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Niujiaohu: The Traditional Tibetan Yak Horn Fiddle

Last Updated on 2023/11/30

Niujiaohu (牛角胡) – A Yak’s Horn Fiddle.

Niujiaohu (牛角胡), also known as the yak’s horn fiddle, is a traditional stringed musical instrument primarily used among the Tibetan people. In Tibetan, it is known by various names due to dialectal differences, such as “必汪”, “必庸”, “必央”, “巴汪”, “日阿雜”, “則則”, and “扎尼”. The Han Chinese refer to it as “弦子”, “牛角胡”, or “胡琴”. The Niujiaohu has a history that is both rich and ancient. Its structure is similar to that of the Erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument used by the Han Chinese, but it is distinguished by its bright, beautiful timbre, often used in solo performances as well as for accompanying songs, dances, dramas, and narrative singing.

Popularity and Geographic Spread

The Niujiaohu is popular in various provinces such as Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu. It is particularly prevalent in the areas where the borders of Sichuan, Tibet, and Yunnan intersect, notably in Batang, Mangkang, and Deqin.

Instrument Structure

The structure of the Niujiaohu is akin to the Erhu, consisting of several key components:

  • Body: The body of the instrument can be made from yak horn, wood, or bamboo. The original form used a large wild yak horn, preferably from a female, with the root and tip removed and the middle part near the root used to form the body. Due to the scarcity of wild yak horns, wooden bodies became more common, often made from walnut, birch, fir, or pine wood. Bamboo bodies, made from aged bamboo, are less common.
  • Length: The instrument varies in size, typically ranging from 55 to 68 centimeters in length. The wooden body length ranges from 13 to 17 centimeters, with a front diameter of 10 to 13 centimeters and a rear diameter of 9.5 to 11 centimeters.
  • Sound Box: The front opening of the sound box is usually covered with mountain goat skin, and in recent years, some have used python skin. The rear end is open.
  • Neck: The neck of the Niujiaohu is a columnar body with a square-shaped upper part and a round lower part, made from hard wood. In Tibetan areas, woods like Rhododendron, Cyclobalanopsis, or Poplar are commonly used. The neck has two wooden tuning pegs on its right side.
  • Strings: Traditionally, the strings are made from black horsehair. In Batang, Sichuan, the outer string is made from black horsehair and the inner string from white horsehair. Recently, silk or steel strings have also been used.
  • Bow: The bow is made from bamboo or the thin branches of the Stab tree, bent into a full or semi-circular shape, with black horsehair tied at both ends. The length of the bow varies depending on the player, ranging from 34 to 57 centimeters.

Aesthetic Features

The Niujiaohu is often beautifully decorated, especially the ones from the Batang area in Sichuan. The head of the instrument is typically adorned with colorful carvings, while the body and neck are painted with vibrant ethnic patterns. This intricate detailing adds to the cultural significance and visual appeal of the instrument.

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