. Nai is Persian for flute. Pictures of the nai can be found in Egyptian tombs dating back five millennia. A closer connection is to the pungi, the instrument used in snake charming.

Some believe the shehnai was developed from the pungi to create better and more performance worthy sounds. One legend suggests that the pungi’s sounds were so distasteful to the Shah (king) that he (and it’s unclear which Shah was involved) banned the instrument, leading to the development of an instrument that could be tolerated in the king’s court. Whatever the instrument’s origins, the shehnai has a very important place in both secular and sacred music.

The shehnai is played with other Indian instruments during many formal occasions. It is often heard at weddings, where it is considered especially lucky. Shehnais may also be used during processions, like funeral processions. The sound produced can be somewhat mournful, a cross between an oboe and a muted trumpet, and typically, traditional Indian music employs a far different chord structure than does Western music. For the Western listener, hearing the shehnai in Indian music may at first sound very different, though many call the instrument’s sounds peaceful, meditative, and beautiful.

In the 20th century, many Indian musicians became interested in concert performances of traditional Indian music. Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) is considered to be a shehnai virtuoso. He is credited with exceptional skill and to some reviewers and fans, came as close to making the instrument “talk” as is possible. Due to his success and the trend toward concert performances of Indian music, you can hear many recordings of Khan and others. You’ll also hear the sounds of this instrument in almost every Bollywood film.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On May 25, 2011

Yes, Bismillah Khan is important, not just because he was extremely talented with the shehnai, but also because he was the first artist that started to use the instrument in everyday music. Before it was only used for religious processions.

He was also inspired by the nature in India. He is said to have been in love with the Ganges river. It inspired him to play the shehnai the way that he did. It was also the reason why he never wanted to live anywhere else. He felt that if he was away from India, he would lose his inspiration to make music.

By candyquilt — On May 23, 2011

Shehnai is made up of the words "shah" and "nai." It is said that it was first played by a barber (nai) for the Shah. I don't know if it is true, maybe the part about the barber was made up to account for it's ancestor, the nai instrument.

By ysmina — On May 22, 2011

The music produced by the shehnai is amazing. It carries a lot of emotion. It can make me dance or cry. I love it for that reason.

It is used in practically every Indian wedding. I think Punjabis in North India use it a lot. It's really a perfect instrument for weddings because just like the article said, there is both sadness and joy in it. Brides are always sad to leave their parent's home but excited to step into a new life.

The shehnai will always be my favorite instrument for sure.

By Bozz — On Aug 29, 2008

Anyone know where i can get fingering charts for the shehnai? I have been searching for very long.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia...
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