Traditional Chinese instruments for the music aficionado

Traditional Chinese music can be traced back 7,000 to 8,000 years. Over the centuries, musicians in China have invented different types of musical instruments that have become distinctive of the various dynasties there. Most of the instruments are played with an emphasis on precise articulation and inflection with rhythm or beat as secondary considerations. As a result, the music tends to be more expressive and emotive in nature.

In modern times, there has been an increasingly popular trend of combining the use of traditional instruments with modern music which has consequently led to the creation of new musical genres.

The following Chinese instruments are ones which I found especially enjoyable and unique:

1. Sheng

Dating back to the Han dynasty, the ‘Sheng’ is a mouth-blown reed instrument that can be up to two feet tall. It consists of an array of vertical pipes (usually 17) made of bamboo which when blown, sounds almost like a harmonica.The acoustical pipe length vary to produce different melodies and harmonies. What is amazing is how closely this traditional instrument can mimic video game music although this particular Sheng could have been engineered for this purpose.

2. Erhu

This instrument is one that you will definitely come across if you ever visit China. Dating back approximately 1000 years, it was actually introduced to China by invaders from the north and west (now modern-day Mongolia and Russia). Its popularity steadily increased ever since and remains one of the few traditional instruments that is still widely played across China especially in Beijing Opera. It is essentially a two-string violin although it isn’t as loud because the sound box is smaller. It has a rather melancholy sound which is perfect as a cover for The Myth’s theme song, “Endless Love” (a movie starring Jackie Chan).

3. Guzheng

Another instrument is the Guzheng which became popular during the Qing Dynasty. A standard Guzheng has 21 strings although it can actually accommodate up to 44 strings on its movable bridges. Its strings were previously made of silk but is almost always made of steel now. It is a solo instrument; one that is meant to be played individually (as opposed to an orchestra) whilst sitting in a chair. Through its basic plucking actions using both hands, it is able to produce both vibrato and tremolo modulation effects.

4. Xiao (bamboo flute)

The earliest known version of Xiao dates back about 6,000 years and was made of bird-bone. Nowadays, the vertical end-blown flute is made of bamboo and has a few different variations (such as the qinxiao which is a bit narrower and nanyin dongxiao which is shorter). Due to Xiao’s timbre being quite mellow and graceful, it is often found in relaxing or sentimental music. A hauntingly beautiful example of this is the song Trail of the Angels by Chen Yue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s