The Erhu


 

History

The Erhu is a Chinese instrument dating back to around the 10th century, making it over a millennium old. It is part of a family of instruments, all of which can be referred to as a Huqin. It is comparable to a violin in pitch range, but has a "rounder" sound.

Other instruments classified under "Huqin" include the Gaohu, with a much higher sound and a smaller sound box, and the various types of Dihu, which have larger sound boxes and play at lower pitches equivalent to that of a cello or even a bass. Find out why these different instruments require differently sized sound boxes in the Amplification section. In the picture below, the huge central huqin is a Da Dihu, the largest and lowest type of huqin there is. Surrounding it are other types of huqin.

The sound box at the bottom of the instrument is usually made of carved bamboo, as is the neck, bow, and tuning pegs. The bow hair is standard horse hair. The sound box is open in the back but has a tightly-stretched piece of python skin over the front, where the strings go over the bridge. Traditionally, the strings are spun silk, but due to the need for more volume, steel strings are now used. For why bowing creates sound, visit the Bowing section.

There are a total of two strings on an erhu, tuned to D4 and A4. We will explore what this means in the Frequency section. The bow is permanently attached to the instrument, as the bow hair actually goes between the two strings; string crossings are achieved by pressing forward or backward with the bow. The strings are very close together, so the neck does not act as a fingerboard; the strings never touch the neck.

We managed to make our own erhu, that actually sounds fairly decent; see it in the Our Instrument section.

The erhu is played by resting the soundbox on the left leg while sitting, with the front of the instrument facing mostly to the right of the person. The bow grip is different from that of a cello, although the position is somewhat similar. This is the general playing position:

 

Here is a sample of erhu music: this is "Sai Ma," or "Horse Races."
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Copyright 2008 Harvest Zhang & Karen Kaminsky. All Rights Reserved.