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Learn Classical Chinese Music | Traditional Instruments | Audio Clips

Learn more about the following traditional instruments:

Erhu (pronounced ER-hoo)


The erhu (二胡), sometimes known in the West as the 'Chinese violin' or Chinese two string fiddle, is a bowed musical instrument, used as a solo instrument as well as in small ensembles and large orchestras.  The erhu can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed to have evolved from the xiqin (奚琴), which was described as a foreign, two-stringed lute in a music encyclopedia by music theorist Chen Yang called Yue Shu (book of music), written during the Northern Song Dynasty.  The xiqin is believed to have originated from the Xi people of Central Asia, who came to China in the 10th century.
The erhu consists of a long vertical wooden neck, at the top of which are two large tuning pegs, and at the bottom is a small wooden resonator body (sound box) covered with python skin on the front (playing) end.  Two strings are attached from the pegs to the base, and a small loop of string (qian jin) placed around the neck and strings acting as a nut pulls the strings towards the skin, holding a small wooden bridge in place.
The erhu has some unusual features that make it very different from the violin.  First is that its characteristic sound is produced through the vibration of the python skin by bowing.  Second, there is no fingerboard; the player stops the strings by pressing their fingertips onto the strings without the strings touching the neck.  Third, the bow hair is never separated from the strings; it passes between them as opposed to over them.  Lastly, although there are two strings, they are very close to each other and the player's left hand in effect plays on one string.  The inside string (nearest to player) is generally tuned to D4 and the outside string to A4, a fifth higher.  The range of the instrument is approximately three and a half octaves, similar to that of the violin.

Guzheng (pronounced goo-JUNG)


The guzheng (古箏) is a traditional Chinese musical instrument that belongs to the zither family.  It is the parent instrument of the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.  The modern guzheng is a plucked zither with movable bridges and typically 21 strings.  Its sound can express a cascading waterfall, thunder and even the scenic countryside.  The guzheng's pentatonic scale ranges to Do, Re, Mi, So and La, but Fa and Ti can also be produced by pressing the strings to the left of the bridges.
The ancient guzheng had 12 strings, which gradually evolved into the modern form. Tuned pentatonically over four octaves, it has existed since the Warring States Period and became especially popular during the Qin dynasty.  Until 1961, the common guzheng had 18 strings.  In 1961 Xu Zhengao and Wang Xunzhi introduced the first 21-string guzheng after two years of research and development.  That same year, they also invented the "S-shaped" left string rest, which was quickly adopted by all guzheng makers and is still used today.


Dizi (pronounced DEE-dz)


The dizi (笛子) is a Chinese transverse flute.  It is popular not only in Chinese folk music, Chinese operas, and Chinese orchestras, but also used in music exported to the West.  The instrument has a deep, rich history and a lasting appeal.  Traditionally, it has also been popular among the Chinese common people, since it is simple to make, easy to carry, and beautiful when played.  Most dizi are made of bamboo, which explains why they are sometimes known by simple names such as "Chinese bamboo flute."  
Whereas most simple flutes have only a blowing hole (an embouchure, known as chui kong in Chinese) and finger-holes, the dizi has very different additional hole, called a mo kong, between the embouchure and finger-holes.  A special membrane called dimo (笛膜), made from an almost tissue-like shaving of bamboo, is made taut and glued over this hole.  The mokong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder, and adding harmonics to give the final tone a buzzing, nasal quality.  Dizi have a relatively large range, covering more than two octaves.
There are many suggestions for the source of dizi.  While some suggest that the Yellow Emperor ordered his government official to make the bamboo musical instrument, others believe that dizi was imported into China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).  Recently, archaeologists have discovered evidence suggesting that simple transverse flutes have been present in China for over 8,000 years.  Fragments of bone flutes from this period are still playable today, and are remarkably similar to modern versions in terms of hole placement, etc.  These flutes share common features of other simple flutes from cultures all around the world, including the ney, an end-blown cane flute which was depicted in Egyptian paintings and stone carvings.  In fact, recent archeological discoveries in Africa suggest that the history of such flutes may date back a very long way in human history indeed.

Pipa (pronounced PEE-pah)

Pipa
The pipa (琵琶) is a plucked Chinese string instrument.  Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body.  It has been played for nearly two thousand years in China.  The modern pipa has four strings and 29 or 30 frets based on the 12-tone equal temperament scale, with all the intervals being semitones.  The traditional 16 fret pipa is becoming less common, although it is still used in some regional styles. 
Prototypes of the pipa have existed since the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), and the instrument became popular in the imperial court during the Tang dynasty.  The pipa is referred to frequently in Tang poetry, where it is often praised for its refinement and delicacy of tone.  Many delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period. Masses of pipa-playing Buddhist semi-deities are depicted in the wall paintings of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang.

Yangqin (pronounced YANG-cheen)

The yangqin (揚琴) is a Chinese hammered dulcimer, and it is used both as a solo instrument and in ensembles.  It has been called the "Chinese piano" for its indispensible role in the accompaniment of Chinese string and wind instruments.  In the orchestra, the yangqin often adds to the harmony by playing chords or arpeggios.  The ends of the sticks can be used to pluck the strings, producing a crisp and clear tone quality.  As the yangqin is softer than other Chinese instruments, it is usually positioned near the front of the orchestra, in the row just in front of the conductor.
The trapezoidal instrument was traditionally fitted with bronze strings, which gave the instrument a soft timbre.  Since the 1950s, however, steel alloy strings (in conjunction with copper-wound steel strings for the bass notes) have been used to give the instrument a brighter and louder tone.  The modern yangqin has about 200 strings of various thicknesses, and it is a chromatic instrument with a range of over 4 octaves.
The strings are struck with two lightweight bamboo beaters (also known as hammers) with rubber tips.  Due to their unique construction, there are two ways to play: with the rubber side for a softer sound, and with the bamboo side for a more percussive sound.  A professional musician often carries several sets of beaters, each of which draws a slightly different tone from the instrument, much like the drum sticks of Western percussionists.

Ruan (pronounced RON)

The ruan (阮) is a Chinese plucked string instrument that comes in various sizes.  It is related to the lute with a fretted neck, a circular body, and four strings.  The modern ruan has 24 frets that are made of ivory or metal.  Its strings were traditionally made of silk, but since the 20th century they have been made of steel.  The instrument can be played using a plectrum similar to a guitar pick.  Today, the ruan is commonly used in Chinese opera and the Chinese orchestra.
The ruan has a history of over 2000 years.  According to the Pipa Annals of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the ruan was designed after revision of other Chinese plucked string instruments of the day, including the Chinese zither and harp.  The instrument came to be named after Ruan Xian (阮咸), one of the reputed "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" of the Six Dynasties period (3rd century AD) in ancient China, who was a highly skilled master musician of the ruan.

Suona (pronounced swoh-NAH)

The suona (嗩吶) is a Chinese shawm that can be made in several sizes.  It has a distinctively loud and high-pitched sound, and is used frequently in Chinese traditional music ensembles, particularly those that perform outdoors.  The instrument has a conical wooden body, similar to that of the Western oboe, but uses a brass or copper mouthpiece to which a small double reed is affixed, and possesses a detachable metal bell at its end. 
The suona is an important instrument in the folk music of northern China, where it has long been used for festival and military purposes.  A musician playing an instrument very similar to a suona is shown on a drawing on a Silk Road religious monument in western Xinjiang province from the 3rd to 5th centuries, and depictions dating to this period found in Shandong and other regions of northern China portray the instrument being played in military processions, sometimes on horseback.  Today, the suona is still used, in combination with sheng mouth organs, gongs, drums, and sometimes other instruments, in wedding and funeral processions.

Sheng (pronounced SHUNG)

The sheng (笙) is a mouth-blown reed instrument consisting essentially of several vertical pipes.  It is thought that Pere Amiot traveled to China during the late 18th century and brought the instrument back to Europe, where it inspired the invention of the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ.  The traditional Chinese sheng has 17 to 30 pipes depending on maker, model, and regional culture.
Traditionally, the sheng has been used for accompaniment of solo suona performance or in small ensembles.  In the modern Chinese orchestra, it is used in 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.

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