Yangqin

The Yangqin (扬琴) is a Chinese hammered dulcimer, with a trapezoidal soundboard, that can be generally characterized as a “chromatic” instrument. Its bright and harmonious tone make it often to be used not only for solos, ensembles or accompaniment of local operas but also for narratives and other vocal singings. Also known as “foreign zither” (洋琴), the yang qin origins can be traced to Middle East and more particular to Persia. Yangqin of various types are now very popular not only in China, but also in Eastern Europe, Middle East, India and Pakistan, where is also known by the names “hammered dulcimer”, “santur” and “cymbalom”.

It is considerable that yang qin shares the same origin with the piano as the precursor of both is consider to be the hammered dulcimer, the instrument that its sound produced by hitting the strings with key-hammers. The difference of piano is that it has one hammer per string; unlike yang qin that uses two “hand-held” wooden or bamboo hammers to hit the strings. And of course the fact that piano can play a complicated ten-note chord, while yangqin can only hit two notes at a time or a maximum of four notes in case two strings being hit by each hammer.

Yangqin’s appearance in China occurred during the reign of Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Since then, quickly absorbed into Chinese traditional music and became popular among artists. According to historians, there are several stories for its introduction to China.  One of the most common is that it may have been introduced by land, through the Silk Road. But though, some believe that it was introduced by sea, through the port of Guangzhou, while some others insist that it was invented by Chinese, without any foreign influence.

The first Chinese documentary record of the instrument appeared in the “Aomen Jilue” (The Brief History of Macao) written by two local Chinese magistrates in 1751.

Yangqin instrument construction consists from the strings, the bridges, the bamboo hammers and the cylindrical nuts.

The modern version of yang qin, usually has about 200 strings. The notes are running into courses -of up to five strings- in order to boost the volume and the dynamic. Strings found into various thicknesses and tied at both ends of yang qin by screws that are covered during playing. A yang qin usually has four or five bridges (the chromatic, the right, the tenor, the left and the bass bridge). On both sides, apart from the tuning screws, which we mention above, are also some cylindrical nuts, usually made from metal, that can be moved for fine tuning the strings. These nuts, also rising slightly the strings, eliminating the vibrations.

Of course, yang qin can only be played with the hammers that struck the strings. These two lightweight beaters made from wood or bamboo and on their one end are half covered by rubber. This kind of construction allows the player to use either the rubber side, producing a soft sound or the other side, producing a more percussive sound.

The traditional Yang qin was fitted with bronze strings so as to produce a soft timbre. This has changed since the 1950s, in order to produce a brighter and louder tone; so, they started using steel alloy strings, and/or copper-wound steel strings for the bass notes. Also, another modification that made to yang qin was the increase of bridges courses. So from the three (sometimes more) courses of bridges that traditionally had, the modern version has as many as five that can may be arranged chromatically.