Chinese Orchestra: A Video Introduction to Chinese Musical Instruments

The following video is a performance of the song In that Faraway Place by the SKH Lam Woo Memorial Secondary School Chinese Orchestra. The work features a lot of solos, so it can serve as a good introduction to the musical instruments traditionally used in a Chinese Orchestra. If you view the video using YouTube’s caption function (click the CC icon on the bottom), subtitles will appear describing the featured instruments and some of the playing techniques used.

The following instruments are included in the orchestra (I took the photos at rehearsals in 2013 and 2014):

Bowed string Instruments: erhu, zhonghu, gaohu (the huqin family of instruments)

The erhu (二胡) is a two-stringed spiked fiddle. It is descended from an instrument of the Xi people who lived in the Mongolian steppes. It has a wide range of sounds, but it is best known for its melancholy timbre. The material covering the hexagonal resonator box at the bottom of the instrument is python skin, a government-regulated material. Newly-produced erhu must be made using only farmed pythons.

The zhonghu (中胡) is a larger and lower-pitched version of the instrument. There is also the gaohu (高胡)—which is slightly smaller, has a higher pitch, has a round resonator box and is held between the knees. You can see a gaohu being played at 3:03 in the video. There is a very large bass version called the gehu (革胡) that was developed in the 20th century, but this instrument is quite rare. In this Chinese orchestra, cellos and double basses are used in place of the gehu.

The girls are playing erhu while the boys to the right are playing zhonghu
The huqin section of the orchestra
Photo of erhu playing
Photo of erhu playing
Photo of erhu playing
Here is an erhu ensemble
Erhu ensemble
Photo of erhu playing
Photo of erhu playing
Photo of erhu playing
Photo of erhu playing
Photo of erhu playing

Chinese plucked string instruments: liuqin, pipa, ruan, daruan

The pipa (琵琶), a four-stringed pear-shaped plucked lute with frets, is one of the most popular Chinese instruments. It is descended from instruments from Central and West Asia and dates back at least a thousand years (the exact origins are unclear because the term ‘pipa’ used to refer to a large range of plucked chordophones). It can be used to play a wide range of textures from gentle melodies to rhythmic accompaniment to frenzied soundscapes.

Photo of a pipa
Pipa
In the above close-up, you can see how tall the frets are. This can allow for dramatic pitch-changing effects. The bottom frets of a pipa are typically made from bamboo, while the frets higher up are made from ivory, buffalo horns or wood. The modern Pipa has 29, 30 or 31 frets.
A pipa quartet
Photo of a pipa ensemble
Playing a pipa
Playing a pipa
In the past, the strings were made from twisted-silk strings and used to be plucked with one’s fingernails. However, now the strings are made from nylon-wound steel, so performers tape plastic or tortoise-shell false nails to their fingers.
Playing a pipa
Performers
In this close-up of the previous photo, you can see the false plastic nails taped to the performers’ fingers (on the plucking hand).
Ruan (on the left) and pipa (on the right)
The pipa section
Waiting to perform

The liuqin (柳琴), also known as the liliuqin (柳葉琴, which means ‘willow-leaf-shaped instrument’) is like a much smaller version of the pipa. The front is made of tong wood while the back is made of red sandalwood. It has three to five strings, with four strings between the most common number. While the pipa is held almost vertically, the liuqin is held diagonally across the body.

Liuqin

Liuqin (foreground), ruan and pipa
Liuqin
Liuqin (right) and pipa (center)

The ruan () is a plucked lute with a circular body and four strings. Modern ruan have 24 frets and use steel strings. Ruan come in a variety of sizes:

  • gaoyinruan (高音阮, literally meaning ‘high-pitched ruan’),
  • xiaoruan (小阮 or ‘small ruan’),
  • zhongruan (中阮 or ‘medium ruan’),
  • daruan (大阮 or ‘large ruan’)
  • diyinruan (低音阮 or ‘low-pitched ruan’)

The orchestra in the video has zhongruan and daruan.

Earlier versions of the the ruan existed in the Qin dynasty (more than 2,000 years ago). The performers in the orchestra here are using plectra (like guitar picks), but they can also attach acrylic false nails to their fingers (like pipa players do).

Ruan players
Ruan
Zhongruan
Two daruan and three pipa. If the daruan is this big, I can’t imagine how large the diyinruan must be.

Wind instruments: dizi, suona, sheng

The dizi is a Chinese transverse flute. Most dizi are made of bamboo. They come in a wide range of sizes. The smallest have a piercing high-pitched timbre while the largest have a warm, deep sound. The dizi typically has six finger-holes, and it also has a hole between the blow-hole and finger-holes that is covered by a thin membrane. This extra hole gives the instrument its bright and buzzy timbre. As there are only six holes, that means the number of notes that can be played is quite limited. Therefore, if a song changes key, a dizi player often needs to switch to another flute to suit the new key.  

Dizi
Dizi
In this photo, you can see that the performers have other dizi on their laps so that they can switch into a new key).
Dizi solo

The suona (唢呐) is a double-reed horn that sounds like a particularly strident cross between an oboe (the double-reed part) and a trumpet (the horn part). It has an amazingly piercing timbre. The suona is descended from a instrument called the surna, which comes from the area which is now Iran. It appeared in China around the 3rd century.

The suona is the horn like instrument on the right. A single suona can easily make itself heard no matter how many other instruments are playing. Therefore, suona players are under quite a lot of pressure. If they may a mistake, everyone will hear it.
Dizi (left) and Suona (right)

The sheng (笙) is an unusual instrument. It is a free-reed aerophone (i.e., the sound is produced by blowing air past a vibrating reed in a frame) with several pipes. It is a polyphonic instrument (meaning it can play more than one note at the same time). It is often used as a kind of harmony instrument, but is also used for melodies. Its sound is something like a cross between bagpipes and a pipe organ. A sheng typically has between 32 and 36 reeds. There are two main types—traditional (in which holes are covered with fingers) and keyed (in which buttons and levers are used to close the holes)—and five main sizes. There is also a keyboard sheng in which a keyboard replaces the buttons and levers.

Members of the sheng section
A larger keyed sheng
An even larger sheng! This one is mounted on a stand and has a keyboard. At the back, you can see that the dizi players are playing large dizi.
Two sheng

Guzheng

The guzheng (古箏), or simply ‘zheng’ is a plucked zither that commonly has 21, 25, or 26 nylon-coated steel strings. Its soundboard is made from Paulownia wood and is about 1.6 meters (64 inches) long. An interesting feature of the instrument is that it has movable bridges that allow the performer to change the pitch of each string so that the instrument can play in different keys (this webpage has diagrams showing how to tune the strings: guzhengalive.com/guzheng-tuning). Another purpose of the bridges is that they allow the performer to pluck a string on the right side of the bridge while manipulating the same string on the left side of the bridge to produce effects like vibrato, pitch bends and tremolo. The strings can be plucked using one’s fingers (as the players in these photos are doing), but guzheng players can also wear false nails made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory on up to four fingers of one or both hands.

The zheng is one of the oldest instruments in the orchestra, with archaeologists discovering remnants of zithers dating back to the Warring States period (475–221 BC). It is an antecedent of instruments like the koto of Japan and the gayageum of Korea.

The guzheng
Two guzheng
Guzheng

The guzheng is my favorite Chinese musical instrument. I like it best with gentle songs, but because there are such a wide array of techniques that can be used, the instrument is also suitable for dramatic pieces. Here is one of the school’s students performing a classic martial work, Ambush on All Sides:

Yangqin

The Yangin is a hammered dulcimer. The strings are hit with light bamboo hammers with rubber tips. Different styles of tips can create different timbres. Modern yangqin usually have 144 strings and four or five bridges. The strings are grouped together with up to five strings per course to give a firmer, stronger sound.

The instruments origins are unclear. Some musicologists argue that it is derived from the Iranian santur, some argue that it is derived from European dulcimers.

The yangqin
The yangqin are typically positioned at the front and center of the Chinese orchestra (immediately in front of the conductor). Behind the two yangqin, you can see two guzheng and the large sheng.
From left: ruan, yangqin, cello, pipa, liuqin
Yangqin, viewed from the front
Yangqin and dizi
Yangqin and, in the background, the erhu and zhonghu section
The fast-moving hammers are a blur

Western strings: cello and bass

The school’s Chinese orchestra doesn’t have any gehu (the lowest-pitched erhu) or diyinruan (the largest pitched ruan). Instead these parts are played by cellos and double basses. The mostly likely reason is that the school has a limited number of students and also has a symphonic band and orchestra (as well as a few choirs). Thus, it is easier and more cost effective to have some of the cellists and bassist play in all the large instrumental ensembles.

The double bass section
Cellist

Percussion

The percussion sections includes western instruments—such as tambourine, sleigh bells, woodblocks, timpani, snare drum, hand drum, xylophone and claves—as well as traditional Chinese percussion instruments.

Hand drum
Timpani

The ensemble

In the following picture, you can see how the instruments are arranged:

The double basses are just out of view at the bottom right.
The plucked strings (liuqin, pipa, ruan, daruan), cellos and double basses
The yangin (foreground) and plucked strings
Chinese orchestra (from behind the pipa section)
A chamber ensemble featuring two percussionists, erhu, zhonghu, two dizi, yangqin, pipa, sheng, liuqin, ruan and cello

More information

For more information about the individual instruments, you can refer to the following websites:

Information about the video-recording

Conductor: Yim Kin-man 嚴健民
Composer: Wang Luo-bin (王洛宾)
Orchestral Arrangment: by Gu Guan-ren (顧冠仁)

The video was taken during a rehearsal before the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival Competition (the orchestra put on an even better performance that day, winning the competition). Two students (Teresa Ng and Maggie Lai) helped me take the footage and we recorded three takes.
 


~ photos, text and video by longzijun

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