ErHu did you say that was playing?

March 20, 2007 at 06:57 PM ·

Replies (48)

March 20, 2007 at 07:28 PM · Fantastic. I had no idea one could get such variation and color on that instrument. Thanks for sharing. Loved how she got loaded down with plush toys and flowers at the end. Watching her carry all that stuff along with her instrument was almost as exciting as seeing her tackle the third page of I&RC on two strings.

March 20, 2007 at 08:40 PM · I have heard of erhu players being able to play Ziguenerweisen.

March 20, 2007 at 10:11 PM · The piano was overpowering. I wonder if there would be an equivalent instrument that would complement the flavor of the erhu.

March 20, 2007 at 10:38 PM · Viola.

March 20, 2007 at 10:53 PM · Interesting bow-hold.

Actually, I quite like that sound, but I wouldn't want to be forced to listen to it for more than a few minutes at a time. [EDIT]

March 20, 2007 at 11:06 PM · wheres the spiccato!? haha i'm joking

March 20, 2007 at 11:41 PM · I have an Erhu. My Mom brought me one back from China about fifteen years ago. I can't play it. Sadly, I don't think there are any Erhu teachers in Birmingham. Plus, my Erhu is missing the bridge. Anybody have an extra Erhu bridge?

I also got a big kick out of the Erhu Zig on youtube.

March 21, 2007 at 02:35 AM · To me, Erhu is meant to be played unaccompanied. Erhu tells stories, at least most of the Erhu music I used to listen to in China clearly gives one this impression. Imagine a story teller, surrounded by a group of people under the dim light and sipping tea, tells you an ancient and emotionally complex tale. This is what Erhu does the best. This is not to say that you wouldn’t hear Erhu accompanied by other instruments; it often does accompanied by other Chinese instruments made of bamboo and silk strings, such as yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer ) or pipa (the Chinese lute), especially in Shanghai where the so called traditional silk and bamboo genre flourished.

March 21, 2007 at 05:04 AM · Tom, there is a video of someone playing Zigeunerweisen with an ErHu on youtube.

March 21, 2007 at 05:05 AM · I personally don't like it much. It is interesting, but I don't think the sound quality matches this type of (or any Western) music. I'm sure a violin playing ErHu music wouldn't sound quite right either.

March 21, 2007 at 05:13 AM · quote, "I don't think the sound quality matches this type of (or any Western) music"

I dunno, it might sound perfect doing a duet with bagpipes. (g)

March 21, 2007 at 05:36 AM · Enosh, I feel the same way. I find the slides and tons of accentuated notes, for instance, used in Erhu are particularly annoying.

Many years ago I tried the Erhu a bit after I had played violin for a while and I found quite unsatisfying from expression point of view anyway. You can't do chords, and the bowing techniques are much more limited, just to name a couple.

In terms of violin playing Erhu music, the Butterfly concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang contains a lot of Erhu music elements and if you listen to it carefully, you'll notice that. It can be done in an interesting way by violin so long as you get the 'flavour' of that type of music and not over do it to make it sounds like Erhu.

March 21, 2007 at 05:35 AM · "I don't think the sound quality matches this type of (or any Western) music"

I think this is one of the biggest problems of playing western music with a non-western instrument -- trying to replicate the violin sound instead of just do the Erhu interpretation of the music. It reminds of me of the classical Chinese vegetarian cuisine -- all the efforts are put to make the tofu and veggie taste like meat and the result is that at the best you get quality fake meat.

March 21, 2007 at 02:07 PM · Isn't it actually a fantastic instrument? Two strings and a bow. Amplifying a string with very simple materials: a small skin on a small box. A sound as a female singer..when entering a chinese restaurant, when there is music, I am often not immediatly sure hearing a singer or an er hu. It is a very old instrument, much older than our violin and still bright alive and very popular!

This lady plays very expressive, just like chinese musicians do. She plays the piece in the way of playing her own (chinese) music. I think it is very beautyful!

March 21, 2007 at 02:05 PM · between violin and erhu, i would take the former's sound any day, but i guess it is a matter of taste. the sound of erhu is too earthy for me (somehow have never reminded me of any lady i know, to which i am thankful:). i remember linking a youtube clip where it suits the gypsy sound quite well imo. there is that weepy sentiment...

i do not know erhu well but i find it fascinating that the bow hair tension of erhu is not controllable by dial--- it is set the way it is and looks quite loose. to be able to create the gamut of sound effects with a "loose" bow like that is quite amazing...the wrist really needs to know how to flick.

bottom line: to be great in violin or erhu is not easy, darn!

ps, trivia question for you:): how does the erhu bow hair get rosined?

March 21, 2007 at 02:20 PM · Enosh - I had a discussion about the erhu last spring with a couple of members of the Shanghai Quartet. They did not seem like great fans of it, but although Chinese, they were basically raised on Western Classical Music (their grandfather was the first or one of the first violinists in China and their family is full of violinists).

March 21, 2007 at 02:31 PM · al, the bow hair loose is not amazing but it has to be so because the bow is used on the string the way oppoist of the violin bow. The bow is set between two strings so intead of pressing motion with your finger and arm when you play a violin, with Erhu you have to pull bow away from the finger board to create hair tension and to give the pressure the string needs to sound right. Rosin is put not on the hair but on bottom of the finger board and top of the sound box if I recall correctly (it's been a while since I played an Erhu)so that the bow hair can gather some each time it moves.

It is a very simple instrument and there's a beauty to that. But the two strings and the way the bow is designed do set the limit that the violin doesn't. IMHO.

March 21, 2007 at 02:30 PM · thanks yixi. so i assume erhu cannot do 2 string double stops?

i am still not catching up with the rationale that the erhu bow hair needs to be "loose". in other words, what happens when the bow hair is tighter?

March 21, 2007 at 02:29 PM · double stops are tricky and chords are impossible.

March 21, 2007 at 02:30 PM · Al Ku, men can 'unhook' the hair very easy from the bow, then you take it out and put rosin on it. Some archaic chinese players melt a amount of rosin just on the instrument, on the place where the bow all the time passes!

March 21, 2007 at 02:37 PM · It should be even more beautyful if there is only one string!

March 21, 2007 at 02:46 PM · finn, may be a very looooong one:)

do you play?

March 21, 2007 at 02:50 PM · al, I should correct my earlier description about the bow hair tension. The bow sits between the two strings so the motion is both pulled and pushed between the string by the right hand. The bow holding is quite different as well. The thumb and index holds the end of the bow stick, the middle and 3rd fingers push the hair away from the bow stick to tighten the bow hair. The wrist of the right hand is somewhat facing up when playing.

March 21, 2007 at 02:46 PM · Hello Al Ku,

I was in China, where I saw several players. They teached me a bit and I have an erhu, but I don't really play it. Trouble enough with my violin!

By the way, Anne Horvath: I have some bridges extra, You can have some.

March 21, 2007 at 03:32 PM · thanks yixi, fin,,

how do you tune the 2 strings?

March 21, 2007 at 03:47 PM · Like the violin D & A

March 21, 2007 at 05:24 PM · Technically it's soprano member of the washtub bass family.

March 21, 2007 at 05:35 PM · I think people were a little bit confused at what I said. "I personally don't like it much." - I was actually referring to the video and the concept of playing classical music on a Chinese instrument. I personally do like the ErHu very much.

March 21, 2007 at 05:59 PM · IF some of you could only put away your bias and ignorance for only a few minutes, perhaps you could appreciate what the young lady has accomplished. Anytime anyone can play any piece of music like the Thai, on an instrument for which the music was never intended--- well this is a true accomplishment. Then consider the musicality and expression she brings. She does this only on 2 strings! For me, her performance is masterful, and crosses the great cultural divide between east and west. Full credos to her.

The erhu can have a very haunting sound when played for music of a different genre.

True, for those of you preconditioned to hearing Thai on a violin only, well the erhu will sound strange. But this does not negate the musicality of the piece or the performer.

How many of have tried to perfrom Chinese music on a violin? How do you think it sounds to the ears of someone conditioned to the erhu?

lastly, the erhu is difficult to play and produce a good tone - much harder than it appears in this video.

March 21, 2007 at 06:16 PM · Maybe they'll replace violas.

March 21, 2007 at 06:30 PM · Jim - that would give rise to a spate of erhu jokes. Do we want that?

March 21, 2007 at 06:36 PM · Erhu wouldn't?

*Seriously though it's quite a haunting instrument. In a good way, not a bad way like viola.

March 21, 2007 at 06:39 PM · What's the difference between an erhu and a.....

Sorry, I'll stop now.

March 21, 2007 at 07:06 PM · Growing up in Kentucky, we would make fun of, er, Hoosiers.

March 21, 2007 at 08:48 PM · Count me impressed! It sounds like a theremin to me, which makes sense since the theremin is described as sounding like an erhu.

March 22, 2007 at 02:29 AM · In no particular order....

Hooray for er-hu!

? Fingerboard ? Er-hu has no fingerboard. Hence, the fabulous variety of vibrato including our familiar end-knuckle bend rolling finger tip along length of string, and a simple grasping-yanking of the string perpendicular to its length -- unique, cool sound, and the resemblance to Chinese opera vocal sound is striking. Bow hair is rosined on both sides! Bows vary, but mine is bamboo with a frog (machined out of a block of plexiglass, I think!) and an end-screw like a violin bow's, but longer... hair is tensioned, but not as tightly or spring-ily as violin's-- at least as much of the grab and traction on string comes from the active push and pull of bow fingers into the string rather than from arm weight transferred through bow hold via hair tension. In Chinese music for er-hu, varied tunings are common, but D-A and a whole tone lower C-G intervals of a (perfect or so) fifth predominate.

I love er-hu, and have performed on it in the Seattle Chinese Orchestra, with my Philly rock / pop band, for a hip-hop and for singer-songwriter studio tracks, and very effectively and evocatively in amplified silent film accompaniments. I was even called in for a Chinese couple's wedding once when no more thoroughly-trained or authentic player was available. !! Possibly a gallery opening soon...

What a great sound... :-)

Among my er-hu recordings I have a CD performed by Zhou Yu including Zigeunerweisen. Pretty amazing. Sounds like spiccato-- I never can believe my ears no matter how often I hear it, and I can't imagine how he does it! Beyond me. Of course, maybe that's because I also switch-hit on viola...

March 22, 2007 at 03:01 AM · Wow--

then I see the video.

She's really really good!!

Equipment looks like it could actually be my model.

I like hearing her bow stick thwacking the side of the resonator when whe plays the early fast bits.

Hard to tell for sure, but it appears she has opted to remove the traditional pillow or foam bit tucked under the strings below the bridge. When I asked about doing that was perhaps the only time my Shanghai Conservatory trained er-hu teacher got anything like mad or impatient with me. I thought the sound more projecting and clean and clear (more violinistic, perhaps) without the foam bit, but I gave in to my teaching that it was not optional... The sound with the pillow pad pressed into the snakeskin by the strings below bridge is vaguely like using a mute... but effect on volume is not so much, and the effect seems rather more like a scrambling of overtones. Hard to explain, and it might take an oscilloscope or something like Raven audio analysis software to understand better, but with the pad, the snakeskin sounds more like snakeskin, the er-hu sounds more like er-hu, and I've gone along with it the last twelve years. The innocent snakes involved are I guess approaching endangered status, and George Gao (famously of Bowfire these days) is advocating and marketing a line of synthetic-'skin' head er-hus. Maybe these snakes and the pernambuco trees of Brazil can discover a mutualistic symbiotic relationship, and future generations will still enjoy the best of bowed strings of the world...

March 22, 2007 at 03:19 AM · gabriel, fascinating experience you have had! have you seen this one:

on quality make of erhu: are there any ancient chinese secrets:) like the cremonese for the violins?

that erhu in the above link has a real presence.

March 22, 2007 at 03:57 AM · gabriel, you are right, the stick against which the left hand can slide up and down when playing is not a finger board as we have with violin or viola. How would you call it in English?

I'm curious if you've heard the erhu performance by Min Hui-feng or Ah-Bin(the blind man)?

March 22, 2007 at 06:34 AM · Hmmm... Thanks, Al, for the Zig. link. Clearly separate bow strokes for the fastest bits-- I'd wondered whether my recording was perhaps more like all-up-bow staccato, but this video clearly shows the possibility of the separate strokes grabbing distinctly. Pretty amazing. My recording is much more crisp and distinct (and faster) in the ending... still a baffling spiccato emulation for er-hu!

In this second video, between 7:40 and 7:50 you can see clearly the whitish rectangle of the foam rubber pad below bridge that I was talking about.

No fingerboard-- just a "neck", in English. And instead of a violin's nut, er-hu has loops of cord which pull the strings closer to neck with enough pressure to 'stop' the strings and give a clear open string pitch.

Secrets like the Cremonese for violins? Nothing comparable that I'm aware of... the most important thing is not to be eaten by the snake, which is a huge constrictor type from the South of China ("Mang" or "Meng" snake, I think...). Probably not the original original material, since millenia ago the instrument likely originated in Mongolia and/or central Asia among nomadic horse-riding peoples. (Some of the many Chinese words for the er-hu family of instruments include the meaning of "foreign"-- it's not originally a Chinese instrument!)

About the recordings by Min Hui-feng or Ah-Bin(the blind man)-- no, I haven't heard these, but I would love to. Didn't Ah-Bin / Ar-Bing innovate the change to metal strings? [hmm-- I'm editing here: just found a reference which only says vaguely that he used two inner strings, mostly for durability and economy, rather than an in and an out...] And, I think I've read that his playing and health unfortunately were both deteriorated by the time he recorded... Do you know, Yixi, or anyone? And, apologies, maybe I know of the person's work, but I'm not recognizing the name of Min Hui-feng...

March 23, 2007 at 01:06 AM · Gabriel,

No wonder you can't remember the two performers I mentioned because I gave you the wrong spellings:( It's not uncommon to have different English spellings for a same Chinese name due to different local pronunciations in China and different spelling systems that we use in the West, but in this case, I can also blame on Buri's powerful influence:^)

Anyway, if you go online, you'll find their names are spelled as "Min Hui-fen" and "A-Bing" respectively.

Min Hui-fen’s performance can be found at:

A Bing (Hua Yanjun) made very limited recordings before his death (1950) and I heard some of the recordings in the 80s back in Shanghai. It was amazaing but I don’t know where you can get them these days. His bio can be found at:

You probably have already seen thtis but for those who want to know more about Erhu, Wikipedia has a good article:

March 23, 2007 at 04:37 AM · Awesome-- thanks.

June 24, 2007 at 07:06 PM · Mongolian and Dutch musicians play the music of Skip James! "Hard Time Killin' Floor" On erhus.

The original:

For a theory of why this is the best thing in the world, look up or read about a book called "Hole In Our Soul".

P.S. I would love to know whether Mr. James' voice falls into Mr. Steiner's beautiful sound category or bad sound category :) I really, really, would suspect the former.

June 8, 2008 at 04:36 AM · For another interesting piece of erhu playing, go to . Here the sensational young Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who plays both Eastern and Western music on the piano (his playing of the Tchaik and Beethoven concertos is fantastic) plays a duet with his father, who plays erhu. The music in this clip is better suited for the erhu than Western music, IMO. Near the end of the clip, the erhu gives a good imitation of the hooves and neighing of a horse.

June 8, 2008 at 04:54 AM · omg. i want to play that instrument!

January 15, 2011 at 03:10 AM ·

Perhaps it's worth mentioning that high-end erhus vary in character much more than high-end violins do, such that those who think they don't like "the sound of the erhu" might find other instruments than those they've heard more congenial. There's a reedy style that most Westerners probably won't like; ear-bleedingly piercing high harmonics even in erhus that aren't very treblish overall also seem to go down fine with the Chinese. The instrument in the clip is a fairly extreme example of a "cooing" style that in more moderate form is my favourite. Youtube compression isn't doing it any favours.

January 15, 2011 at 03:43 AM ·

There is also more than one size of erhu. I forget what the smaller, very very loud one is called (or is it the larger, not so loud one which has the different name?).

Not sure about the "more variation than a violin" part. That would be interesting, but I hear a lot of variation with violins. Pretty fascinating.

I like hearing the violin and the erhu in juxtaposition.


January 15, 2011 at 02:51 PM ·

Bill, the main surviving members of the erhu family, in order of increasing size, are the gaohu, erhu and zhonghu, though there are other instruments that you might be thinking of, such as the jinghu used in Beijing opera.

I think "more variation than a violin" is a pretty safe claim: even if one considers only the upper end of the market, instruments can be hexagonal, octagonal or occasionally cylindrical or oval, and made of aged rosewood, African blackwood, kiaat or violet sandalwood. Perhaps most importantly, my impression is that violin luthiers aim to suppress any marked resonance on particular harmonics, where master erhu makers often actively seek them out according to their own tonal ideal, or one of their ideals.

If you like hearing the violin and erhu together, check out the double concerto here:

Unfortunately there's still no market for real perfectionism in erhu making, and that goes double for erhu bows. The most expensive erhus (Lu Lin Sheng has charged $30,000 for one of his) are just glitter, probably never intended to be played.

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