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The Musical Bridge - China

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

Performer from a traditional Chinese opera in costume

It’s Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. This year the first day of the Lunar New Year was on February 16, 2018, and it began the Year of the Dog. Although Lunar New year is strongly part of Chinese culture, it is also celebrated in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mauritius, Australia, and the Philippines. Many cities in the Americas, such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Mexico City hold large Chinese New Year celebrations as well. Music is an important part of the festivities. There are many popular holiday folk and children’s songs, similar to the tradition of Western Christmas carols. One very popular song is “Congratulations - A New Year Song.” Other traditions include the Lion dance and the Dragon dance, exchanging gifts, floral decorations, taking family portraits, hanging ornamental lanterns, and travel.

Congratulations - performed by Pink Martini

Attending a Chinese New Year celebration is a great way to ​introduce children (and adults) to the music of another culture. Introducing students to music, along with other culutral elements such as food and visual art, promotes cultural understanding. Learning music is learning another language and by exposing your students and your own children to unfamilar sounds builds their musical fluency. Attending a performance of traditional folk music, a Chinese symphonic orchestra, or a traditional-style Chinese opera exposes students to new sounds and intriguing timbres (tone colors), including different scales, styles of singing, rhythmic patterns, and combinations of instruments and voices. Before attending a performance of Chinese music, it can be helpful to expose students to these new types of sounds. Start by introducing students to a variety of instruments, made of different materials and from different musical instrument families. There are a lot of traditional Chinese instruments. Even in Ancient China 3000 years ago, there were already more than 70 different widely used instruments

We had the opportunity to attend a Chinese New Year celebration at Symphony Center in Chicago, Ill. this past weekend. This concert featured various styles of Chinese opera accompanied by a traditional music ensemble and a guest performance by the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra, which included a Chinese bone flute and Chinese percussion along with a Western-style orchestra. The Zhejiang played music by Chinese composers using Western-style symphonic arrangements with traditional Chinese-style melodies and other elements. The concert featured pre-music by local, Chicago-based community music and dances groups from the Naperville, Ill. based Dong Fang Performing Arts and the Bloomingdale, Ill. based Yellow River Performing Arts. A presentation like this is a wonderful way to expose students to both professional musicians and amateurs, so that students can see that traditional music is still a part of everyday life in the Chinese community. In this concert, seven traditional melodic and harmonic Chinese musical instruments were highlighted, as well as a traditional Chinese percussion ensemble.

This graphic shows examples of some of the most common traditional Chinese musical instruments.

Examples of Popular Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments


Ruan, also called the Chinese Moon guitar, is a four-stringed lute with a long, straight fretted neck that dates back to the Qin dynasty (about 200 B.C.E.). It is a predecessor to the Pipa or Chinese guitar. It is named after Ruan Xian, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. (The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were a group of Chinese scholars, writers, and musicians in the third century C.E.). The ruan is most often played in Peking Opera and is also used in modern Chinese orchestras.


Pipa is a four-stringed lute with a pear-shaped body. The name “Pipa” refers to how it is played. ”Pi” means to strike outward with the right hand, and “pa” means to pluck inward with the palm of the hand. Historically, it was played with a large plectrum or pick. In today’s practice, the fingernails of the right hand have largely replaced the pick. Pipa music is known for its expressiveness and its distinctive tremolo.

"Butterfly" Guzheng Traditional Guzheng

Guzheng, also known an the “Chinese Zither,” is a plucked string instrument similar to a western zither or harp. It is different than other Chinese zithers because it has movable bridges. It dates back to Ancient China, with an early version originating in the Warring States period (475–221B.C.E.). It has 16 or more strings, which are played with fingerpicks made from ivory, tortoiseshell, resin, or hard plastic. It is usually tuned to a five-note or pentatonic scale.


Guqin, or Qin, is a plucked, seven-stringed zither. It has been popular with scholars as an instrument of “great refinement” since ancient times. There is a famous Chinese saying “a gentleman does not part with his qin or se without good reason.” It is sometimes called “the father of Chinese music” or “the instrument of the sages.” It is even associated with the philosopher Confucius. Unlike the guzheng, the bridges on the guqin are fixed.

Erhu Huquin

Erhu or Er-hu, is a bowed string instrument with two strings. It is a cousin of the Western violin. It is a member of the huqin family of bowed instruments. Hu refers to the word “foreign” or “the northern folk” and qin is a general name of stringed instruments. It is used in traditional Chinese music, but it is sometimes used in contemporary arrangements as well. The erhu is believed to have originated in Central Asia and to have been introduced to China more than one thousand years ago.


Sheng is a free-reed mouth organ. It has a sound similar to an accordion. It is one of the oldest musical instruments in China dating back to at least 1100 B.C.E. It is traditionally used as accompaniment for solo suona or dizi performances, but in the modern Chinese orchestra it is played for both melody and harmonic support. It is made of bamboo pipes (usually 17) inserted into a metal chamber with finger holes.


Suona, also called laba or haidi, is a Chinese double-reed horn. It has a distinctive loud, high-pitched sound, which carries long distances. It is often used in musical ensembles that perform outdoors, such as military ensembles and in Taoist religious processions. It has been widely used in Chian since the 16th century C.E. It is made of a wooden body covered with a copper tube with eight finger holes.

Bone Flute or Gudi

Bones Flutes, also called gudi, are the oldest known musical instruments in China, dating back to more than nine thousand years ago. They are often made of the wing bones of cranes. They usually have three to eight finger holes. The spacing between the holes determines that scale and range of the particular bone flute. The eight-holed version can play all-harmonic intervals and two octaves.

Bamboo Flute or Dizi

Dizi, also known as the di or héngdi, is a flute widely used in many genres of Chinese traditional music. Most commonly, the dizi is made of bamboo, but there are also ones made of wood and stone. It is played horizontally like a western flute. It is a versatile instrument, renowned for its ability to reproduce the sounds of nature.


Bo is a percussion instrument that is made of two metal plates that are clashed together. It is most likely the ancestor to the China cymbals used in the modern, rock drum kit or the crash cymbals you see in marching bands.


Tanggu is a medium-sized drum with an animal-skin drumhead.


Zhangu, or war drum, is a large, low-pitched drum. Its head is traditionally made of buffalo hide. It was used in ritual music and traditional wedding bands. It is played with two sticks.


I believe early exposure to new musical styles and genres is crucial for a well-rounded education. It is important to introduce non-Western, along with classical Western and contemporary culture helps create culturally literate students. The best way to guide students (or your own children) is by example. So, don't afraid to step outside your own musical comfort zone. Keep listening. Keep exploring. And, you’ll keep growing.