Chinese Instruments

There are many traditional Chinese instruments. In Year 3, I introduce four of these instruments, starting with a listening video of the famous song Molihua. The four instruments I expect all children to recognise from sight and sound are the gǔzhēng, the èrhú, the dízi and the pípá.

Gǔzhēng – 古筝

The gǔzhēng is a beautiful zither type instrument. In a hotel where my friends and I used to get dim sum for breakfast on Sunday mornings there was a lady who used to play the gǔzhēng on a little island in a small pond full of enormous goldfish! It’s a wonderful instrument and we were lucky to have two excellent players in my last school. They are played horizontal but often stored vertical on a wall. Here is a good example of a gǔzhēng being played.

Erhú –  二胡

When you go on the metro in most of the major cities in China, you will invariably find buskers playing the èrhú. This instrument looks like it has a violin bow but actually the hair and the stick are either side of the two strings. In my old school we had a child who learned but was very shy to play in public. We had two of the instruments in school and both had snake skin on them which was seriously cool! Here is a lovely duet with èrhú and piano.


The dízi is a bamboo flute and you can get them in different sizes. They are really cheap to buy in the shops, probably because they are made of bamboo which is very common in China! Here’s a lovely example of a dízi.


The pípá is also very popular in China and one of our teaching assistants was a pípá player and played at our International Day concert at school. We learned a lot about the pípá at our school as we used the Juilliard curriculum and one of the set works is a fascinating piece of music called Ambush from Ten Sides, an ancient musical recreation of a famous battle between two Chinese dynasties played by a performer called Wu Man. Here is another super piece of music by Wu Man called White Snow in Spring.

Jiǎnpǔ – 简谱

All these Chinese instruments use a method of musical notation known as jiǎnpǔ. Here is an example of what it looks like:

As you can see there is a mix of Chinese characters, numbers and dots and some Western notation like bars, repeat signs and key signatures. I won’t go into detail here but suffice to say it is extremely logical, the numbers correspond to pitches, the dots by octaves and the lines by rhythms. It isn’t only used for Chinese instruments – I played in a band in China and one of the guitarists also used jiǎnpǔ. Also when we wrote out orchestral parts for the gǔzhēng we also had to use jiǎnpǔ. Luckily we had a Western Music teacher who was also having gǔzhēng lessons and she kindly wrote out the parts that I created as I was struggling to write them out!

Chinese Orchestra – 民乐团

If you ever get the chance to hear a Chinese Orchestra go! They are absolutely fantastic. We also study animals and tempo in Year 3 so I finish off the unit by playing the children this fantastic piece of music called Horse Racing featuring a big Chinese Orchestra with two èrhú soloists.