Erhu History

This manual is written for composers interested in writing for the erhu. It is not completed yet. The extended techniques are mostly what I had developed as an improviser. These techniques may not be familiar to other erhu players. - Lan Tung, May 10, 2012


Tuning & Range  定弦及音域

The strings are tuned to D4 (lower, next to the middle C) and A4 (one 5th higher). The D string is called the inside string because it is closer to the player. The A string is called the outside string.

On the A string, the best notes go for about 1.5 octaves, reach the high E. I can play notes higher than the high E (up to around G or A), but it's hard to play accurately because the notes become very close in distance on the strings. Melodic phrases above the E won’t be good, but it can be used as an effect when accurate pitches are not required.

On the D string, it is generally good for one octave. The notes above one octave does not speak well.


Fingering 指法

Composers do not need to write out the fingerings. However, it is good to understand how it works, and to keep in mind how a passage may be played with what kind of fingering because awkward fingering makes it a lot more difficult to play.

The erhu player uses 4 fingers of the left hand to play the notes, just like the violinist. The fingers are numbered as 1 (fore finger), 2 (middle finger), 3, and 4 (pinky). Always keep in mind that I keep my fingers on both of the strings at the same time. Generally, without changing positions, between the lowest notes on the D string (played by #1 finger) and the highest notes on the A string (played by #4 finger) is an octave. In the higher registers, I can reach more than an octave. But the octave is the basic, and the reference for spacing.

The notes between the low D and G# can only be played on the D string. However, the notes of A and above may be played on either strings. The choice of which string to play is based on the convenience of the fingering, and also the tone colours. Playing notes of the same phrase on the same string will produce more unified tone than switching between strings.


Positions  把位

The erhu has three basic positions:

1) First Position - the first octave from D open string to the E above (played by #4 finger on the A string).

2) Second Position – from the G on D string (played by #1 finger) to the A one octave above it (played by finger #4).

3) Third Position – usually only the A string is played. The notes on the D strings do not speak well. The highest note of this position is the high E on the A string.

4) Forth Position - only the A string is played, starting from the high D, and may go up to G or A. But notes above the E are rarely used and hard to be in tune. Because the notes are very close in distance on the string, the best way is to not play all the notes of the scale consecutively.

5) Moving Positions - I can place my #1 finger on any pitch to create new positions in between these positions. In non-traditional music, this is used more often than the traditional positions.

The erhu players always move between different positions. (換把)

Fast jumps between notes wider than an octave apart are played in different positions. This can be difficult, depending on the fingering and the choices and ordering of notes. Obviously, whenever the open strings are played, it's easier and gives me extra time to change between positions.


Tone Colour and Volume  音色與音量

The erhu sounds the best in the first two octaves. The A string is brighter. The tone of the D string can be described as warmer or darker.

The erhu is not as loud as the violin, but it does have a good range of volume. It is good to perform in acoustic space without microphones. However, to play with loud percussion and wind instruments can be difficult. This has to be taken into consideration when composing loud passages in ensembles with these instruments. In larger ensembles, the erhu is often amplified with a microphone, unless there are multiple erhu to make up a string session.

In general, for the same volume on the same note, the erhu player needs to change the bow more often than the violinist. The higher the pitch, the softer the volume it is on the erhu. This makes it difficult for the intensity and volume often required for passages in the higher register. To achieve that, I need faster bowing speed than the lower register. Therefore, I need to change my bowing a lot more frequently, and the notes are either shorter or played with more than one bow.


Keys 調

Theoretically, the erhu can be played in any key because there is no fingerboard. But very rarely, I play in keys of more than 3 sharps or flats. The open strings, and the 5th and octaves above the open strings, are important reference points for intonation. Keys (such as Ab or Eb) that do not use the open strings are more difficult. The fingering is awkward, and the instrument does not resonate well neither.

For accidentals, I read sharps quicker than flats.


Traditional Techniques

1) Right Hand Techniques:

The bow is held with an underhand grip. The bow hair is adjusted so it is slightly loose. The fingers of the right hand are used to push the hairs away from the stick in order to create tension in the hairs. The bow hair is placed in between the two strings and both sides of the bow hair are used to produce sound, the player pushes the bow away from the body when bowing the A string (the outside string 外弦), and pulls it inwards when bowing the "inside" D string 內弦.

Most of the following techniques are also used on the violin. For the ease of understanding, the violin terms are used here.



The erhu bow is attached in the middle of the two strings. Therefore, starting a phrase from silence usually is with a down bow (moving from left to right away from the body 拉弓). This technique is indicated by a symbol resembling a small bracket over the note.

To play a long sustained note, an up bow (moving from right to left toward the body 推弓) is easier, especially if crescendo is required.

Of course, this is not always possible. The bow going the other directions is also playable. I just need to work it out. These are the most ideal bowings for these situations, but not the only options.

The erhu bow sits right on top of the sound box. The player uses the weight of the bow and moves in a direction perpendicular to the strings. Unlike the violin, you can not change the tone colour by changing the distance between the contact point of the bow hair on the strings and the bridge.



Détaché on the erhu is not as clean as the violin because the bow is in the middle of the two strings, but it is still used very often.


Jeté 拋

Also known as "ricochet" bowing, this consists of "throwing" the bow on the string in the upper third of the bow on a down bow, so that it bounces and produces two rapid notes. This is usually used to depict horses galloping.


Tremolo 顫弓

This consists of moving the bow back and forth in very short strokes extremely rapidly, not in measured rhythm.


Double Stops 雙音

The only way to play both strings at the same time is to use the bow stick to play the A string and the bow hair to play the D string. Therefore, the tone is not the same for the A string, and the only interval can be played is the 5th. The tone is more aggressive and cannot be played in softer volume.


Col legno  擊弓

Knocking the bow stick on the sound box. This is to create percussive sound.



2) Left Hand Techniques:

Vibrato  揉弦

By waving the fingers up and down, it changes slightly the length of the string, and therefore the pitches. The erhu player often varies the speed of the vibrato on each note, and will also play some notes without vibrato.


Slides  滑音

It is natural to slide between notes on the erhu. It happens most often between minor 3rd, but it can be played between any notes. The erhu player often vary the speed of the slides, moving in different speed as the fingers sliding through different intervals.


Glissando 大滑音

Slide over bigger intervals in various speed. It can also be combined with tremolo. It is possible to specify the starting and ending pitches of the glissando, but usually no specific pitches are assigned.


Pressing  壓弦

The other way to vary the pitch is by changing the pressure of the strings. Without the fingerboard, the erhu player can press hard on the strings to raise the pitch slightly. It is the most expressive quality of the erhu. The erhu player will vary the pressure on the string to change the tone colour.

Most of the time, the erhu player uses a combination of vibrato and pressing on the strings.


Harmonics   泛音

1) Natural harmonics are produced by lightly touching (but not depressing) the string with the finger at certain places, and then bowing the string.. The most often used ones 1/2, 1/3, 1/4 of the strings. For example, the halfway point of the string will produce a harmonic that is one octave above the unfingered (open) string. The natural harmonics on the A string: #C, A, E; on the D string: #F, D, A.

2) Artificial (touch fourth) harmonics: depresses the string fully with first finger while touching the same string lightly with the fourth finger. This produces a sound two octaves above the stopped note by the first finger.


Pizzicato  撥弦

The erhu pizzicato is a lot more limited than the violin because the bow is always in the middle of the two strings. The bow will always need to touch one of the strings, leaving only the other string to resonate when it is plucked.

1) A string pizzicato

This is plucked with the left hand (pull off or left hand pizzicato). The first finger presses on the strings to fret the note, while the third finger pulls the A string. The pitch of the plucked note is where the first finger is. This is used to pluck only a single note at a time, and it can be any note on the A string. The sound is very dry, especially in the higher registers.

However, the open string can be easily plucked by any of the first three fingers any time and resonates more. Although not used very often, by alternating rapidly between the first three fingers, it can create a rolling effect on the open note of the A string.

2) D string pizzicato

There are two movements involved: a) put down the bow on the lap and keep it touching the A string. b) pluck the string with the right hand.

Most erhu pizzicato are done this way. The sound is dark, but you can play some fast passages. The range is limited to about one octave from the open string. At the end of the plucked phrase, it takes a moment to pick up the bow again to play.

3) Pluck and play at the same time

You can pluck the A string with the left hand and play the D string with the bow at the same time. The only interval can be played is the 5th. This technique works best to play the open strings. However, it is possible to press any note with the first finger and pluck the A string with the 3rd finger, while bowing the D string. The pitches for both strings are where the first finger is. The higher the pitch, the more difficult it is to do. I cannot play fast consecutive notes in this manner, unless it is to repeat the same note.


Extended techniques

Textures and effects created with unusual bowing techniques

To produce the best tone on the erhu, it requires the balance between the bow pressure and speed, and moving in straight angel. However, I sometimes deliberately create an imbalance by pressing the bow very hard or moving the bow in the “wrong” angles to create different textures.


1) Scratch Tone - Bowing with high pressure on the strings

A scratch tone is produced by bowing the instrument in normal playing position, but applying very hard pressure to the bow. This produces a grating sound, which can be played with either short bowing (rhythmic/percussive sounds) or long sustained tones. By changing the speed of the bow movement, it can be played with different volumes. I often move the bow in extremely slow motion to produce quiet but very intense long tones.


2) Bowing with the bow lifted above the sound box

Unlike the violin, the erhu bow usually stays on the sound box. It is important to relax the bowing hand and use the gravity to play the bow. Lifting the bow up produces weak tone. Beginner players often do this. However, I use it for special effects.


Extended techniques without the bow

Unlike the western string instruments, knocking on the wood surface of the erhu does not produce much sound. The sound box is made of thick and heavy wood with high density. the neck/stick of the erhu is made of a solid piece of wood, which do not resonante.


1) Robbing or tapping the skin

Robbing or tapping gently on the snake skin of the sound box can produce some percussive sound. However, the sound is soft. It is more effective with amplification.


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