Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Youtube Play


Introduction to Chinese String Instruments

A lesson on traditional Chinese music and 3 string instruments commonly found in the Chinese orchestra


Subject: Music


Level: Upper Primary, Lower Secondary

Recommended time: 60 mins

Note to educators: Lesson will exceed the recommended time if the optional activities are carried out


Learning Objectives

  • Gain an appreciation of traditional Chinese music 
  • Understand the use of pentatonic scale in traditional Chinese music
  • Be introduced to three Chinese string instruments commonly found in the Chinese orchestra – erhu, yangqin, pipa
  • Be introduced to selected traditional Chinese solo pieces involving the three string instruments 
  • Gain an understanding of how traditional Chinese Music can evoke moods, emotions or imagery and can be based on a poem or story

  • Learning Outcomes

    By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • understand the pentatonic scale as a 5-tone scale, its characteristics and name of five tones 
  • identify the physical features of the erhu, yangqin and pipa
  • identify how each instrument is played 
  • observe the performance techniques on the erhu, yangqin and pipa 
  • listen to solo pieces for each of the instruments and discuss the salient features of selected pieces

  • Activity 1: History of traditional Chinese music and the pentatonic scale in Chinese music

    Duration: 10 minutes

    Watch the video below by Singapore Chinese Orchestra, An Instrumental discovery of Chinese Orchestra Webisode 1. Through this video, students will gain a basic understanding of the beginnings of the Chinese orchestra and its instruments. After watching the video, you can check their understanding with the following questions. Teachers can either screen the video in class or set this as an individual task ahead of in-class lesson. 


      1. How did people used to make music in ancient times?
      2 When did traditional Chinese music first existed?
      3. What was the very first Chinese instrument and what was it made from? 
      4. How was music first used?
      5. How was Chinese instruments first classified?
      6. The pentatonic scale can also be found in traditional Chinese music. Each tone has a name. Name each tone and what they correspond with in the numbered musical notation.

    Teacher to conclude this section with the following key points:

      1. The pentatonic scale is commonly found in traditional Chinese music
      2. Each tone has a name: Gong 宫 (do), Shang 商 (re), Jue 角 (mi), Zh i徴 (so), Yu 羽 (la)

    Activity 2: What is a pentatonic scale? (optional)

    Duration: 15 minutes

    To allow students to better appreciate the idea of the pentatonic scale (a scale that is made of 5 tones), teacher can play the following video, Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale, or re-enact the activity with the students.

    Activity 3: Introduction to three Chinese string instruments: Erhu, Yangqin and Pipa

    For this activity, download and print Annex A: Music Resource Worksheet (see download below) and to distribute to every student in the class. Parts 1 to 3 covers different aspects of the instruments and Chinese traditional music. As students are watching the video, they can jot down notes in the worksheet. Alternatively, teacher may utilize students’ Personalised Learning Devices (PLDs) to create a digital poster using Google Jamboard. For this activity, you will be required to screen the video, I Kid You Not #8: The Art of Chinese String Instruments. The timings are given below.

    Part 1: Get to know the physical construct of the instruments

    Duration: 10 minutes

    Begin this part by asking your students if they know what a string instrument is and to name a few that they already know of. Explain to students that in Chinese traditional music, there are string instruments as well. Instruct your students to look out for the physical features of the three instruments (erhu, yangqin and pipa) and to jot them down in the worksheet. For this activity, you will be required to screen the video, I Kid You Not #8: The Art of Chinese String Instruments.

    Before screening the video, teachers can get students to fill in the KWL chart. After filling the KWL chart, you can screen the video. As students are watching the video, they can jot down the answers to the different parts in the worksheet. 

    To find out more about the physical features of the three instruments, students to watch the video from 2m49s to 4m34s. 

    Physical features & construct


    • Er means ‘two’, referring to the 2 strings on the instrument
    • Parts of the erhu: 2 tuning pegs (for the 2 strings), 千斤 qian jin (restrainer to support the strings), bow, snake skin, resonator, bridge
    • Sound is produced from the soundbox


    • Parts of the pipa: head, 4 tuning pegs, nut, frets, 4 strings, body, bridge
    • Lower frets of pipa are made of bamboo, upper frets of pipa are made of wood, ivory or buffalo horns
    • Played with special pipa nails (plastic/acrylic nails taped onto fingers) to produce a louder sound on the metal string and prevent injury to raw nails and fingers


    • Parts of the yangqin: body consisting of 144 strings, nuts, bridge, pair of yangqin sticks (to strike and hit the strings)
    • Body of instrument constructed mainly of wood
    • Widely regarded as the “Chinese piano” because it covers the widest range of notes in an instrument – 4 to 5 octaves
    • 144 tuning pins (one for each string) are found to the left and right sides of the instrument, and tuned with a tuning wrench

    Part 2: Playing Techniques

    Duration: 10 - 30 minutes 

    Optional: Teachers who are able to demonstrate on the instruments are encouraged to do so

    Screen I Kid You Not #8: The Art of Chinese String Instruments from 4m34s to 8m02s. As students are watching the video, they can fill up the sections on playing techniques. 

    Playing Techniques

    Note: *Both tremolo techniques used in pipa and yangqin are used to emulate long notes on the instrument since the instrument sound decays the moment it is generated


    • Basic technique involves bowing
    • Playing Techniques:
      i. Bowing techniques – 拉弓 (‘la gong’ downward bow), 推弓 (‘tui gong’ upward bow), 颤弓 (‘chan gong’ bow tremolo), 顿弓 (‘dun gong’ staccato), 抛弓 (‘pao gong’ ricochet)
      ii. Left hand technique – trill, 打音 (equivalent to mordent in Western music), 滑音 (‘hua yin’ upward and downward glissando), pizzicato, vibrato (滚揉 ‘gun rou’ rolling vibrato, 压揉 ‘ya rou’ pressing vibrato, 滑揉 ‘hua rou’ sliding vibrato)
      iii. Extended techniques – 拍蛇皮 (‘pai she pi’ tapping the snake skin), hitting the sound box with the bow, double stop, mimicking animal sounds (horse neigh, horse galloping, birds chirping)


    • The two basic techniques on the instrument forms the name of the instrument – “琵” (‘pi’ plucking forward) and “琶” (‘pa’ – plucking backwards). 
    • In modern days, 弹 (‘tan’ plucking forward) and 挑 (‘tiao’ plucking backwards) is more commonly used. 
    • Playing techniques: 
      i. Right-hand techniques (弹挑 ’tan tiao’ plucking, 扫弦 sao xian strumming, 轮指 ‘lun zhi’ tremolo) 
      ii. Left-hand techniques (揉弦’rou xuan’ vibrato by shaking the string slightly, 推拉吟 (‘tui la yin’ pushing or pulling the string to produce a slight pitch bend), 打音 (‘da yin’ finger tapping), 滑音 (‘hua yin’ glissando by sliding the left finger along the string towards the bridge)
      iii. Percussive techniques 绞二弦 (‘jiao er xuan’) – played by pulling the second string over the first string and playing the two strings at the same time to create a snare drum percussive effect


    • Played by striking the strings with a pair of bamboo mallets wrapped with a rubber coating
    • Strings can also be plucked using the back of the bamboo mallet
    • Sometimes, composers may indicate for performers to pluck the strings with fingers for special effects, or to use the back of the bamboo mallets to strike the strings to create a louder and more metallic sound (usually for melodies)
    • Other playing techniques (轮音 ‘lun yin’ tremolo)

    Part : Expressing Moods & Emotions

    Duration: 10 minutes

    Traditional music often gives us a glimpse into the lives and culture of people from the past. For this next section, screen I Kid You Not #8: The Art of Chinese String Instruments from 8m28s to 13m47s

    You can conclude the section by summarising that traditional Chinese music are often programmatic in nature, evoking scenery, moods or emotions, and can sometimes be based on a poem or story. You can then instruct your students to complete the last column of KWL chart and elicit a response from them about what they have learned. 

    Activity 4: Music listening appreciation (optional)

    Duration: 30 minutes

    If time permits, teacher can show examples of solo pieces for the three string instruments and have students to observe salient features of the music. Before starting on this activity, download, print and disseminate Annex B: Music Listening Appreciation Worksheet (see download section below).

    Before playing the pieces, share with students the title and the composer of the pieces you have selected. 

    After listening to the pieces, lead a discussion on the salient points of the pieces including the following:

    • rhythm, tempo, timbre, form (structure), dynamics etc. elements of music
    • playing techniques performed
    • imagery/mood evoked


    Then, instruct students to select one or more pieces and record their reaction to the music they have listened to on Annex B. You can encourage your students to share their response with the class before concluding the lesson. 


    1. 江河水 River of Sorrow, 东北民歌 North Eastern Folk song, rearranged by 黄海怀 Huang Hai Huai
    2. 良宵 A Beautiful Evening (duet rearrangement), composed by 刘天华 Liu Tianhua
    3. 空山鸟语 Birds Singing in a Desolated Mountain, composed by 刘天华 Liu Tianhua
    4. 赛马 Horse Racing, composed by 黄海怀 Huang Hai Huai


    1. 彝族舞曲 Dance of the Yi Tribe, composed by 王惠然 Wang Huiran
    2. 十面埋伏The Ambush From All Sides, 古曲 Ancient music


    1. 落花. Falling Leaves – Night, composed by王瑟 Wang Se
    2. 林冲夜奔 Lin Chong Flees in the Night by 项祖华 Xiang u Hua



    Possible Links to next lesson:

    1. Music and meaning (‘Music evoking stories’)
    2. Other musical cultures in Singapore and the world eg. Malay kompang music, Indonesian gamelan music 


    1. China - Asia, Latin America and the Middle East - GCSE Music Revision. (n.d.). BBC Bitesize. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z3r2mp3/revision/2
    2. Wang, C., Chow, J. Y., & Wong, S. S. (2020). The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra. Van Haren Publishing

    Contributed by:

    Chew Lixian

    Chew Lixian is the music coordinator at Zhonghua Secondary School. She has clinched the first prize in the Sheng Open Category of the National Chinese Music Competition and performed as a soloist with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. As a performer and an educator, she hopes to spread her love for Chinese music to the wider community.