Chinese orchestra

Chinese orchestra
Music of China
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The term Chinese Orchestra can refer to either:

  • The ancient Chinese Orchestra, or
  • The modern Chinese Orchestra


The ancient Chinese Orchestra

According to recent archaeological findings, ancient Chinese music was much more developed and sophisticated than is generally believed. Music had already been an important element in traditional ritualistic ceremonies during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1550-1111 BC), and it reached one of its greatest peaks during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1111-222 BC).

It featured a great abundance of percussion instruments. There were also several wind instruments, but only a few zither-type string instruments were used. All the bowed string instruments and most of the plucked string instruments first came to China from Central Asia after the Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 219).

The Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) saw the first wave of musical influence from Central Asia, which was a very important epoch in the evolution of Chinese music. However, it was during the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) that Chinese music reached its maturity.

Traditional Chinese musical instruments were classified into eight groups (bayin) according to their materials: gourd, earthenware, hide, wood, stone, bronze, silk and bamboo. It is said that there were more than 70 different musical instruments, but many of them have been lost or are obsolete today.

The modern large Chinese orchestra

The modern large Chinese orchestra is a 20th century development and is based on the Western symphony orchestra, but uses Chinese instruments in place of Western instruments. It also emulates the Western orchestra in terms of the seating position of its musicians.

The typical Chinese orchestra of today also includes the Western cello and double bass, as well as other Western instruments like the vibraphone and triangle. Also, many of the Chinese instruments are modified versions of traditional instruments, for example, the diyinsheng (large bass sheng), and the zhongyin (alto) suona, which is fitted with keys.

Since its inception, the music produced by the Chinese orchestra is unique and very distinct from any Western counterpart. However, the repertoire of the Chinese orchestra may include adaptations of some Western orchestral pieces. Such orchestras often perform modernized traditional music called guoyue.


The modern Chinese orchestra typically consists of four main sections. These instruments are generally grouped according to the way they are played - the bowed strings (inclusive of the Western bass section), plucked strings, woodwinds and percussion.

Plucked string (弹拨乐)

This section sets the structure of Chinese orchestras apart from Western symphony orchestras. Consisting of the yangqin (扬琴), liuqin (柳琴), pipa (琵琶), zhongruan (中阮), daruan (大阮), sanxian (三弦), guzheng (古筝), and konghou (箜篌), this largely plucked chordophone-based section creates tunes different from Western orchestral instruments.

Yangqin (扬琴)

The yangqin is a dulcimer played using a pair of bamboo mallets rubberised on one end. Besides hitting the strings with the rubberised ends, the mallets can also be turned over to create a sharper note (this technique is called 反竹 (fanzhu)). Some songs even require the player to hold the mallets vertically and use the other end or even using the player hands to pluck. It is a versatile instrument capable of playing rapid running notes or arpeggios.

Liuqin (柳琴)

The liuqin is a soprano range lute. It looks similar to the pipa but smaller with two sound holes on each side of the body. The four strings are tuned G3-D4-G4-D5. By pressing slightly above any of the frets on the instrument, one can vary the pitch of the liuqin. It is commonly played using a plectrum like in the guitar. The sound is very bright and penetrating, making it a very effective soprano instrument. Its range is similar to that of a violin.

Pipa (琵琶)

The pipa is the alto range member of the plucked string section. One of the more well-known Chinese instruments, this instrument has been associated with imperial concubines and songstresses at teahouses, often conveying the stereotypical image of a demure damsel. Despite the absence of soundholes, it is able to produce music as well as other plucked string instruments. The modern-day player has to wear a set of customised acrylic nails on the right hand. From simple plucking with the thumb and index finger and saoxian (sweeping one's fingers across all strings with gusto) to yaozhi (tilting the instrument and using the middle finger to continuously cut across the strings) and lunzou (by plucking with all five fingers, one after another in a wavelike motion), the playing techniques of the pipa are visibly dimensionless. Its tuning is A2-D3-E3-A3.

Zhongruan (中阮)

The zhongruan plays the role of the tenor in this section. Its four strings are tuned to G2-D3-G3-D4. The instrument can be played using a plectrum similar to a guitar pick, as with the liuqin, or using a set of 2 to 5 acrylic fingernails. Mainstream ruan players use plectrums, though there are some schools which teach the fingernail technique, similar to that of the pipa. Pipa players who play ruan as a second instrument also use fingernails. Plectrums produce a louder and more clearer tone, which makes them suitable for orchestral use. Fingernails allow performance of polyphonic solo music, however this advantage is not useful in orchestras, where the zhongruan mainly plays the accompaniment. It possesses a very mellow tone.

Daruan (大阮)

The daruan is the bass lute. A larger version of the zhongruan with strings tuned to a perfect fourth lower: D2-A2-D3-A3. Soloists generally use the D-A-D-A tuning, as it allows easy performance of diatonic chords. Some orchestral players tune to C-G-D-A, which is the same as cello tuning. The advantage of using C-G-D-A in orchestras is so that the daruan can easily double the cello part.

Other members of the ruan family are gaoyinruan (soprano, tuning G3-D4-G4-D5); xiaoruan (alto, tuning D3-A3-D4-A4) and diyinruan (contrabass, tuning G1-D2-G2-D3).

Sanxian (三弦)

The sanxian is the only plucked string instrument without frets. As can be inferred from the name (san, lit. three; xian, lit. string), it has three strings. The sanxian family of instruments is very large, with different variants used in different tribes in China. The orchestra often uses dasanxian (da, lit. large) has a soundbox covered on both sides with python skin. Its sound is forceful, penetrating and articulated; in fact, a single sanxian can be clearly heard even in a 70-member orchestra.

It has a strong folk flavour, which often puts it in the limelight when in usage with other instruments. For this reason too, it is not suitable for playing accompaniment, as it tends to overshadow the sound of the melody instruments. It is more frequently used in plucked string ensembles and solos. Even when used in the orchestra, it is also attributed with the main melody. However, since the orchestral usage of the sanxian is lower as compared to the other instruments, sanxian players also take up a second instrument, which is usually the zhongruan.

Sometimes Yueqin are also included in this section.

Bowed strings (弦乐)

The bowed strings mainly consist of the huqin (胡琴) family of instruments, and sometimes the cello and double bass instruments, which provide the bass sound that traditional Chinese music lacks.

Huqin (胡琴)

The huqin series of instruments in common usage consist of the erhu (二胡), zhonghu (中胡) and gaohu (高胡). The gaohu (highest-pitched of the series) and zhonghu (lowest-pitched huqin) are proportionately fewer in numbers in the Chinese orchestra. The erhu forms the bulk of this section and is divided into distinct sections, known as erhu I and erhu II. These two sub-sections play either similar or vastly different melodies simultaneously, which is akin to the first and second violins in a Western orchestra. Occasionally, the concertmaster will play the banhu (板胡) but it may not always be the concertmaster - an example is the piece Mang Chun (忙春), or jinghu (京胡), for instance in Zhao Ji Ping's Festival Overture (庆典序曲), if there is a solo part for it. There are various ways to play an erhu, such as bowing or plucking the strings.

The uniqueness of the huqin series lies in how music can be produced from two fine metal strings less than 2 mm apart, without any frets or fingerboards. Well-known solo pieces for the erhu includes Sanmen Gorge Capriccio (三门峡畅想曲), Guang Ming Xing (光明行) as well as Lan Hua Hua (兰花花).

Banhu may sometimes be singularly used in the Huqin section if a strong piccolo voice is needed.

Cello and double bass (低音)

The cello and double bass can also be considered part of this section. This is true in some orchestras, but in others the cello and bass are considered distinct from the bowed strings. Some Chinese orchestras still use the gehu and diyingehu (bass gehu), but due to the limitations and the costs of the instruments, they are now quite rare. A notable example of an ensemble still utilising the gehu and diyingehu is the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. In some Chinese orchestras in China, they used an instrument called laruan, which has the shape of a ruan but is larger in size and is played by either plucking or using a bow similar to a cello or bass bow.

Wind (吹管乐)

Chinese wind instruments include the dizi (笛子, a bamboo flute), sheng (笙, which is free reed mouth organ) and suona (唢呐, a double reed oboe).

Dizi (笛子)

The main types of dizis frequently used in the wind section are the bangdi (梆笛), the qudi (曲笛), and occasionally the xindi (新笛). The bangdi is shorter in length and smaller in diameter and produces a clear and bright tone. It is frequently used in bangzi opera of Northern and southern China, hence the name bangdi. The longer and thicker qudi produces a richer and mellower tone. The bangdi is usually a fourth higher in pitch than the qudi. The xindi is longer and thicker than the qudi, with extra finger holes and no membrance. It is even lower in pitch and mellower in tone than the qudi. In substitution to the xindi, the dadi (or diyindi) may be used; this instrument has a membrane an sounds like a low qudi.

Sheng (笙)

The sheng is a Chinese free-reed bamboo mouth organ. The earliest type ever recorded in history had 14 pipes and was discovered in Zeng Houyi's tomb in Hubei province. The most common types of sheng today include a 17-pipe instrument and a modified version for contemporary compositions, which has an expanded range of 21-37 pipes. The tone of the sheng is lucid and bright. It has a huge range, a chromatically complete scale and is able to produce chord voicings. Most orchestras use a full-range of Sheng, including the Gaoyin (soprano), Zhongyin (alto), Cizhongyin (tenor) and Diyin (bass) sheng.

Suona (唢呐)

The tone produced by suona is loud, piercing and uplifting, thus it is usually used to perform vibrant and lively pieces. However, its repertoire also includes some mellower pieces. The suona is commonly used as an accompaniment in the Chinese opera, singing or dancing, but also for more sombre occasions, such as during a traditional Chinese funeral procession. It is also utilised in solos or ensembles for various occasions and ceremonies. Being a double-reeded wind instrument, it is extremely difficult to master it to produce perfect pitches. There are modified types, such as the keyed alto,tenor and bass suonas. Many Suona players are also now doubling on Guan, a double-reed Chinese instrument of much mellower quality (like that of the clarinet.) This usage has also led to the development of keyed lower Guan, such as the Zhongyin and Diyin Guans.

Occasionally, koudi(口笛),(埙) xun, Haojiao(horn), Hailuo(shell) and xiao(萧) would also be used according to the composition.

Percussion (打击乐)

The history of Chinese percussion instruments is longer than any other section of traditional Chinese instruments. The character of the drum was first recorded in the ancient inscriptions on oracle bones and tortoise shells dating from the Shang Dynasty. At that time (1562-1066 BC) more than 50 percent of Chinese instruments were percussive in nature.

Percussion instruments produce sound through striking on the surface. Common materials used for making percussion instruments in the past were gold, rock, wood and bamboo.

The percussion section is the most important section in Chinese opera, particularly in scenes involving martial arts, known as wu chang. The player of the bangu, directs the rest of the orchestra through his different methods and positions of striking his instrument. He has control over the overall development of the action and creation of atmosphere, and is equivalent to the conductor of the Western orchestra.

Because of the richness of the timbre, sound and variety of Chinese percussion instruments, they are frequently used in Western-style musical compositions. A large gong can create a stately and imposing atmosphere; dramatic effects can be achieved with the tanggu (堂鼓), muyu (木鱼) and qing (磬) also can invoke an element of mystery.

Percussion instruments are usually considered easy to learn and perform. As many different percussion instruments produce different sound effects, it is frequently used in depicting joyful and exciting occasions such as harvests, marriages, as well as other traditional Chinese festivals.

The more popular percussion instruments include luo (锣), gu (鼓), bo (cymbals), and bianzhong (编钟).

Bangu (板鼓)

The bangu (ban, lit. flat board; gu, lit. drum) is also commonly called jing bangu (京板鼓) (bangu for Beijing opera) and danpi (single drumhead). The drum frame is constructed of thick wedges of hardwood glued together in a circle, wrapped with a metal band. Its body is bell-mouthed in shape, which opens at the bottom. Its top surface (about 25 cm), covered with a piece of pig or cow hide, has a small convex central circular opening (about 5 or 6 cm in diameter), which is called the guxin (lit. drum heart, which is the middle of the drum), the actual sounding position. The player strikes on this central area with a pair of bamboo sticks. The use of normal sticks would cause the pain of hand and the bamboos sticks used are also not commonly used.

The type used for Beijing opera and other northern Chinese musical dramas, with a smaller central striking area, has a relatively solid tone quality. In the southern gong and drum ensemble, the bangu has a larger striking area, rendering a looser and softer tone. The southern type can be used for solos with a variety of techniques and rhythms. The jingbangu is the lead instrument in the Beijing opera.

Bo (钹)

The bo (bronze cymbals) were frequently used in Sui and Tang dynasties (AD 581-907) with varying designs. Now it is commonly made of high-tin bronze.

The performer strikes the cymbals together. The most common type now is the jingbo (the prefix jing referring to Beijing, the prefix used to define the instruments in the Beijing opera). This type is clear and forceful in tone quality. It is also used in other regional opera genres and ensembles, and is one of the four major instruments (drum, large and small gongs and cymbals) in the jubilant luogu (锣鼓) (gong and drum) music. In local operas, the luogu ensemble often accompanies acrobatic fighting.

Luo (锣)

The luo, or Chinese gong, is made of high-tin bronze, hammered into the shape of a sifter. Its central resonating area can be either flat or convex. Its long history can be traced back to the early Western Han period (206 BC-AD 24) according to an archaeological find from a tomb of that period in Guangxi. In a text dating to the Tang period (AD 618-907), it was known as the shaluo (沙锣, lit. sand gong), which is among the earlier evidence of gong usage in classical literature.

There are many varieties of gongs, each with varying tone qualities. The name is usually preceded by a prefix to specify each different kind. The largest type (over 120 cm in diameter) called dachaoluo, known for its deep and grave tone, is used in official settings like weddings, funerals and temple ceremonies. The smallest, the goujiaoluo (狗叫锣, lit. dog-calling gong), only 8 cm in diameter, can often be seen in theatrical ensembles in the southern parts of Fujian. Both the larger and the smaller boast distinct acoustic features, functions and performing styles. Different size and thinkness of the cymbals will affect the sound tone being produced. The da di luo(big gong) has a very deep sound in contrast to the goujiaoluo.

Tanggu (堂鼓)

The tanggu drum (tang, lit. hall; gu, lit. drum) is listed as a hide instrument in the traditional bayin classification of Chinese instruments. The common type is similar in shape to a barrel. Its wooden body, entirely painted red with decorative patterns, is covered with two drumheads of cowhide or pig skin. Four lateral iron rings around the shell allow the drum to be vertically suspended in a frame. It is struck with a pair of wooden beaters. Tone quality can be modified by moving the striking point closer to the centre of the surface, with varying dynamics. Usually the different tone are not easily identified.

The tanggu is constructed mainly in two types. The larger one, with diameters of over a meter, can produce a deep and sonorous tone and the smaller, with a diameter of 20 to 30 cm, is solid and forceful in tone quality. It is traditionally used with other instruments like luo and bo in folk festivals, and in ensembles or for accompaniment as well. Types for local operas are mostly smaller, for instance, the jing tanggu in Beijing opera. Some could also be known as dagu, datanggu, xiaogu or xiaotanggu.

Muyu (木鱼)

The muyu (mu, lit. wooden; yu, lit. fish) was used originally to accompany Buddhist chants and monks only. An account of this instrument was found in the literature of the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644): "The muyu is carved from a block of wood and into the shape of a fish, then its interior is hollowed out. Sounds can be produced by striking." Since the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911) the instrument has appeared in folk ensembles.

The muyu is mostly made of mulberry (or Chinese Toon) wood. The larger type is primarily used in Buddhist temples, but recently appears in sets, varying in diameters and tonal qualities. The set is mainly used for regular rhythms when used for accompaniment. Playing the different parts of the muyu could have different volume.

Bianzhong (编钟)

The bianzhong (bian, lit. collected; zhong, lit. bell) is listed as a primary metal instrument, and thus heads the metal section under the bayin classifications. Its long history dates back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BC), when a set of 3 bronze bells was common, though the earlier earthenware type of the late Stone Age was unearthed in Shaanxi province. From the 5th to the 3rd century BC the number of bells increased, mostly from 9 to 13.

The largest set ever recorded was exhumed from the tomb of Marquis Yi of the State of Zeng, Zeng-hou Yi (from sometime after 433 BC) in Hubei province. This archaeological finding has become a focus of international academic attention. The bianzhong being found still have a good sound quality despite many years after it was made. The bianzhong set consists of 64 bells, hung in three layers, with the upper ones called niuzhong (bells with bronze loops for vertical suspension), while those on the two lower layers were called yongzhong (bells with handles for suspension at a slight angle). Because of the shape of the bells, two different pitches, a major or minor third apart, can be produced on any of the bells, depending on the two striking locations, which are either the frontal or the lateral. 12 semitones are found in the set, with a total range of 5 octaves.

The inscriptions on the bells unite to form a literary text on the large tone system of the bianzhong, valuable sources for the study of the musical culture in the Warring States period during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (475-221 BC). With the construction for two different pitches from a single bell and its unique casting methods, the bianzhong has established itself as one of the wonders of traditional Chinese music.

Lion drum (狮鼓)

The size of a lion drum is very big, and is widely used for the Lion dance. There are normally 2 types, the northern Lion drum (normally in red) and southern lion drum (painted in black). It is a single-headed drum, and its large size helps to create a majestic, booming resonance upon striking of the drum head. The lion drum head is made of thick, durable goat skin, and its wooden body is normally decorated with intricate hand-drawn drawings. The sound produce by it usually sound higher key than the datanggu.

=====Yunluo (云锣)=====Jjjj The yunluo (yun, lit. cloud; luo, lit. gong) was first mentioned in historical records as yun'ao during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The small gongs in a set, usually numbering up to 10 and in distinct pitches, are suspended vertically in a wooden frame. Each is attached to a cubicle within the frame, secured by cords. These gongs are all of the same diameter but vary in thickness. In terms of tuning, thicker dimensions give higher pitches, and thinner ones, lower. The instruments are struck with a small beater.

In a recently-redesigned type, the number of gongs was increased, ranging from 29 to 38, and two mallets with either hard or soft tips are used for different tonal effects. One sounds loud and solid, while the other soft and drifting. Owing to the expanded range, modification in yunluo thickness cannot change the pitch of each small gong. Thus varying diameters are used for the new tones for variation.

The yunluo are mostly used in ensembles, and recently in solos as well.


Whilst jianpu (numerical notation) is most often used in the modern Chinese orchestra, standard notation is also sometimes used, especially for the keyed sheng, Western instruments like the cello and double bass, and also occasionally for certain percussion instruments (for Western instruments like the vibraphone and triangle).

Modern developments

In September 2008, the 21st Century Chinese Orchestra Development Group (CO21) was formed by enthusiasts to gather support for the improvement of orchestra formation and instruments that have hindered the development of Chinese classical music. Many such suggested improvements include a change in orchestra layout, the use of staff notation and also modifications to existing instruments.

Notable Chinese orchestras

See also


  • Lee Yuan-Yuan and Shen, Sinyan. Chinese Musical Instruments (Chinese Music Monograph Series). 1999. Chinese Music Society of North America Press. ISBN 1-880464039
  • Shen, Sinyan. Chinese Music in the 20th Century (Chinese Music Monograph Series). 2001. Chinese Music Society of North America Press. ISBN 1-880464047

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