steps: Holding the instrument
On old temple reliefs the
ancient Pipa players held the instrument horizontally, like a spanish
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
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:
many overtones and
Flagolets which can be used to tune 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
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
bare fingers or with a guitar plectron is also possible, in
spite of missing the typical expression of the tone when played with
should be worked over
with sandpaper in order to fit the
playing needs and skills of the user.
for the right hand
The bipolarity of the
Pipas name also reflects the playing style: Whether a chord
plucked to the inside (towards the player, Tan) or the outside
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)
techniques for long repetitions while the fast doubling of a note is
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
movement, as it is with the
slow arpeggio gua
for the left hand
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
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
on the Pipa
are used not so often. Most parts of the melody are performed
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.
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
was redevloped to its actual form, this by adding additional frets and
two more xiang
(so it has two
more than the Japanese Biwa).
in the Pipa music
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
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.
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
Though widening the range of expression, the Pipa
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.
of collected pieces + Notation
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
In Chinese instrument music, one may discover
several structural levels
which accord to the categories above. Not only the modal
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
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...
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
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
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
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
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.
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)