Notation of Erhu

During the twentieth century, various modern Chinese orchestra are formed based on the idea of western orchestra. The earlier attempts are following the Soviet/Russian style, especially the harmony and styles of romantic period composers such as Tchaikovsky and later composers like Shostakovich. And thus

But during the 1970s and 80s, composers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China started to search for contemporary music in the west and extended techniques and experimental styles for these instruments. This is often regarded as the “New Waves” of Chinese composers. At the same time, globalization. Quite a number of European and United States composers start to write for Chinese instruments too.

Traditional Chinese ensemble like the “silk and bamboo music” usually play a tune with different embellishment (heterophony).

1. Huqin (胡琴), the family of chinese bowed-string instrument.

Erhu (二胡) –

Gaohu (高胡) – Cantonese opera (粵劇) and Cantonese traditional ensembles (廣東音樂). It is now also used as the higher pitch alternatives to Erhu, but the tone color is quite unique. Traditionally, it is held between two legs, and because the bridge is stopped by the legs, it gives a nasal tone quality. The tuning of the inner string is G and the outer string is D

Jinhu (京胡) – Beijing opera (京劇) – bamboo resonator, loud and higher pitch.

Zhonghu (中胡) – a middle-range erhu, larger in size and lower in register.

Gehu (革胡) – this is an attempt to create a cello in Chinese orchestra. The shape looks different, but tuning and the performing technique of Gehu is essentially the same as the cello. It doesn’t give a full tone color as cello

Bass Gehu (低音革胡) – similar to Gehu, it is just a replica of double bass.

2. Range and characteristics:

3. Special techniques:

Different styles of vibrato – by rocking the fingers, by pressing the strings harder because there is no fingerboard. Larger range vibrato can be done by sliding back and forth.

Glissando/portamento – linking up two notes, especially when moving from one position to another. Additive fingerings

Tremolo –

Jéte –

Staccato –

Accents within a long note –

Grace notes, mordent and other ornamentations –

Trill / Fingered-tremolo –

Pizzicato and left-hand pizzicato – dry and short, thinner than other pluck-string instrument like pipa. But it is still sometimes employed in music . Not possible on the outer string.

Harmonics –

Tuning –
4. Simplifed Notation (Numbered notation)

Before the simplified notation, Gongche notation (工尺譜), which is still in used in Cantonese opera and some regional instrumental music. The dots next to the words indicate the beats. The cross indicates the strong beats. Rhythm within the beat is flexible and allow the performer to interpret.

Isn’t difficult at all

Advantages – avoid the need of transposing for some instruments.
good for some instruments like dizi (chinese flute) that plays

Flexible in some way –

5. Computer programmes – using Microsoft Word with fonts like ….

Attempts to have both five-line staff and simplified notation has been difficult. Draw lines in Sibelius and Finale – but it is difficult to align everything and fix their positions.

Notable traditional Erhu music

6. Composed Erhu music by modern composers

7. References


胡登跳 《民族管弦樂法》。上海:上海文藝出版社,1982。
Hu, Dengtiao. Minzu Guanxianyue Fa (Orchestration of Traditional Orchestra). Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 1982.

This is a good book on instrumentation and “orchestration” of chinese instrument, with details about ranges, special instrumental techniques, traditional ensemble styles and “orchestration” in the modern chinese orchestra that is based on four different families of chinese instruments: bowed strings, plucked strings, woodwind and percussions.

Xi, Qiang and China Central Folk Orchestra. Chinese Music and Musical Instrument. Shanghai: Betterlink Pr Inc, 2011.


1. Chinese Music for All Seasons – A Novice Guide to the Chinese Orchestra. Singapore: Singapore Chinese Orchestra, 2006.

    Music by Phoon Yew Tien (潘耀田); Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Tsung Yeh.
    In this wonderful CD guide, instruments in the Chinese orchestra is illustrated in the way like Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra with explanations in both English and Chinese and a detailed booklet about the range and characteristics of each instrument in the Chinese orchestra.

2. Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra. Hugo Productions. HRP-766-2.
Music by Guan Nai-chung. Gaohung Chinese Orchestra conducted by Guan Nai-chung.
Another wonderful guide to chinese instruments.

3. Shen, Sin-yan. Chinese Music and Orchestration: a Primer on Principles and Practice. Chicago: Chinese Music Society of North America, 1991.


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