The Eight Sounds of Music
The Eighth Sound, Bamboo


Bamboo (竹/zhú)

The final sound, but yet it covers almost all aspects of woodwind instruments.  Like with silk, there are three main categories, but they have to do with the way they are blown, not strung.  The first category is the flutes, containing the great 笛子/dízi (the pipe flute) and the 箫/xiāo (the recorder).  Next are the free reed pipes, the horizontal 巴乌/bāwū (the raven song [notice no bamboo {竹} in the characters themselves here]) and the vertical 芒筒/mángtōng (the grass blade pipe).  Finally, there are the oboes, 管/guǎn (the pipe [actually is the measure word or classifier for 笛子/dízi]) and, to end with a bang, the 唢呐/suǒnà (the screaming oboe).



The Chinese Bamboo Flute (only rarely called the 竹笛/zhúdí (the bamboo flute) to distinguish from the western flute, or 长笛/chángdí) is the most common of all the bamboo sounds. Origins of both this and the sibling instrument (the 箫/xiāo [the recorder]) possibly come from an old instrument known as the 骨笛/gúdí (the bone flute), made from bones from cranes. Regardless of origin, this horizontally-played (or transverse flute) has become the symbol of virtuosity amongst Chinese instruments.

The Chinese Bamboo Flute Being PlayedTechniques employed are double tounging (sometimes to the absolute extreme), finger trills, slides, overtone polyphony (using overtones to sound like 2 different instruments), and smashes/pops to hop to different intervals.

The cultural use of this instrument has pervaded every aspect of Chinese music. Everything from opera use to ethnic folk music in accompanying the 唢呐/suo3nà (the screaming oboe [see the section under oboes]). There are seven main types of bamboo flute, due to it having a range of just less than three octaves and only a limited number of notes not able to make a full chromatic passage. Thus, these seven forms fill out the missing pitches.

A very interesting addition to the flute is a strange membrane made from bamboo plant cells called the 笛膜/dímó (the flute membrane). This membrane is placed over an extra hole to create a buzzing, humming resonance to the timbre. It is commonly sold in packages in music shops; however, the application is harder than that of replacing a string and is a long and tedious process, such as making a double reed for an oboe.

Yes, while the bamboo flute is the most common, it is still, by far, not the only instrument in this sound, as will be explained below.

This is similar to the dízi, but it is a flute played from the top, like a western recorder (known as a variety of end-blown flute).  It is also almost entirely made out of bamboo, even today.  The range is usually high, and it is mostly based and tuned on a tone scale close to the western F/Fa Major.  The length varies, but not extensively, and there are two forms, the 琴箫/qínxiāo (the 琴/qín here is more of a classifier, not really having much meaning, used to separate this type of end-blown flute from the other form of xiāo) and the 南箫/nánxiāo (the south recorder).  The southern version is a bit more flexible in tuning and the shorter of the two instruments.

In context, the sound and use are almost the same as the dízi, although the dízi is, by far, more common.

FREE-REED PIPES (Vibrating standalone reed like in harmonica)


[Note:  No bamboo in the character structure, only present in one name for the instrument {see below}.]

This is very similar in shape to the dízi and is in fact so close in structure that it is easily mistaken for a bamboo flute, but closer analysis tells otherwise.  Where one puts the mouth, there is a free reed (today made of metal) that acts like blowing a blade of grass between one’s thumbs, making it vibrate and whistle.  Because of this, it is capable of tone-bending as seen with other instruments.

The sound is similar to that of a dark clarinet (except its tone altering capability sets it apart) and originated from southwest China.  It is today one of the most important Chinese instruments in public life.  Heard on many Asian films as a solo instrument, the west is not new to the sound of this instrument.


At first glance, one may think that this is just like the German alphorn; and the purpose is similar.  However, the construction is usually a bamboo casing with a metal free reed.  Like the horn, its use is limited to specific cultural areas (in this case the south in and near 贵州/guìzhōu [Guizhou]) where there are the Dong and Miao/Hmong official minority ethnic groups (as opposed to the predominant Han).

The instrument can only play one tone, and it is placed in different bamboo-made encasings to enhance or change pitch, brightness, etc..  Because of this, many varieties are available (usually in just the casing size) and the one tone makes it mandatory as an ensemble instrument with its siblings.  The ensembles can also combine with the 芦笙/lúshēng (the reed mouth organ), an ethnic form of reed mouth organ, in a group ensemble performance.

As a quick side note, the reed mouth organ is composed of several shoots of bamboo creating a long instrument that encase a wooden tube in which the player blows through another free reed.  Both instruments are extremely folk-oriented and rarely used outside the ethnic groups mentioned.  However, their sounds are very similar to other Chinese instruments; but their playing is also common in ethnic dances, with both being swung left and right while the players/dancers jump, twirl, and swing.

OBOES (Double reed)

This pipe is interesting in that it, along with the next instrument, has some features that are uncommon for other Chinese instruments.  However, its origin is not (entirely) foreign.  It is, however, exemplary of the diversity of the Chinese culture.  In the south, where Cantonese is spoken, it is made with bamboo, thus why it is classified as a bamboo sound (not to mention that the double reed was originally made from bamboo, as well).  In the Mandarin-speaking north, it is made with wood.

This is important for several reasons.  The sound, of course, will be different; but also the names of the instruments and their uses in the music world are not the same.  It is almost as if there are two separate but related instruments altogether.

Introduced in what is today part of western China but originally foreign lands, the ancestor of the guǎn appeared.  It eventually evolved into something like today’s version and was popular among the people, slowly adapting into a signaling device, later used in battles, then in the imperial courts before fading away in its traditional role of music.  Instead, it remained very folk-oriented.  Today, it is known as either the 荜篥/bìlì (the bamboo [later wicker] bugle) by the Mandarins or the (in Mandarin) 喉管/hòuguǎn (the hose pipe) by the Cantonese.  The Cantonese even made it part of their opera in the last century, giving it official status rather than the barbaric portrayals it received early in its existence.

Playing this instrument is extremely difficult and tiring.  The instrument’s range is very restricted and it is often played as a solo instrument.  It is nearly impossible to play much of anything fast (thus giving it a sad, clarinet-like tone).  Perhaps this is because no one wants to dare try it when so much concentration is put in controlling an instrument that has just over a one (possibly two) octave range!


[Note:  No bamboo in the character structure, only present in one name for the instrument {see below}.]

For the construction of this instrument, it is surprising that it is not considered a brass instrument by Western standards and does not belong to the metal category.  It has a metal bell and metal double reed, and the middle section is made of wood.  However, like silk strings, the origins of this instrument were not so shiny.

Examples of The Screaming OboeThe screaming oboe (sometimes translated as the Chinese cornet, further linking it to a brass instrument by Western standards) was actually introduced to China and came from foreign origins, most likely from Middle Eastern descent.  Although it was made of wood, bamboo suǒnàs were also very common during the Ming dynasty (the bottoms tended to be attachable, and that is where the metal bells come from with the wooden and copper version of today) along with bamboo reeds.

Regardless of origin, the use is very, very important in the folk music of China, performed almost always in military processions (today reenactments) and outdoor music performances, such as at an outdoor wedding or festival.

The sound is not typical of any other instrument in China, and its foreign origin is obvious, as it is also called the 喇叭/lǎbā (the bugle trumpet, but can also be the lama horn) as well as the 海笛/hǎidí (the sea flute, perhaps indicating foreign arrival by sea).  Very high pitched and nasally, it would naturally sound more native further west.  Still, its impact on Chinese culture cannot go without saying, and it is with the foreign scream of an oboe that the final sound is given.