Every culture rocks out in different ways.
The traditional music of some countries might feature a guitar, sitar, balalaika, cuarto, charango, banjo or dozens of other truly unique instruments. In the music of China, you often hear a distinctive instrument called an erhu (二胡; pinyin: èrhú, [êɻxǔ]). Although it resembles a violin in some ways, the erhu has only two strings and has a soaring voice and emotional quality that is all it’s own. In fact, if you check out the video below, you’ll realize that you’ve probably already heard an erhu many times but did not know the specific name for the instrument.
Roots Of The Erhu
Although this instrument is now heard throughout China and Chinese folk music, it has its roots in the culture of nomadic people who traveled from Central Asia to this region about 1,000 years ago. They brought a family of instruments; called the Huquin family, which includes the erhu, the zhonghu (lower in pitch) and the gaohu (higher in pitch) as well as other related instruments with similar characteristics. And although there are almost 30 Huquin family instruments, the versatility and unique sound of the erhu earned it a special place in traditional Chinese music as well as modern jazz, pop and even rock music groups.
Two Strings And A Bow
It is unique in many ways. The instrument consists of a very small soundbox made of hardwood (such as sandlewood) which sits in the player’s lap. A long neck sticks upright and two strings are held in place with tuning pegs. The instrument is played with a bow that was originally made from bamboo and horsehair and the small soundbox was generally covered with snakeskin or python skin to create the specific sound associated with an erhu.
Not A Violin
Although the erhu is sometimes called a Chinese fiddle, a 2 stringed violin or a southern or spike fiddle, it is definitely not played in the same manner as a Western-style violin. The erhu sits on a players lap while the violin rests between the shoulder and chin of its player. On the erhu, the strings are pressed but do not touch the fingerboard and the bow does not leave the strings. On the violin, fingers touch the fretboard to create different notes and the bow can move on and off the strings while it is being played.
Erhu Peformance By Yu Hong-Mei
You can see an erhu playing a traditional folksong in this short video clip featuring Chinese musician, Yu Hong-Mei, originally from Shangdong province. She performs a song whose title translates to “Spring Scenery in the South of the Yangtze River.”
Color An Erhu Or Other World Music Instruments
If you’d like a coloring page of the Chinese erhu or other stringed instruments from around the world, check out the resources listed below:
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