Chinese Music Instruments
Bowed-string Instruments 拉弦乐器
The Gaohu, also known as Yuehu, is developed from the erhu by the renowned master in Cantonese music, Lui Man-shing, in the 1920s. The construction is similar to that of the erhu, but the register is a fourth or fifth higher, which gives it a sonorous and brilliant tone. It was a leading instrument in Cantonese music and in the ensembles accompanying Cantonese opera in the past. Today, it forms the higher parts in Chinese string orchestration, and is especially appropriate for playing lyrical or lively melodies. Representative Gaohu concertos include The Poetry of Music, The Butterfly Lovers.
The Erhu is evolved from the Yazheng (bowed zither) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the xiqin family found around the areas of Xilamulun River in northeast China. In the early period, it was played with a bamboo stick pressing on the strings and therefore the tone colour tended to be brilliant with a metallic quality. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the bamboo stick was replaced by a bow. Between the 1910’s and 1930’s, a talented musician Liu Tianhua refined and developed the techniques of playing the instrument. Today, the Erhu has become a leading or solo instrument. It has sweet tone colours, and is technically demanding and rich in expressions. Representative Erhu pieces for solo include Reflection of the Moon on the Water, Torrents of the River and the Erhu concerto The Great Wall Capriccio.
The Zhonghu is in fact short for “alto Erhu”. It was derived from the Erhuduring the 1950’s, but has a larger tube resonator and a longer neck. In a Chinese orchestra, the zhonghu plays a supplementary role as it enriches the sounds of the string section and, in particular, the entire alto part. It can also be used for solo performance. On the Grassland is a well-known Zhonghu solo piece, and Suwu is a famous Zhonghu concerto.
Plucked-string Instruments 弹拨乐器
The shape of the Liuqin looks like a “liu (willow) leaf”, hence its name. It is also commonly called “tu pipa” and “jingang tui” and is a popular instrument in Shandong, Anhui and Jiangsu. The Liuqin is the principal accompanying instrument for the Liuqin Opera common in southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu, the Sizhou Opera of Anhui, and Shaoxing luantan of Zhejiang. Originally the Liuqin was an alto instrument fitted with two strings and seven frets. It was reformed into a soprano plucked instrument with four strings and twenty-nine frets in the 1950’s as a need of the Chinese ensemble. Its range is as wide as four octaves, comparable to that of a violin. Its tone quality is solid in the low register, tender in the middle register and sonorous in the high register with strong penetrating power. It is a plucked-string instrument for playing high-pitched melodies, has exuberant expressions and is hailed as the “gem” of Chinese orchestras. One of the representative pieces for solo is Spring Comes to River Yi.
Before the Sui (581-618) and the Tang Dynasties the Pipa was a general term referring to those plucked-string instruments ployed in hand-held positions with the outward fingering technique called “pi” and the inward one called “pa”. Instruments such as the Pipa and the Konghou (lyre) were introduced into China from the western regions. The ancient model of Pipa was equipped with four strings and four ledges. Nowadays the Pipa is equipped with six ledges and twenty-four frets. In the Tang Dynasty the plucking on Pipa was done with wooden plectrum; it is now with five fingers. The Pipa has rich expressiveness and is played with demanding techniques. Well-known Pipa melodies for solo include Moonlight over Spring River, Spring Snow and Ambush from All Sides.
The Yangqin is also called “hudie qin (butterfly lute)”, “shanmian qin (fan shaped lute)” and “daqin (dulcimer)”. At first it was found in Persia (now Iran) and Arabia, then made its inroads into China towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It became popular around the Guangdong region at first, and later spread all over China. In recent centuries it has became an important accompanying instrument in folk narrative singing and operatic music, particularly in such regional genres as Cantonese music, Chiuchow (Chaozhou) xianshi, Jiangnan sizhu and Hakka Han music.
The Yangqin is important in instrumental ensembles for its crisp tone quality, wide tonal range as well as chord, quick arpeggio capability and timbre. It is therefore popularly used for ensemble music playing as well as accompanying. The well-known solo pieces are Song of the General – Sichuan version and Yangge of Northeastern China.
The Zheng, a traditional instrument that existed already in the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.), was extremely popular in the State of Qin (around the Shaanxi region). Hence it was also referred to as Qin Zheng. Traditionally, it was used in ensembles and for accompanying folk narrative singing. The timbre of Zheng varies from the pristine and elegant to the crisp and sprightly according to the different kind of strings (silk or metal) used. Before the Han (206 BC – AD220) and the Jin (265 – 420) dynasties, it was fitted with 12 strings. After the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, it evolved into a 13-string version. The recently developed type is fitted with 21 strings. There is also a 25-string version that has a mechanism to enable the instrument to re-tune the strings instantly. The Zheng has a unique and rich expressiveness, capable of interpreting music of various moods, from the classically elegant to flying passions. It is played with diverse finesse and outstanding character. The well-known solo pieces are Song of the Homebound Fishermen, In Celebration of a Bumper Harvest and Battle against Typhoon.
The Ruan, called "Qin pipa" or "yueqin" in ancient times, was a kind of Pipa with a long neck. It was modelled upon such instruments as the Qin, Zheng, Zhu and the Konghou. Among the artifacts unearthed in the Six Dynasties (220-581) Tomb at Xishan Bridge, Nanjing, there was an engraved picture showing Ruan Xian, a member of the Seven Wise Men of the Bamboo Grove, playing a musical instrument. It was said that he showed excellent skill in playing this kind of instrument. Hence it was named after him. Today it has come to be known as Ruan for short. During the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907), the Ruan was generally used for playing court music and folk dance music. In ancient times the Ruan had 8 frets; nowadays it is equipped with 4 strings and 24 frets. It is enlarged into small, medium, large and bass versions called Xiaoruan, Zhongruan, Daruan and Diruan. However, only the Zhongruan (medium) and Daruan (large) are used in Chinese orchestras. With its rounded, rich tonal quality, the Ruan is an essential alto and tenor plucked-string instrument for ensemble playing as well as accompanying instrument for various kind of music. The well-known solo pieces include In Remembrance of Yunnan and Cherry Blossoms.
The Sanxian has a rather long history. It was written in Yang Shen’s Sheng’an waiji of the Ming Dynasty that “the origin of Sanxian dated back to the Yuan Dynasty” (1279-1368). Its origin can be traced to an ancient instrument of the Qin Dynasty called Xiantao.
In early days, the Sanxian was mostly used for accompanying narrative singing, operatic singing and operatic music. As time goes by, it has become a solo instrument and is widely used in Chinese instrumental ensembles of various sizes.
The unique tone color of the Sanxian, which is mellow and forceful with a metallic quality, gives it strong character. It is therefore used to express tunes with strong ethnic color and drama. In ensemble playing, it is often used to enrich the alto and tenor sections or enhance rhythm. The famous solo pieces include Shi-Ba-Ban and As the Waves Wash the Sand – Major.
Wind Instruments 吹管乐器
The Dizi, the transverse flute, is also known as "hengchui" or "hengdi" in the ancient times. It had its origin in the ethnic minorities of northwest China. In the reign of Emperor Han Wu, it was an important instrument in "guchui" (drum and wind music). Later, it became common all over the country, and many versions evolved. But generally they fell under either the Qudi or the Bangdi category. Since the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), it has been used as an accompanying instrument in theatrical music.
The Bangdi (a short Dizi with membrane) is popular in the north, predominantly as an accompanying instrument to the regional Clapper Opera or as part of folk ensembles in the north. It is a little shorter and smaller than the Qudi, with a higher register and brighter tone. It is performed with an animated and leaping rhythm. The technique is in tonguing. Representative works for bangdi solo include Wu Bangzi, A Happy Gathering and Birds in the Shade.
The Qudi (a long Dizi with membrane) is popular in the south, predominantly as an accompanying instrument to Kun Opera or as part of folk ensembles. In performance it characterizes itself with a rounded, rich tone. It is sweet and fluid, with a rhythm that progresses steadily to an expansiveness, while the melody tends to move in undulating patterns. The technique is in breathing control. Representative works for Qudi solo include The Flying Partridge, Three Five Seven and A Journey to Gusu.
The Dadi and Xindi perform the low range of the Dizi section. The Xindi has no membrane and its tone colours are more on the muted side. The Dadi has a membrane and its tone is deep and rich.
The Suona is one of the most wide spread wind instruments found in all ethnic groups in China. A “shawm” of Persia (now Iran) and Arabia origin, its name was originally a transliteration of a foreign term, surna. It was introduced into China in the Jin and Yuan periods, at first to inspire the soldiery. Later it came to be commonly used by the people.
Three types of Suona now exist: the bass Suona is solemn and deep, the alto Suona is vigorous and sonorous, and the soprano Suona, strident to the point of piercing.
It is used in festive celebrations, on happy occasions, weddings, funerals, and for religious functions. In the context of the Chinese orchestra, it has been constantly reformed and improved, and today, there are keyed soprano, keyed alto, keyed tenor and keyed bass versions. It is an expressive instrument for solo performance, and is rich in folk colour. Representative solo pieces include Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix and A Spray of Flowers.
The Sheng is an ancient Chinese instrument made up of reeded sounding pipes. The inscriptions on bones of the Yin Dynasty (15th Century BC) already showed the existence of the Sheng. The instrument was widely used as early as the Zhou Dynasty (ca 1066-256 BC). Before the Han Dynasty (206–220 BC), the two instruments Sheng and Yu which were of the same family existed alongside with each other, but only the Sheng was commonly used after the Song Dynasty.
Structurally, the Sheng is made up of three components – the Sheng body, sounding pipe and reed. As its shape looks like the phoenix (feng) wings, accordingly in ancient times it was also known as "fengsheng". As the instrument is made up of a number of reeds, it is often used to play chords. It has a brilliant and lucid tone quality. The present-day versions consist of 21, 24 and 36 reeds, and there are extended versions such as the amplified Sheng , the alto Baosheng, Paisheng etc.
The Sheng shows its unique character whether in terms of expressiveness, chords or dynamics. In the Chinese orchestra, it enriches with chords, balances or embellishes the tone qualities of various instrumental sections, and tones down the strength of certain instruments. One of the famous concerto pieces is The Peacock.
The Guanzi was known as "Bili" in ancient times. It was brought to China from Qiuci (a region in today’s Xinjiang province) around the Sui Dynasty. The Bili was a very important instrument in the Nine and Ten Genres of Music in the Sui and Tang Dynasties, hence it was called the “Head Guan”. Nowadays it is usually called Guan or Guanzi. The instrument can be found all over China, and is mainly found in folk "guchui" (drum and wind) music and Buddhist and Taoist music.
There are different varieties of Guanzi which are called differently from region to region. For example, it is called Houguan in Guangdong and Guanzi in the north. Generally a single Guanzi is used, but sometimes two may also be used in performances. The tone quality of Guanzi is expansive, whereas that of Houguan carries strong nasal timbre.
The Guanzi plays an enriching role for the middle register in an orchestra. Representative solo pieces include Torrents of the River and Herding Donkeys.
Percussion Instruments 打击乐器
Luo (Gongs) 锣
Bo (Cymbals) 钹
Muyu (Temple Block) 木鱼
Bangzi (Wood Block) 梆子
Yunluo (Cloud Gongs) 云锣
Dagu (Big Drum) 大鼓
Diluo (Tam-Tam) 低锣
Paigu (A Set of Tuned Drums) 排鼓