Chinese Musical Instruments

Among the many traditional musical instruments of China, the most popular nowadays include the stringed instruments called the erhu, pipa, and guzheng, and the dizi flutes.

The stringed instruments originated in foreign regions and were modified. When tourists think of their experiences in China, the poignant sounds of these Chinese instruments often color their memories.

Erhu 二胡

The erhu will probably be the traditional instrument that you’ll be most likely to see in a trip to China. You might see it played non-professionally for entertainment in public parks, and it is also played by street musicians.

Peasants like it since it is comparatively inexpensive and portable, and it is also now popular in Chinese opera performances and traditional orchestras. It was once mainly used in operatic performances, but now it is popular as a solo instrument.

Description

Pronounced èrhú (urrh-hoo) in Mandarin, it is a two-string, violin-like instrument that is played with a bow like a violin bow. It isn’t as loud a violin because the sound box is small. The sound box traditionally has a snakeskin cover, but modern instruments are made with modern materials.

Erhus generally retain the traditional tuning system, so they may sound odd to Western ears. It allows for a high degree of virtuosity, covers three octaves, and can be made to imitate the sound of Chinese singing and birds and horses. It produces a melancholy sound.

Classical melody

The Moon over a Fountain(二泉映月), Horse Racing(赛马), Jackdaw Playing in the Water(寒鸦戏水), The Moon over the Han Palace(汉宫水月), Celebrating the Spring Festival(闹春)

Guzheng 古箏

Pronounced gǔzhēng (goo-jung) in Mandarin, it is a large 1823-or-more stringed instrument. It is said that it is an ancestor of the Japanese koto.

It isn’t commonly played in parks or on the streets. It is meant for Chinese opera and concert performances, and it is often played in traditional music ensembles. It is usually played by female musicians.

How It's Played

Unlike Japanese koto players who kneel of the floor, Chinese musicians sit in chairs in front of guzheng desks. Unlike the koto ensembles, the guzheng is more often performed solo. Modern guzheng instruments are often played by pinching the strings to play heptatonic notes and chords.

Classical melody

High Mountain and Running Water(高山流水), Fishing Boat Sings the Evening(渔舟唱晚), Jackdaw Playing in the Water(寒鸦戏水), Fighting the Typhoon(战台风), The Moon over the Han Palace(汉宫秋月)

Pipa 琵琶

The pipa (pípá, pee-pah) is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument. The instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with frets like those on a guitar. It sounds like a banjo.

Origins

The pipa became popular as Silk Road trade and travel brought Buddhism, and great change, to the region. It is thought that the instrument originated somewhere in western or southern Asia. The instrument was popular in Chengdu, the capital of the Tang Empire (618–907). Paintings and artwork of the Tang era depict the pipa being played by musicians in flowing robes.

Nowadays, pipa musicians will mainly be seen on the stage or perhaps as entertainers at special parties or restaurants. Modern pipas have been re-engineered to fit better with Western-style music. Steel strings are now used, so players wear special finger plectra.

Classical melody

The House of Flying Daggers(十面埋伏), King Chu Doffs His Armor(霸王卸甲), Fortress Song(塞上曲), Zhaojun Departs the Frontier(昭君出塞), Gold and Sand(大浪淘沙)

Dizi 笛子

Dizis are generally made of bamboo, and they generally have six or more finger holes. One hole is covered with paper so that the flute has a peculiar buzzing sound that people like.

Modern dizis may have a range of about two and a half octaves. Since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it has been used for theatrical performance. You may see these being played in the cities and countryside for fun.

Kinds of Dizi

There are several kinds of dizi (dízi /dee-dz/) flutes such as the qudi and bangdi depending mainly on the length. The longer ones like the changdi allow for deeper sounds.

Classical melody

Guangling Verse(广陵散), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月), Wild Geese on the Sandbank(平沙落雁), Plum-blossom in Three Movements(梅花三弄), Orchid(幽兰)

Dulcimer 扬琴

Dulcimer, a kind of strike-stringed instrument, was firstly introduced to China by Persian (an ancient Arabic country) at the end of Ming Dynasty. In the performance, it plays a role like the piano. Two jean bamboos (a kind of elastic small bamboo hammer) are used to strike the strings.

Classical melody

Jubilant(喜洋洋), Fishing Boat Sings the Evening(渔舟唱晚), Birds Paying Homage to the King(百鸟朝凤), The Rain Dozen Banana(雨打芭蕉), Gold and Sand(大浪淘沙)

Guqin 古琴

Also called heptachord, Guqin is one of the oldest plucked instruments in China, which appeared not late than Yao and Shun period. Players pluck the string by right hand and press by left hand.

Classical melody

Guangling Verse(广陵散), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月), Wild Geese on the Sandbank(平沙落雁), Plum-blossom in Three Movements(梅花三弄), Orchid(幽兰)

Huqin 胡琴

Huqin is a kind of Mongolian arco instrument. Due to its gentle and resonant sound that is full of prairie flavor, Huqin is a good choice for solo, accompaniment and instrumental ensemble. Now Huqin is very popular in Inner Mongolia.

Classical melody

Textile Folk Song(纺织谣), Huqin Sanqu(胡琴散曲), Fishing man Song(渔夫曲), The Farmer Music(农夫乐), Two Springs Bard(二泉吟)

Liuqin 柳琴

Liuqin, a plucked stringed musical instrument, firstly appeared in Suzhou, Shandong and Anhui, which has been one of the stringed instruments with a pear-shaped body since the Tang Dynasty. Its appearance, structure and the law of playing are similar to Pipa. Liuqin is often used to accompany the traditional Chinese opera.

Classical melody

Sword(剑器), After Rain Courtyard(雨后庭院), Spring to Yi River(春到沂河), kapok Blossom(木棉花开), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月)

Hulus 葫芦丝

Hulus, a kind of free reed wind instrument, is one of the special music instruments among Yunnan ethnic minorities. Because of its unique and beautiful sound, simple, gentle and elegant appearance, and easy to learn, Hulus is welcome by primary and middle school students, music lovers and visitors from home and abroad.

Classical melody

Moonlight under of Phoenix Tail Bamboo(月光下的凤尾竹), A Beautiful Place, Lusheng Love Song(芦笙恋歌), Peacocks and Phoenix Tail Bamboo(金孔雀和凤尾竹), Deep in Bamboo Forest(竹林深处)

Xiao 箫

Xiao, also named, is a Chinese vertical end-blown flute. Usually it is made of bamboo and has blow holes on the top. The performance techniques of Xiao are similar to bamboo flute, and Xiao is suitable for playing some long, quiet and sentimental songs.

Classical melody

The autumn Moon Over the calm Lake(平湖秋月), Autumn Yearning at the Dressing Table(妆台秋思), Plum-blossom in Three Movements(梅花三弄), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月), Wild Geese over the Clam Sands(平沙落雁)

Suona 唢呐

Introduced by Persian, Suona, also named horn, is a kind of Chinese playing music instrument. Because of its keen and resonant sound, Suona is often used in yangko, drum music and to accompany local opera and ballad.

Classical melody

Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix(百鸟朝凰), A Flower(一枝花), Beating Down the Dates(打枣), The Happy Family(全家福), Shandong Bass Drum(山东大鼓)

Lusheng 芦笙

Lusheng is a yellow wind instrument for Miao, Yao and Dong ethnic minority in southwestern area. Lusheng is made of Sheng measure, Sheng tube, reeds and resonance tube. As a popular music instrument for ethnic minorities, people like holding Lusheng party to celebrate their own national festivals.

Classical melody

Dance of the Yao People(瑶族舞曲), A Happy Song on Yi People(彝寨欢歌), Steppe Cavalry(草原骑兵), Winter Hunting(冬猎), Su Wu the Shepherd(苏武牧羊)

Sun 埙

Sun is an egg-shaped playing music instrument with six holes, which is made of clay. It is mainly used for court music in Chinese music history. The playing techniques of Sun are air blowing and tongue blowing, and the fingering techniques form its performance techniques.

Classical melody

Leave for the West Col(走西口), The Song of Chu(楚歌), Su Wu the Shepherds(苏武牧羊), Missing(思), Londonderry Air(秋夜吟)

Chimes 编钟

Made of bronze, Chimes are percussion instruments. Chimes are a set of bells hanging on a big bell-cot, arranging according to different tones of bells. if you use wooden hammer and bar to knock the bronze bell, it will have different sound.

Classical melody

Moon and Flower in the Spring River(春江花月夜), Qu Yuan Asked for Crossing a River(屈原问渡), Orchid(幽兰), Bamboo(竹), Chu Lag(楚殇)

Further Reading

Hi, I'm Ruru Zhou
I updated this article on May 22, 2013
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