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Playing Pipa
written by Ingo Stoevesandt

First steps: Holding the instrument

On old temple reliefs the ancient Pipa players held the instrument horizontally, like a spanish guitar.  
Today the player holds the instrument upright, with the soundwall pointing to the audience.
It is not so easy to find a position where the solid Pipa doesn't seem to slip away.

If someone is used to play the guitar he might face some difficulties as the lower pyramidal shaped
"xiang" frets are out of sight and the complete view of what you do with your left hand is hampered.


With its 6 xiang and 24 wooden frets the Pipas wide tonal range covers all tones from A to d3.
The four chords of the Pipa are tuned this way:

CHUN      =   A
LAC         =    d
ZHONG   -     e
ZI             -     a

There are many overtones and Flagolets which can be used to tune the Pipa properly.
The tetrachord A-d-e is often used to accompany melodies.


The right hand uses fingerplecs which work like an elongation of the fingernail. They are made of plastic and each sized to fit the finger.
A set of  plecs holds five "nails" for every finger of the right hand ( the one for the thumb is shaped different so it's easy to recognize).
In order to fix the plecs to the finger, each nail is placed on one end of a 5 cm long tape, then held on the fingernail and fixed with the tape wrapped around the finger.

After a while one normaly gets comfortable with  the unusual feeling of the plec/nail on the fingertip. If not, playing the Pipa with the
bare fingers or with a guitar plectron is also possible, in spite of missing the typical expression of the tone when played with nails.

The plecs should be worked over with sandpaper in order to fit the playing needs and skills of the user.

Techniques for the right hand

The bipolarity of the Pipas name also reflects the playing style:  Whether a chord is plucked to the inside (towards the player, Tan) or the outside (away from player, Tiao)  is a basic matter for the performance of the right hand. The combination of ankle, ellbow and finger pressure can produce different colours, and besides simply plucking the chord, some special movements have made the Pipa performance unique and outstanding. The traditional and actual Pipa music lives of ornamentations and fast note repetitions. The latter one, sometimes called "gun fingering" and the "finger wheel" (lun) are techniques for long repetitions while the fast doubling of a note is called cuo.  The lun wheel can be understood as the fingers of the right hand going in circles over one chord, each plucking the same chord. Depending of the direction of this circle, different fingerings make different rhythmisations: 3+5 sounds different than 4+4. Sometimes all four chords get plucked with all four fingers of the right hand, again possible for the outside (sao) and the inside (fu) movement, as it is with the slow arpeggio gua (outside) and lin (inside).

Techniques for the left hand

The left hand is more than just a "pitcher". Besides its possibility to pluck a chord itself, it can bend, surpress and slide a tone.  All signed frets can be used to produce overtones, and sometimes the hand has to cover the wide spread between five or more frets so it is necessary to have a flexible hand with wide spreading fingers. 

Most of the common techniques of changing a guitar tone can also be used for playing the Pipa, including Tremoli and bendings over a third. The most flexible Pipa chord is the highest zi, which is often used to perform the melodic part, while the other three chords accompany.
Otherwise than the western guitar, the "first layers" which would be the xiang on the Pipa are used not so often. Most parts of the melody are performed on the wooden frets above the xiang, as this is also the players field of view during performance.

The best way to connect with Pipa and its techniques is by improvising with pentatonic scales and the three base tones.
If you want to practise Pipa and are looking for scores, please contact me.

Pipa music history

The first known Pipa scores appeared in Dunhuang, dated back the year 930. Most scores are parts of bigger collections, like the collection from Jiangdong from the year 1528. In the 19th century, several collections like the Hua Shi collection of 1819 opened up the Pipa music to a wider public acceptance and the instrument got more and more famous.

This walks hand in hand with the development of the instrument. Coming to China in three big waves, the Pipa represents a culmination of three different lute ideas: The drum like ancestor "Taogu" is sometimes referred to the term "Qin Pipa" and may be originating in old Mesopotamian instruments alike. The famous instrument of princess Zhaoyun, the first pearshaped lute, maybe originating from Afghanistan, and the third form called "Wuxan"reminds us strongly of the Indian "Veena" instruments.

It was in the year 617 when the term "Pipa" was used for a specified instrument the first time. In two more  epochal waves, the Pipa was redevloped to its actual form, this by adding additional frets and two more xiang (so it has two more than the Japanese Biwa).

Titles in the Pipa music

The Pipa music is often misunderstood as a programmatic style because of its picturesque titles. The first titles in Chinese music appeared in the Zhou dynasty (700 BC) and deal with the "timu", which are several themes or topics that are elaborated within the music, art or literature. Each of this "timu" can deal either with emotive topics ("shu qing"), historical topics ("shu shi"") or imagery topics ("shu shing"). The titles are categorized like in the Qin music (especially the Qin Cao, the first Qin music book with titles from the year 170) .

It was thousand years later (700) when the Pipa titles and music were categorized in the two chapters "wen" and "wu", which are somehow linked to the priciples of "yin" and "yang". These categories indicate if the title was composed during times of peace ("wen") or war ("wu") and do also charactize the music due to the usage of different patterns, some in a crying sound mode (wen, "ku yin") and the others in a happy sound mode (wu, "huan yin").  So far one can say the imagery in the Chinese lute music corresponds with the patterns used within.

All "wen" (civil) pieces show up stable metrics while the "wu" (war) pieces often show more free rhythm. Today, also practical titles appear, like for example "dao ba ban" ("easy eight beat"). The deep link of the titles to the music one hears is not so easy to understand. It reffers back to the basic link of Chinese music to other art forms, most of all the calligraphy, but also to a philosophical understanding of making music.

Aesthetic concepts

To understand the concept of performing ancient Pipa music, one should consider to think about "ya", a term which includes the Confucianism concept of a simple elegance, a beauty of restrain. When Shanghai became the Chinese center for Pipa music in the Ming dynasty (1360), the extension of the tonal range of the Pipa led to new musical concepts which are still valid today: 

Though widening the range of expression, the Pipa was understood likewise the Qin as a recurrant tool that has to rebuild ancient art, recreate picture labeled tunes which are found in the core melodies, the "qu pai". It might be, that an actual performance of a piece or tune with two different players will result in two different songs, which seem seperated by the playing skills and ornamentation methods used the player, but the "qu pai" melody will always be in there and stays proscriptive for each player in this descriptive music.

Categories of collected pieces + Notation

Like mentioned before, most ancient or classical Pipa music has survived in bigger collections. Most of the time, these collections sort the pieces in different categories, for example following their geographical origin (north, south), their melodic appearance and other topics ("za") and most important the "xiban" and "daqu". This classification goes far beyond the "wen" or "wu" categories and has a deep impact on the composed music.The music once was notated using the ornamentation signs of the Qin music (which refers to Guliks choice to write about the Qin as a Chinese "lute"), later on the Gong Che notation was changed into the usage of arabic numbers.  

In Chinese instrument music, one may discover several structural levels which accord to the categories above.  Not only the modal scales used within (toanl material, pitch), also the interpolations between phrases and patterns ("ban", = more than two notes) are sometimes hard to seperate and durely indicate the category of the piece performed. The most important aspect are the microtones and ornamentations, which indicate the origin and intention of the pictures transported via sound. In many notations, this is the most difficult apsect of writing down the music - how to ornament and modulate the tone precisely. 

If we keep in mind that the important "lun" technique is often used to smoothen melodical and motival endings, it becomes quiet obvious that the main intention of the Pipa music is to keep the "flow" of a continuum of music.  Rapid tempo changes and the use of augmentations and diminuitions reminds us of the European Barock and the Indonesian Gamelan composition techniques...

"Xiban" and "Dacu"

The term "xiban" is interesting, it maybe refering to the old term "xidiao" ("western melodies") of the Hakka group (a sub group of the Han people). All "xiban" are 64 bars long and only get stretched longer through repetitions.  This sequential music shares several common aspects which make the "xiban" pieces which are easy to recgnize. In time measurement, each "xiban" has a 16-24 bars long prelude or initial, ends on the 2nd pitch on bar 8 and on the lower 5th pitch in bar 16 and bar 60. The scales used within are either modal scales buildt on pitch one ("gong") or pitch five (zhi").  Heptatonic or even diatonic scales are rare. The seventh pitch sounds lower than in a western scale, the third sounds somewhere in between major and minor. These latter two pitches are refered to as "bian" (bell) tones and are only used as side tones, most often appearing in downward scales.

While the "Xiban" are truly proscriptive compositions, the "Dacu" (collections and suites of "xiban", "za" and other pieces) provide a bigger freedom in formal aspects, tonal modalities and are easily recognized by their programmatic titles.  Their more divers tonal material is based on the four modal scales "gong" (1), "shang" (2), "zhi" (5) and "gu" (6), based on the reffering pitches in brackets.  The most common tunings "zheng dia" are based on gong and zhi. The melodies, patterns and motives often follow picturesque titles (like a scale downwards shows us a dragon vanishing in the water), but other than in the "xiban" they are put in a more "individual" asymmetricla order.  Though still being a sequential music, using techniques like augmentation and diminuition, ostinati and inversions and register dispersions, the binary phrases with common target notes still rarely appear the same. Only trained ears will discover the qu pai melody or the ban motives within this continuos flow of music.


The outstanding position of the Pipa music in the world is established by a dipolic link to different cultures. The Pipa is embedded in the Chinese music tradition, but formal and structural aspects as also the categorization with the picturesque titles help the foreign listener to do some first steps in this beautiful music. The multiaesthetic link to other disciplines like literature and art and the common sense with the intentional expression of both emtional and picturesque topics links the Pipa music to classical music forms worldwide.

(written in Germany, 2009)