Traditional Chinese Instrumental Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

Traditional Chinese Instrumental Music can be relaxing, calming, and provide a sense of well-being. It is perfect for studying, work, or just unwinding.

Origins of traditional Chinese instrumental music

Traditional Chinese instrumental music can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty. It is said that the music was used in court and religious ceremonies. In the Tang Dynasty, music became more popular and was used in entertainment. In the Song Dynasty, music became even more popular and had a great influence on Japanese and Korean music.

Historical context

Traditional Chinese instrumental music can be traced back over two thousand years to the era of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). In this early period of Chinese history, music was used for a variety of purposes, including entertainment, ceremonies, and rituals.

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), a new style of music known as yuefu began to develop. This type of music was often connected with stories or poems, and it became very popular among the common people. Yuefu continued to be an important part of Chinese culture throughout the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), when it reached its peak of development.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), a new style of instrumental music known as zhengke began to emerge. This type of music was characterized by its use of intricate melodic patterns and was often performed on a zither-like instrument known as the guqin. Zhengke continued to be popular during the Ming (1368–1644 CE) and Qing (1644–1911 CE) dynasties, and it remains an important part of Chinese culture today.

Relationship to other Chinese music traditions

Traditional Chinese instrumental music has been shaped by the confluence of three distinct music cultures in Chinese history: that of the Han Chinese, of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, and of the various ethnic groups in southern China. The most important influence on traditional Chinese music was from Central Asia, though this influence was often indirect via Korea or Japan.

Characteristics of traditional Chinese instrumental music

Instrumental music is an integral part of Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese instrumental music can be traced back to the Bronze Age. It is characterized by its long history, diversity, and richness. Traditional Chinese instrumental music is an important part of Chinese culture and has been passed down from generation to generation.


One of the most obvious characteristics of traditional Chinese instrumental music is its distinctive timbre, which is achieved through the use of traditional Chinese instruments. These instruments can be broadly classified into four categories:string, wind, percussion, and plucked-string instruments.

String instruments include the erhu (a two-stringed instrument), the zhonghu (a higher-pitched version of the erhu), the gaohu (an even higher-pitched version of the erhu), the pipa (a four-stringed lute), and the liuqin (another four-stringed lute). Wind instruments include the dizi (a vertical flute), the sheng (a mouth organ), and the suona (a double-reed horn). Percussion instruments include various types of gongs, drums, and cymbals. Plucked-string instruments include the yueqin (a moon-shaped lute) and the ruan (a plucked string instrument with a soft tone).

These traditional Chinese instruments are often used in combinations to create different timbres. For example, a typical Chinese orchestra might include one each of the following instrument groups: erhus, dizis, shengs, gongs, drums, and yueqins. The use of traditional Chinese instruments gives traditional Chinese music its distinctive sound.

Melodic structure

Traditional Chinese instrumental music is often characterized by a slow and meditative tempo, as well as a minimalistic approach to melody and harmony. The melodic structure of a traditional Chinese instrument piece is often based on a single repeated motive, which is then elaborated upon with ornamentation and various embellishments. This type of melodic structure is in contrast to the more chord-based approach found in Western music.


Traditional Chinese instrumental music is characterized by its use of open fourths and fifths, which gives it a very distinct sound. This harmony is achieved by the use of instruments that are tuned to these specific intervals, such as the erhu, pipa, and dizi. The Chinese put a great emphasis on the beauty of nature, and this is reflected in their music. The tranquil and serene sound of traditional Chinese instrumental music is meant to evoke the feeling of a flowing river or a gentle breeze blowing through a field of wheat.


Rhythm in Chinese music is usually binary (made of two beats), ternary (three beats), or sometimes quaternary. pentatonic scales are used, and there is a structural preference for fourths, fifths, and octaves. There is also an important aspect of “divine proportion” or “mystic ratio” in Chinese music—the use of the number five. For example, in a binary rhythm, there would be two main beats with the first beat being twice as long as the second; in a ternary rhythm, the first beat would be three times as long as the second; and so on.

Common traditional Chinese instruments

Traditional Chinese music can be incredibly beautiful and evocative. It often features gentle, lilting melodies and can be very calming. There are a wide variety of traditional Chinese instruments, each with its own unique sound. In this article, we’ll introduce you to some of the most common traditional Chinese instruments.

String instruments

China has a long and rich history of traditional music. It includes many different types of music, such as the ethnic music of the various minority groups, classical orchestral music, Chinese opera, folk music, and religious music.

One of the most important aspects of traditional Chinese music is its use of instruments. The three main categories of traditional Chinese instruments are string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments.

String Instruments:
The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a “southern fiddle”. It belongs to the huqin family of musical instruments. It is sometimes referred to as a “Chinese violin” or a “bass fiddle”. The instrument has a history of over 4000 years and is still widely used in China today.
The zhonghu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument in the huqin family. It is also known as the “alto fiddle” or “tenor fiddle”. The instrument’s name literally means “中 (zhōng) (central/middle) + 琴(qín) (zither/string instrument)”. It resembles a cross between an erhu and a gaohu in terms of both appearance and playing style.
The pipa is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the “Chinese lute”, the pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for over two thousand years in China. The pipa originally came from Central Asia and was introduced into China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

Wind instruments

Wind instruments are commonly found in Chinese music, often played in ensembles of two or more. They include the sheng (a type of mouth organ), the xiao (a Vertical Flute), the dizi (a Bamboo Flute), the bawu (an end-blown flute), the hulusi (a Cucurbit Flute), and the yueqin (a plucked lute).

Percussion instruments

Percussion instruments are usually grouped together in the category of membranophones. Percussion instruments produce sound by being struck with a beater, or by other means. The percussion section of an orchestra most commonly contains instruments such as the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and tambourine. These instruments play an important role in orchestral music and are also very common in popular music.

The following is a list of some common traditional Chinese percussion instruments:

-Gongs: Gongs are large, circular metal plates that are either suspended from a frame or placed on a stand. They are struck with a beater to produce a deep, resonant sound.
-Bells: Bells come in all shapes and sizes and can be made from different materials such as bronze, iron or stone. They produce a clear, ringing sound when struck with a mallet.
-Drums: Drums are perhaps the most versatile of all percussion instruments. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be made from different materials such as wood, skin or metal. Drums can be played with sticks, mallets or even hands.
-Cymbals: Cymbals are thin metal plates that are used to create a crashing sound effect. They come in different sizes and shapes and can be played by themselves or mounted on a stand to be played with sticks.

Notable traditional Chinese instrumental pieces

Traditional Chinese instrumental music has a long history dating back to the Bronze Age. There are a wide variety of traditional Chinese instruments, many of which are still in use today. This type of music often features a solo instrument or a small group of instruments playing together.

“High Mountain and Flowing Water”

“High Mountain and Flowing Water” is a piece of traditional Chinese instrumental music. It is also one of the most popular and well-known Chinese musical pieces. The music was composed by the great Chinese musician, Guo Moruo, in the early twentieth century. It has been performed by many famous Chinese musicians and orchestras over the years.

“Moon Reflected in Second Spring”

“Moon Reflected in Second Spring” is a guqin solo composed by playwright, composer, and musician Jing Yin during the Tang Dynasty. It is one of the most popular pieces of Chinese traditional music and has been performed by many renowned musicians.

The piece is said to be a retelling of a poem by Li Bai, one of the most famous poets of China’s classical period. In the poem, Li Bai describes seeing the moon reflected in a spring, which symbolizes his longing for home. Jing Yin’s composition captures this feeling of nostalgia and homesickness.

“Moon Reflected in Second Spring” is a complex piece that requires great technical skill to play. The guqin, a seven-stringed zither, is a notoriously difficult instrument to master. However, the beauty of the music lies in its simplicity; the melody is elegant and emotive, evoking the serene night sky and the poet’s yearning for home.

If you are interested in hearing this piece, there are many recordings available online. I recommend checking out versions by Qingping Sun or Liu Fang, two of today’s leading guqin performers.

“Autumn Moon over the Han Palace”

One of the most famous traditional Chinese instrumental pieces is “Autumn Moon over the Han Palace”. It is a beautifully haunting melody that evokes the feeling of autumn and the beauty of the moon. The piece is often used in movies and TV shows set in China, and it is one of the most popular pieces of Chinese music.

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