The Chinese believe that music is an expression of harmony that exists among heaven, earth and man, and nature has provided man with eight kinds of such materials to build musical instruments. Therefore traditionally, Chinese instruments are also classified according to the type of material they are made from. They are stone, metal, silk, bamboo, wood, skin, gourd and clay.
Stone – A good example is the Pien Ching. It is a set of L-shaped stones, of different quantities and sizes, hanging from a stand and struck with a special hammer. They are played only at court and during religious ceremonies.
Metal – Includes Bells, Luo (gongs) and Bo (cymbals).
Silk – Refers to the stringed instruments. The stringed instruments can be further divided into two categories: the bowed strings (e.g. Erhu) and the plucked strings (e.g Guzheng).
Bamboo – the majority of woodwind instruments are made from bamboo. Examples include the dizi (flute), suona (trumpet).
Wood – This section includes a large variety of small percussion instruments including wooden blocks, boxes and xylophones with wooden blocks. These were used by Buddhist monks during religious ceremonies.
Skin – Drums are often covered with different types of animal skins along the top or head.
Gourd – a type of plant. A sheng (mouth organ) is one of the oldest Chinese instruments made out of hollowed-out pumpkin-like vegetables. It consists of a wind-chest and a number of bamboo pipes set in a circle. The sheng imitates the sound of a phoenix.
Clay – The ocarina, a small, egg-shaped wind instrument (with six holes for the finger tips) made of clay.
The variations of rhythm, beat, tone quality, and embellishments in Chinese music are highly distinctive and unlike their Western counterparts. This is mainly due to the unique sounds and playing styles of traditional Chinese musical instruments. Most Chinese instruments are performed as solo form as well as a part of an ensemble or orchestra. A Chinese orchestra is a mixture of many cultural traditions. Similar to a western philharmonic orchestra, a full Chinese orchestra is made up of four sections as below:
Pipa, Liuqin, Yangqin, Ruan, Yueqin, Guzheng, Guqin, Sanxian
Erhu, Jinghu, Gaohu, Gehu, Banhu, Matouqin
Blown Woodwind instruments –
Dizi, Xiao, Guan, Xun, Souna, Sheng
Percussion instruments –
Bangu, Bo, Bianzhong, Tanggu, Muyu, Luo, Yunluo