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An Overview of the Chinese Fiddle and How to Find a Quality Instrument

The Erhu is a proto-Mongolic instrument dating back over 4,000 years. In the western world, some people call it a Chinese violin or a Chinese two-stringed fiddle. Many affordable options can be found on eBay.

How tonality is affected

Erhus have high-pitched sounds ranging from D4 to A7. This consists of three and a half octaves. Most music on the instrument stays within two and a half octaves. Because Erhus are common in Chinese traditional music, most people easily understand what it is when they hear it. They just weren't aware what the name of the instrument was. Erhus have a distinct sound that can set a wide array of atmospheres, whether sorrowful or joyful.

Tonality in the instrument can be affected by what material it's made of. Experts note the excellent quality tone that rosewood can give the instrument. Ebony creates a warm, mellow tone. And aged rosewood has a rich, warm, sweet tone.

What materials is the Chinese violin made of?
  • Dense, heavy hardwoods: What type of hardwood the Erhu is made of varies based on model. Examples of hardwoods that may be used are red sandalwood, black wood, red wood, and aged red wood. Some manufacturers use wood from old furniture in Erhus.
  • Metal strings or silk strings: Erhus made before the 20th century have silk strings. Those made after the 20th century usually have strings made of steel.
  • Python skin or PET Polyester Membrane: The Erhu's characteristic sound comes from python skin. Most Erhus are made with python skin, but some use PET polyester membrane as a substitute. China law requires all purchases of Erhus in their country to have a State Forestry Administration certification that ensures it was made of farm-raised python skin rather than wild python skin because pythons are an endangered species.
  • Horsehair or silk bows: Most bows are made of horsehair, but you'll find some made with silk.
Compositions for the Erhu

Between 1918 and 1932, Chinese musician Liu Tianhua composed 10 solo pieces and 47 exercises for the Erhu. Examples of his works include:

  • "Zhu ying Yao hong" ("Shadows of Candles Flickering Red")
  • "Yue Ye" ("Moon Night")
  • "Gungmíng Xíng" ("Towards Brightness")
  • "Liáng Xio" ("Beautiful Evening")
  • "Bi G" ("Song of Lament")

Other compositions for the Erhu you may want to play are listed here:

  • "Henan Xiaoqu" ("Henan Folk Tune") by Liu Mingyuan
  • "Er Quan Ying Yue" (1950, "Two Springs Reflecting the Moon") by Abing
  • "Sanmenxia Changxiangqu" ("Sanmen Gorge Capriccio") by Liu Wenjin
  • "'Sai Ma" ("Horse Race") by Huang Haihuai
What musical genres is the erhu suited for?

The Erhu is used in many different genres besides traditional Chinese music. It serves as a main instrument in Chinese opera and Chinese orchestra. The instrument has also been used in progressive rock and black metal although it's not a typical instrument for those genres. ChthoniC is a black metal band that uses the Erhu in their music. Erhus are used in some video game soundtracks, too, such as "World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria." Some performers of the instrument you can listen to for further inspiration are Yang Ying, Min Huifen, and Wang Guotong.

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