THE SIXTH SOUND (第六音)
China, a country known for its silk, has by no means spared the music world with such an element. In fact, it is the most expansive of all the Eight Sounds, the makeup of all Chinese stringed instruments. Although strings tend to be made of nylon or metal today, the idea (and overall Sound) still remain, actually split up into categories itself (like the Eighth Sound, bamboo, but to a much larger extent). Strings can be primarily bowed, plucked, and/or struck; and these styles have been perfected to a point of virtuosic achievement, raising the status of the Greatest Sound even higher than ever before.
Beginning the family of string instruments with yet another family of bowed strings, one starts to see the enormity of the Sound silk. Interestingly enough, this family dominates the bowed stringed instruments. Called the 胡琴/húqín (the savage fiddle), the name derives from an old form of 胡/hú, which meant anything relating to or symboling (what was once viewed as) a barbaric or wild people to China’s north and west, later meaning a bandit. (Today it means beard or any form of facial hair.) This is an indicator of the instrument’s foreign origin, and it is believed to come from non-Han nomads (which are still not unheard of in China today).
The family, until very recently, has been a collection of almost identical instruments in shape. Size changed to fit different pitch ranges, but the proportions were very similar, nonetheless. On the top, there is a slight hook in the long wooden/bamboo stick. This supports the tying off of the strings, which are tightened and thus tuned with two large drilled-in pegs (which can actually span, closed thumb to pinkie, a human palm). The strings are separated by the bow hairs itself, the bow being tied in-between them. The base has a resonator that rests on the leg of the sitting performer. The resonator is cylindrical in shape, and one end is tied over and fastened either with wood or snakeskin. The string is strung down the middle of this covering and then tied at the base of the stalk. There are thus no frets as is common in the West, so this tension caused from the tie at the base causes the slight separation of string and stem for the bow to reach and be fastened between the strings..
Going back to the historical origins, because of the silk road (丝绸之路/sīchóuzhīlù), China obtained access of horsehair bows right about the time of the savage fiddle’s appearance. For this reason, it is almost never seen without a horsehair bow; and it is a standard, if not required, accessory.
The instrument was primarily used as an accompaniment (either with an ensemble or alone) for narrative song music (mentioned in the First Sound) and Opera, but its solo and virtuosic fame came much later, after the fall of the Monarchy, with the rise of 国乐/guóyuè (national music), a way to make folk and traditional music large-scale, patriotic, and accessible. A Western equivalent may be seen in the contributions of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt in changing the way music was received and performed to a more soloist and virtuosic repertoire (on Liszt’s part) or large-scale orchestral works (thanks to Wagner). In China, the savage fiddle family added new members to support this change, and they included gigantic, but yet still proportional, versions of the original
The sound is not unlike Western string instruments. The techniques are also similar at first glance. However, the bow is held completely differently, turned toward the inside of the palm. The strings are played depending on the direction of the movement of the arm and bow. Pulling out, the string furthest from the performer sounds; and when the bow pulls in, the closer (and lower sounding) string is played.
As a final note, even though the primary function of this sub-family of instruments is to be bowed, the strings can also be plucked (like in the West). These constant similarities just seem to possibly be a sign of yet another bridge or even a no-border connection between the Eastern and Western musical world.
Below are some descriptions of some of the instruments of this sub-family:
二胡–(èrhú), literally the two barbarians, the most common variety
板胡–(bànhú), the board barbarian, the resonator being made from a coconut with only a wooden board covering one side
The gǔzhēng, or classic zither is one of the larger stringed instruments, and it is also one of the most complex. A sideways harp, the player plays a melody section on the right hand, with the left hand either providing harmonic accompaniment (like Western music), which is a new technique, or an adjustment technique, altering the sounds of the melody via manipulation of the strings. A player can put on nail attachments on the right (but sometimes) both hand(s) and use multiple techniques to make the strings sound, but the left hand can vibrate the strings, move the string bridges to change pitch, or even push them to achieve a very unique sound.
The instrument is made with a maximum of twenty-one strings. The tuning is typically four pentatonic scales with a fifth octave repeat of the first string. The sounds made are considered nature-like, meant to remind one of the outdoors, and it is known to imitate bird-song and waterfalls. However, the rushing of hooves and the roaring of the storm are also common.
This is a predominantly solo instrument, as can be seen here.
The pípá (the forward back, referring to the strumming) is among the oldest instruments in Chinese music. The name itself is used to describe the ancient method of playing this form of four-stringed lute, which is still in use today. The instrument itself has had much modification over thousands of years, and the actual strings are no longer made of silk like before and like with the other instruments of the silk Sound. However, this becomes a problem when regular nails or fingers were used in the past. It is thus imperative to use nail extensions or a pluck.
The design of the instrument is rather unique. It is very wide and pear-shaped, with wood being the primary element of the body’s construction. This allows for performance use of striking the wood and plucking the strings, and these are made even more distinct due to the fact that the fingers can never (while plucking) physically touch the body, as the frets push the strings much further than in Western lute instruments (or really any Western string instrument).
Historically, the instrument was prominent in the 唐朝/tángcháo (the Tang dynasty) and is known as a solo instrument. Today, it is one of the centerpieces of Chinese music.
Another lute that is very simiilar to the pípá is the yuéqín (the moon fiddle). Also with four-strings with frets that push them far from the body, the only striking difference is the overall shape. The instrument is circular where the pípá was elongated, making the body look moon-like (hence the name).
The performance of this instrument is still the same for the previous lute, and it often plays as a solo reduction of all string instruments when a full Chinese orchestra is not possible.
Horizontally placed like a table, there can be upwards of one hundred and fifty strings on the soundboard of the 扬琴/yángqín (the poplar zither). Like the piano, it can be grouped per tone (one tone on the piano can have a max of 3; this instrument can have 5); and it is struck with hammers, also like the piano. Perhaps it is for this reason that it is called the Chinese piano, that or it may be because it is the accompaniment instrument of choice when it comes to eastern music.
The name actually is an error in understanding. The original name of the instrument is 洋琴 (the exotic zither), but it is pronounced exactly the same. (The problem is comparable to dictating a speech and writing, ‘I got the facts,’ when it should have been ‘I got the fax.’) Still, the character used today is not out of the question. Some forms of it (such as in the south) are built with a bamboo or light wooden casing and stand while the strings are still made of silk. It is a very quiet and less common version (used to accompany softer instruments), used instead in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. However, it’s original building material waives the wave of misunderstanding, but it perhaps ultimately led to the people not noticing much of anything wrong in the first place.
The hammers used with this instrument are very tediously made. Playing the instrument includes using the hammers’ bamboo tip to strike the string, or the opposite side to use the sharper sounding (but light) wood. The base of the hammers can pluck the strings; and the strings can be drumrolled to imitate a trill or tremolo. Hands may also be used to stop the vibrating strings, but this is as often as the barbarian fiddles or Western violins being plucked.
Out of all the stringed instruments, however, this is the only one that is able to be somewhat bowed by the hammer, struck, and plucked. This may be why it has become just as much a solo instrument as it is an accompanying instrument, once again like the piano, which is debatably a percussion or string instrument, allowing it to imitate many aspects of an entire orchestra and often play orchestral reductions as an accompaniment. This Chinese Piano can do the same, but to separate it, almost all players of the instrument exclusively use the numbered system of notation (简谱/jiǎnpǔ [simplified score]) rather than the Western style (the simplified version came from the West but was never made popular except for in the East, and it is actually much simpler to find pieces based on melody coding alone rather than title searching).
In performance, it is popular as a solo instrument. However, it does still continue to accompany. Classified as a percussion (a dulcimer), it is sometimes put in the back of large orchestras but often drowned out, and resonance constantly forces the performer to manually stop the non-muted strings from vibrating.. Thus, it is often placed in the front section of the entire ensemble.