Chinese Orchestra (Instruments)

The classic Chinese Orchestra has four sections: the bowed strings, plucked strings, winds, and percussion.

ErhuThe erhu is a two-stringed fiddle which has a small body and a long neck . There are two strings, with the bow inserted between them. With a range of around three octaves, it’s sound is rather like the violin, but with a thinner tone due to the smaller resonating chamber. In the orchestra they are usually divided into 1st and 20th century. Although said to be introduced by foreigners, It has a long history in Chinese music. It has historically been associated with the lower classes. But in the 20th century it has attained a more universal status in china.

BanhuThis instrument is a kind of the huqin, which is similar to the erhu. It uses a wooden sound board in the sound box. Also known as the ban hu (clapper huqin) because it was heard in the bangzi, or “clapper operas” of the 17th century.

GaohuThe gaohu is very similar to the erhu which is higher-pitched. The gaohu has a smaller body diameter and is usually tuned to A and E but can also be tuned to G and D. It is offten used in Cantonese music and solo perfomances.

GehuThe gehu is a mixture of the cello and the typical Chinese stringed instrument. Using four strings and an endpin, it is played like a cello and used primarily for bass support. Because the gehu uses a banjo-like membrane as the sound board, the resulting sound is unlike the cello.

ZhonghuThe zhonghu is slightly larger than the erhu and has a beautiful lower tone. It is usually toned to G and D and can be used as a solo instrument. It has a tone similar to that of a cello, but most likely be the viola.

PipaThe pipa is a fairly large lute-like instrument with large frets and a broad finger-board. The pipa has a half pear shaped body. The pipa has only one sound hole and its four strings are tuned to A, d,e, and a. The musician tapes picks to all fingers on the hand except for the thumb, although all five are used. The pipa has a range of about three octaves. It was introduced into China from Central Asia prior to the T’ang Dynasty, and has both a “literary” and a “martial” repertory. This instrument resembles the Spanish guitar in some ways, with long finger-nails being cultivated to pluck the strings. With its characteristic pear shape and four gut strings, many techniques and uses have developed, to the point where it may be considered a characteristic of Chinese music.

LiuQinThis looks like a smaller version of the pipa and sounds like a mandolin.
The liuqin’s body is in the shape of a willow leaf. It has two sound holes and its four strings are tuned to G, D1, G1, and D2. It is held diagonally and is played with a pick made traditionally of horn, but more commonly today, plastic.

RuanThe ruan’s ancient name was the pipa, but is obviously quite different. Also known as the moon guitar, it comes in a variety of different sizes and pitches, and is fitted with four strings. It is played like a pipa, except that there is only one pick that is held in the strong hand. There are three types of ruan, the high range, the middle range, and the low range. The low range is tuned to A, E, B, and F, and the middle range is tuned to G, D, A, and E.

YueQinThe yueqin evolved from the Ruan. It has kept the circular body of the Ruan, but with no sound holes. It’s four strings are split into two pairs, one of the pairs is tuned to D, and the other pair is tuned to A. It has a range of about two octaves.

SanxianIt actually originated in China and evolved into what it is today during the 13th century, which is when it became known as the sanxian. It uses a long fretless fingerboard. It has a small body and is covered on both sides with snake skin. It is played with a pick, placed on the lap and has three strings. this instrument is also known as the samsien in Japan.

YangqinThe yangqin is also known as the Chinese hammered dulcimer. It is played with hammers made of thin bamboo. Like many instruments, the yangqin is much more complicated than its ancestor. the yangqin is coming in a variety of sizes, Some versions have a dampening pedal. The yangqin is extremely popular as an orchestral, ensemble, and solo instrument. It is also used as an accompaniment. The metallic tone resembles the harpsichord, and the concert model has four octaves.

Zheng or GuzhengAlso known as the guzheng . the zheng has a long rectangular body with 21 strings and separate bridges for each string. At first it had five strings but has evolved to its current form. has a range exceeding three octaves tuned to the pentatonic scale. Its cousin, the guqin, has a softer sound, whereas the zheng has a louder and brighter sound. Its playing technique enables the musician to play fast contemporary music. Much like the yangqin, it is popular as a multi-use instrument.


Di tzuThe di, or di-tzu, is the traditional Chinese flute. The di has eight holes, there is one blow hole, a hole covered with a piece of membrane, and the other six are finger holes. It has a range of about two octaves and a di player will often carry around many different di because they are in different keys. Its sharp shrill sound means that only one is needed in an orchestra.

ShengThis is one of the oldest varieties of Chinese instruments, and consists of a bundle of between 17 to 36 pipes seated on a small wind chamber. A free brass reed is placed at the foot of the instrument. It comes in three tones, sorprano, alto, and tenor. They are often used as the “brass” section of a Chinese orchestra

XiaoAlthough it has a very long history going back to Han times and beyond, the xiao has been slow in developing a solo repertory. The xiao is made of bamboo and has six finger holes. Although it looks similar to the di, it is played vertically and has a softer tone. Although the xiao can cover two octaves, its soft tone makes it unpopular as an orchestral instrument. It is the only instrument appropriate for accompanying the qin, as it is suited to music of similar depth and restraint.

SuonaSuona, also known as a horn or “haidi”, was first used during the Jin dynasty in Xinjiang. The shape of this primitive kind of suona is similar to the wooden suona used by today’s Uygur people. Until the Ming dynasty, the structure of the suona used in the Central Plains was similar to the modern suono. Since Qing dynasty and today, the suona is widely used in concerts, as musical accompaniment and events such as weddings and funerals.
This is a reed instrument with a conical metal bell. It has a nasal penetrating sound and comes in various sizes.
The suona is often the music instrument that sets the beat or is played in accompaniment with the gong and drum. The suona is good at expressing cheer and enthusiasm.

A pair of cymbals commonly used in the Chinese lion dances with a large drum (da-gu) and large and small gongs (luo). When clashed together these cymbals have a loud crash with a long decay.

GuThis Chinese drum is the modern descendant of an ancient gu found in the yin ruins of Anyang, in Henan Province. A skin membrane covers both sides of a wooden body, often made from cowhide. As the drum hangs within its wooden frame, the player strikes the surface of the tang-gu with two wooden mallets, one in each hand. In the West this drum is classified as a Membranophone.There are various sizes of Chinese drums. The most popular is very large the shape of half an hourglass. Both ends are covered with buffalo skin and it is beat at the larger end, which is larger than the smaller end by a 2:1 ratio. The drumsticks used have a soft covering to produce a dull, but loud beat. The smaller drum, called the xiao gu, or little drum, is of a cylindrical shape slightly curving in at the ends. It is covered with various animal skin and is beat with two thin sticks, which gives it a sharp sound.

Gang GuThe body of this Chinese drum, also known as gang-gu or da-gu, is shaped like a flower vase,and usually decorated with floral patterns. A stretched-skin covers each open side of the wooden body, where the lower skin is typically “half to three-fifths” the size of the top skin. In the orchestra several sizes of the flower drum are arranged together and often perform melodic solo passages, having a characteristically “mellow” tone.

War DrumVery little is known about this Chinese percussion instrument. Traditionally, the War Drum was carried on horseback by the cavalry, referred to as a “grand military drum carried on horseback” in the Chinese classics. According to a dictionary of the Han Period around 100AD (called the Shuo-Wen), the drum was beaten only while the cavalry was moving. Once the army stopped another drum was beaten.
There are a few references to the War drum in the classical literature of China, mainly the Yue Chi. One translation of the text depicts the progression of the loyal and powerful army: “The sound of drums and war-drums is full and stimulates the forward movement. When the sovereign listens to the drums and war-drums, he is aware of his commanding generals. When a superior person listens to music, he does not hear only the sounds, but is aware of the thoughts that are linked with them.”

Jing GongMany factors go into how any one gong sounds, so there are 12 classifications of gongs in China. The daluo to xiaoluo . This percussion instrument is often used to create liveliness and to depict happy and festive spirit.
Luo is no longer an accompaniment instrument, it has been widely used as a leading instrument in percussion ensemble or even orchestra pieces.

posted by J Lo

One thought on “Chinese Orchestra (Instruments)

  1. Hi, I just now come across this website whilst hunting around the Internet as I’m looking for some information on electric cellos!. It is an interesting blog so I bookmarked you and intend to revisit another day to have a more indepth read when I can give it more time.

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