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The Morin Khuur: Mongolia’s Horsehead Fiddle

Last Updated on 2023/11/30

Morin Khuur: The Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

The Morin Khuur (Matouqin, 马头琴), also known as the horsehead fiddle, is a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. It is a symbol of the Mongolian nation and is deeply intertwined with the Mongolian lifestyle and culture.

Origin and Evolution

Historical Development

The Morin Khuur’s history is extensive, tracing back to the period of the Tang and Song dynasties, evolving from the Xi Qin stringed instrument. Its popularity spread during the era of Genghis Khan (1155–1227). Marco Polo’s accounts mention a two-stringed instrument among the Mongols, likely an early form of the Morin Khuur.

Morphological Changes

In its early stages, the Morin Khuur underwent several changes in form and design. The instrument’s head was not always a horsehead; it varied, including human heads, skulls, crocodile heads, turtle shells, or dragon heads. The transformation to the horsehead design, which gave the instrument its name, likely occurred between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Structure and Design


The Morin Khuur comprises a resonator box, neck, head, tuning pegs, bridge, strings, and bow. The resonator box, traditionally trapezoidal and made from wood, is covered on both sides with animal skin, typically horsehide. The neck and head are usually crafted from a single wood piece, with the head intricately carved into a horse’s head.

Strings and Bow

The strings were traditionally made from horsehair, with the bow also strung with horsehair. Modern variants use nylon or other materials. The bow is not placed between the strings but played from the outside, allowing for the playing of double notes.

Playing Techniques

Posture and Bowing

Players adopt a specific seated posture, with the instrument held between the legs. The bow grip and string fingering techniques are unique to the Morin Khuur, contributing to its distinctive sound.

Sound and Repertoire

The Morin Khuur produces a sound closely resembling the human voice, capable of a wide expressive range. It is often used for solo performances, accompaniment to folk singing and storytelling, and ensemble playing. Its repertoire includes traditional pieces like “Ten Thousand Horses Galloping” and “Springtime in Ordos.”

Cultural Significance

The Morin Khuur reflects traditional Mongolian artistic features and lifestyle. Its sound and playing techniques embody the Mongolian people’s spirit and artistic preferences. As a representative of Mongolian historical, artistic, and cultural heritage, the Morin Khuur has influenced ethnic music in China and worldwide.

Modern Developments and Innovations

Instrumental Improvements

From the 1950s, significant efforts led by pioneers like Sangdorj and Zhang Chunhua modernized the Morin Khuur. Improvements included using hardwoods for the neck and resonator box, adopting nylon strings, and enhancing the instrument’s acoustic properties.

Playing Styles and Schools

There are several traditional playing styles and schools, each with its unique techniques and repertoire. Contemporary players have further developed these styles, integrating modern musical elements.

Preservation and Promotion

Challenges and Conservation Efforts

The Morin Khuur faced challenges in preserving traditional playing styles and repertoire. In response, China listed it as a national intangible cultural heritage, and extensive efforts have been made to document, teach, and promote traditional Morin Khuur music.

Educational and Institutional Support

Institutions like Inner Mongolia Normal University have played a crucial role in training new generations of players and researchers, ensuring the art form’s continuity.

Source: Baike Baidu

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