An Introduction to Chinese Traditional Instruments

Based on instruments played in Tan Dun's 'Buddha Passion' Shanghai New Year Concert

As the conductor of innovative programmes around the world, Tan Dun has led the Chinese tours of many major orchestras by Tan DunHarrisonParrott Foundation

Conductor and Composer Tan Dun

HarrisonParrott conductor and composer Tan Dun led the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra for the Shanghai Grand Theater's New Year's Eve concert in January 2022. This performance included the premiere of a traditional Chinese instrument version of Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion.

The world-renowned artist and UNESCO Global Goodwill Ambassador Tan Dun, has made an indelible mark on the world’s music scene by Tan DunHarrisonParrott Foundation

Buddha Passion

Featuring some of the most significant Chinese artists, including Hongni Wu and Shen Yang, this new version of Buddha Passion was delivered under the theme of ‘A Silk Road that can be Heard’. This new version was commissioned by Shanghai Chinese Orchestra.

Tan Dun is a Chinese conductor and composer by Tan DunHarrisonParrott Foundation

Quote from Tan Dun

“The art and stories in the Dunhuang murals are futuristic and transcendent… This version for Chinese music is created based on ancient Chinese timbre and rhythm, reflecting my thinking about the inheritance and contemporary education of traditional Chinese music."

Tan Dun Talks about "Buddha Passion"

Pipa (琵琶 ) (late 16th–early 17th century) by UnknownThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Let’s look at a selection of traditional Chinese instruments

Guzheng (古筝) is the Chinese Zither that has more than 2,500 years of history by AdobeHarrisonParrott Foundation

Guzheng古筝 — the Chinese Zither

The guzheng (the Chinese zither) is the most popular traditional instrument in China. It has more than 2,500 years of history, and still remains the most-learned traditional instrument in Chinese families.  There are 21–26 strings on the modern guzheng.  

Guzheng players need to wear fingerpicks on their hands by AdobeHarrisonParrott Foundation

Fingerpicks for the Guzheng

Players always wear fingerpicks made from plastic or resin on their hands to pluck the strings, the right hand plucks the strings while the left hand usually pinches the strings on the left side of the guzheng to play heptatonic notes and chords.

Guzheng Performance of "Autumn Moon Above Calm Lake"

Erhu二胡 — the Chinese Violin

The erhu is a two-string, violin-like instrument that is played with a bow like a violin bow. Erhus are often played in Chinese opera performances and traditional orchestras. It allows a high degree of virtuosity, can be made to imitate the sound of Chinese singing as well as birds and horses.

Erhu Performance of "Jasmine Flower"

Dizi (笛子 ) Dizi (笛子 ) (late 19th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dizi 笛子 — the Chinese Flute

The dizi is a popular Chinese instrument. It is a type of Chinese transverse flute that is often played in Chinese folk music or opera. Dizi generally have six or more finger holes. One hole is covered with paper so that the flute will create a peculiar buzzing sound.

Dizi Performance of a few Chinese Songs

Pipa (琵琶 ) (19th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pipa 琵琶 — the Chinese Guitar

The pipa has a pear-shaped wooden body with frets like those on a guitar. The number of frets ranges from 12 to 26. Modern pipas have been re-engineered to fit better with Western-style music. Steel strings are now used, and players wear special fingerpicks. Pipa musicians are mainly seen on stage or at special parties and restaurants.

Pipa Performance of "White Snow in Spring"

Suona (唢呐) is a Chinese wind instrument, also known as the laba (loudspeaker) or horn by China HighlightsHarrisonParrott Foundation

Suona 唢呐 — the Chinese Trumpet

The suona is also called the laba (loudspeaker) or horn, is a Chinese wind instrument. It is made up of a wooden body and a tubular brass with small double reed affixed, and a metal bell-shaped mouthpiece.The suona has long been an important instrument in North China for weddings and funeral processions because of its intense and resonant sound. The suona is also used for folk dances or to accompany local opera and ballads.

Suona Concerto "Dancing Phoenix"

Hu Chenyun: Suona 
Shanghai Chinese Orchestra 
Muhai Tang: Conductor
Concert recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris (Paris, France), on February 11, 2018. © Wu Promotion &

Xiao (萧) is a Chinese vertical end-blown flute made with bamboo by Zhihu(知乎)HarrisonParrott Foundation

Xiao 箫 — a Chinese Vertical Flute

The xiao is a Chinese vertical end-blown flute that has a similar shape with Dizi. Usually, it is made with bamboo. It is said that the xiao was developed from an end-blown flute that was used by the Qiang ethnic groups of Southwest China in ancient times. The xiao is most suitable for playing long, quiet, and sentimental songs.

Xiao Performance of "Dreaming of the Southern Shore"

Tanggu Tanggu (19th century) by Elevated Tone Workshop, Guangzhou (Canton)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gu 鼓 — The Chinese Drum

The Chinese drum is also called the tanggu (堂鼓 ‘hall drum’). The tanggu is a medium-sized drum with a barrel shape. It is played with two wooden sticks. The tone of the sound produced by the drum depends on the strength of the hit and which part of the drum skin is hit. Depending on their sizes, the bigger they are the lower the pitch sound.

Tanggu Performance

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