Although the singing and musical instruments in the Peking Opera are notoriously shrill and may be unpleasant to the foreign ears, the Chinese see it as the “shrieking of the heart.” To them the music is shrill because it is supposed to express the true emotions of the heart.
The Peking Opera has 2 main styles of music: Erh-huang, and His-p’i. The Erh-huang and the Hsi-p’i are very similar; the only difference being that the His-p’i is a key lower than the Erh-huang. They both use the same instruments and were introduced only about 100 years ago. They also employ the use of the technique called the fan-pan or fan-tiao (only a few His-p’i play use this technique). The fan-pan is a technique of used for sorrowful songs, and is only sung by bearded characters, lao-tan and ch’ing-i
The orchestra of a Peking Opera play is notoriously small, usually consisting of about eight musicians sitting on stools in the far corner of the stage. They start each performance with the ta-lo (a large gong) and a siao-lo (small gong), and cymbals. Some also start with the single- skin drum called tan-p’i-ku (used for the K’un- ch’ü plays) and others with a kettle drum called the huai-ku (used for Erh-huang). The conductor sits in the center of the orchestra and creates the tempo with this drum. Some of the instruments of the Peking Opera are as follows:
The ti-ts (a cross flute), siao (recorder flute) are usually played along with singing, while the sona (trumpet) announces prosperous occasions (victories, good news…etc.).
Hu-ch’in is a violin like instrument that is held upright against the knee. It has only two strings. An instrument similar to the bu-ch’in is the erh-hu, which has a more graceful sound. The Peking Opera orchestra may also have guitar-like instruments, some being the yüe-ch’in (four-stringed moon guitar), the san-sien (three strings), and the p’i-p’a (similar to the lute with four strings)
The ta-lo, and siao-lo are gongs used to signify the beginning a performance. Naobo are the cymbals, and the drums are the huai-ku (kettle drum) and the tan-p’i-ku. The tan-p’i-ku is a hollow barrel drum with leather stretched over one end. The conductor plays this instrument and uses it to create the tempo of the performance.
To learn more about Chinese music, please read the Eight Sounds of Music article by Joel Batchler