Chinese Music 101 – Bayin: 8 Tones of Chinese Traditional Music

By Sari Xu

Before the rising of electronic music, even before the discovery of electricity, nature was where all the greatest music stems from. Despite of the differences among each ethnic group, Chinese people, all together have devised tons of traditional musical instruments that could be grouped into 8 categories based on their materials – silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, and skin. Under each category, there must be something you are familiar with and something surprising!

Silk Instruments: silk instruments are mostly stringed instruments nowadays. Back at the ancient times, before the use of metal or nylon, the Chinese have used twisted silk for strings. They could be grouped into 3 categories: plucked, bowed, and struck. Some popular plucked musical instruments include Guzheng, Pipa and Sanxian. Others like Guqin(古琴), Se(瑟), Konghou(箜篌,harps), and Ruan(阮) are less popular nowadays but very typical in traditional music performance especially for solo. Outside of the greatest Han ethnic group, ethnic minorities also have their own stringed music with talented players. For example, in Uyghur traditional music of Xinjiang, Tembur, Dutar and Rawap are widely played and are either fretted or fretless plucked lute. It’s very easy to recognize them with their long neck and representative Uyghur patterns.

Xinjiang people have also devised some fancy bowed instruments such as Ghaychak, Sataer, and Ghushtar. Other ethnic groups like Mongolians and Zhuang people also got the talents in design and devised the “horsehead” fiddle Matouqin(马头琴) and Zhengni(筝尼), respectively. The most common bowed instruments include Erhu, Zhonghu, Jinghu, Banhu, etc. They could be together described as Huqin(胡琴), which refers to the family of vertical fiddles. Though plucked and bowed instruments each has a large family, there are comparatively fewer instruments under the “struck” category. The most representative one is Yangqin(扬琴), which is a hammered dulcimer commonly used in traditional Chinese music orchestra till today.

Bamboo Instruments: bamboo instruments, apparently, are instruments made of bamboo and usually refer to woodwind instruments like vertical flutes. Dizi, Xiao, Paixiao and Chi are some commonly played Chinese flutes worldwide. Other woodwind pipes could be categorized into free reed, single reed and double reed pipes. The most representative instruments in these 3 categories are Bawu, Mabu, and Suona respectively.

Wood Instruments:Most wood instruments are of the ancient variety. For example, Muyu (木鱼) is a rounded woodblock carved in the shape of a fish, and could be struck with a wooden stick. It’s mostly used in Buddhist chanting. Another example would be Bangzi(棒子), which is also a woodblock, smaller than Muyu and has a higher pitch.

Stone Instruments:Yes! Stones could also produce beautiful musical rhymes. Back at the ancient times, there were a range of stone chimes like Bianqing(编磬), Tezhong(特钟) and Qin(磬).

Metal Instruments: Metal instruments are mostly percussions. The two greatest categories here are Luo (Gong) and Bo.

Clay Instruments: Believe it or not, both wind and percussion instruments could be made of the clay! Xun is a typical wind ocarina made of baked clay, and Fou is a percussion instruments that could be played just in the way of playing the drum.

Gourd Instruments: gourds could also be used in music and Sheng and Hulusi are two representative wind instruments made of this “plant”!

Skin Instruments: Don’t be scared! Animal’s skin was commonly used to make the surfaces of drums. These include Dagu (“Gu” in Chinese means the drum), Jian’gu, Bangu, Biangu, Paigu, Huagu, Yaogu, Diangu, Yanggegu, Gaogu… and so on! Haha, this is such a big family!

The Chinese Drum Family

Other than the 8 categories, instruments made from other unique materials do exist as well, and I promise these treasures, at least one of them, would be a big surprise! Next time, we’ll have some more discussion regarding each category of the Bayin (8 tones), as well as other traditional Chinese musical instruments! Stay tuned!



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Muqam, the Living Fossils of Uyghur Music

The most prestigious and well-known genre of Uyghur music is the Muqam, consisting of poetic songs, stories and dance tunes. There are various forms of Muqam music in more than 20 different countries. However, the Muqam music in China Xinjiang Autonomous Region boasts the biggest in composition, longest in history and richest in forms among all the existing Muqam music.

Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam is a composite of songs, dances, folk music, and is characterized by its diversities of content, dance styles and musical instruments. It serves as a witness of cultural exchanges between the east and the west. Being the communication hub en route the Silk Road, Xinjiang experienced collision and melting of eastern and western cultures. Consequently, the development of Muqam, originated from the local people, has greatly taken on the influence of multi-culture. The Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang has been designated by UNESCO as Intangible Heritage of Humanity.



Twelve Muqam , the Mother of Uyghur Music


The Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam has developed into four main styles, namely the Twelve Muqam, Turpan Muqam , Hami Muqam and Dolan Muqam. Twelve Muqam is known as the Mother of Uygur Music. Have you ever heard such a concert that takes one day and one night to play? The Twelve Muqam of Xinjiang’s Uygur people has 360 melodies, 4,000-plus lines of lyrics, and the whole set needs 24 hours to finish.

musical instruments

Legend has it in the mid-16th century, aided by other musicians, the imperial concubine Amannisahan of the Yarkant Kingdom, who was also an esteemed poetess and musician, devoted all her efforts to collect and compile Muqam music, which was then scattered across areas populated by Uyghur. She finally worked out 12 grand, yet entertaining compositions that are now known as the Twelve Muqam.
musical instruments

In 1940s, the economy of Xinjiang was in recession and people lived in poverty and the 12 Muqam was facing extinction. In1950s there was only one person who could sing the complete 12 Muqam. He was Turdi Ahun born in a musician’s family in Yengisar County. He mastered 12 Muqam at the age of 20. He then performed the musical suite for more than 50 years in Kashgar, Hotan and other places. He could perform with the musical instrument of Tanbor, Duttar, Satar and Rawap. His performance with Satar was rated as unique in Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

musical instruments

The local government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region made every effort possible to preserve the Twelve Muqam. In 1956, Muqam master Turdi Ahun and musician Wan Tongshu took great effort to record most of the vocal melodies and librettos of the Twelve Muqam. Their efforts paved the way for the renaissance of this cultural tradition. In 1960, two volumes of Twelve Muqam sung by Turdi Ahun were published. The oral cultural heritage was finally secured in the form of its first publication.


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Music of the Uyghur

The Uyghur are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. Today Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. An estimated 80 % of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the region, the Tarim Basin. Uyghur Musical Instruments The Uyghur have a great love of singing and dancing. They have been known for their vibrant music and ethnic dances since very ancient times. Music and dance occupy a significant place in life of the Uyghur. There are no holidays, parties and wedding festivities without music and dances. Uighur traditional songs are remarkable for their melodious originality.


Distinctive Uyghur Music


Uyghur Musical Instruments

Uyghur music embraces several distinct regional styles, product of the geography and complex history of the region, whose oasis kingdoms, separated by mountains and deserts, have been subject through the course of history to rule by many different outside forces.


The History of Uyghur Music


Uyghur Musical Instruments

Uyghur scholars trace the roots of their music back to the 11th century BC to the Di people who are referred to in the earliest of the Chinese dynastic annals, living to the north of China. And generally speaking, the historical flow of music has largely moved from west to east in the following centuries. While Chinese histories record the influence of the Western Region on central China, Uyghur music has historically absorbed much influence from the regions of Central Asia to the west, arriving along the famed Silk Road.


Distinct Regional Styles


Due to the particular geography of Xinjiang and the constant influence of one culture on another, musical styles have developed along different paths over the years, and each tradition is typical of its locality.

The musical traditions of the southern oasis towns of Khotan and Kashgar are more closely allied to the classical Central Asian traditions of Bukhara and Samarkand, while the music of the easternmost oasis town of Qumul has closer links to the music of Northwest China. Each of the region’s oasis towns have to this day maintained their own distinctive sound and repertoire, but they are linked by a common language and overarching culture, maintained by constant communication through trade and movement of peoples. Musically there is much to link these local traditions, in terms of instruments, genres, styles and contexts.


Traditional Uyghur Music


There are several kinds of traditional Uygur music, the most famous of which is the classic Uygur musical composition the “Twelve Muqam”, a major force in the development of Uygur folk music. Uyghur Musical Instruments

Another kind of Uygur music is called “Sanam,” or “beauty,” which involves singing and dancing to a group consisting of between seven to a dozen pieces of song-and-dance music. The music begins slowly and steadily, then picks up speed, and finally culminates in a climax of merry music and exuberant dances.

“Kuxak,” “Eytixish,” and “Maida” are spoken songs, which are common among the Uygur people. Accompanied by simple tunes, the speaker will talk his way through a song, usually about the love between a man and a woman. These songs can also be performed by two people.

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