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Writing for Ehru

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Hi there!

Does anyone have any experience writing for the Ehru? I'm wanting to write an orchestral work, featuring solo cello and ehru, but I don't know the practical range of the instrument.

Any help would be amazing!

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Hi! Erhu and cello? That would be quite fun! For erhu, you can do alot of things, even though you have only two strings on erhu.

You can pluck the strings(left hand), tap the snake-skinned box, and do things like accent and other normal stuff that a string instrument can do. :) I'm better at explaining them in chinese since we use chinese terms for chinese instruments. :)

For notes, the erhu can go up to very high range like a very high B...

Source: I'm a yangqin player and play in a chinese chamber ensemble. Hope my mini info helps! ^^

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"Tuning: The erhu is almost always tuned to the interval of a fifth. The inside string (nearest to player) is generally tuned to D4 and the outside string to A4. This is the same as the two middle strings of the violin.


The erhu is played sitting down, with the sound box placed on the top of the left thigh and the neck held vertically.

Right hand:

The bow is held with an underhand grip. The bow hair is adjusted so it is slightly loose. Tension is provided by the fingers of the right hand. The bow hair is placed in between the two strings and both sides of the bow hair are used to produce sound, the player pushes the bow away from the body when bowing the A string (the outside string), and pulls it inwards when bowing the "inside" D string.

Aside from the usual bowing technique used for most pieces, the erhu can also be plucked, usually using the second finger of the right hand. This produces a dry, muted tone (if either of the open strings is plucked, the sound is somewhat more resonant) which is sometimes desired in contemporary pieces.

Left hand

The left hand alters the tone of the strings by pressing on the string at the normal harmonic points. As the instrument has no frets, the tone is slightly muddled, but resonant. Techniques include hua yin (slides), rou xian (vibrato), huan ba (changing positions), etc."

both string get fingered at the same time, even if only one is really being bowed, just because they are so incredibly close together, so that can be a good indicator of how easy fifths are. The range is basically D4-A7, but effectively, I wouldn't write anything above F# or so, unless the melody is incredibly slow and simple. They CAN be tuned lower, though very rarely are they tuned any higher than Bb4 (don't anticipate tuning lower than C4, in which case the high note should be E7.

they can be bowed hard, normal, or soft, and these DO give slightly different sounds. And yes, the soft bowing is indeed a bit quieter than hard or normal bowing, so keep that in mind. It's not gonna be quite piano if you mark 'soft bowing' in a forte passage, more like mp-mf (somewhere in that area). but....if you had f erhu in soft bowing with orchestra in mf, there's a good chance it'll be drowned out (it blends well with strings, specifically violin). it might be best to have it set up with a companion from the winds, a clarinet and erhu singing countermelodies with each other with the orchestra in the background would make for some very singable and pleasing tunes.

you should probably be aware of the odd way that they are bowed, not just the horse hair (which is actually metal nowadays) but the wood of the bow comes into contact with the strings


pentatonic scales and other sparse melodies are the name of the game, just don't write any uber fast diatonic passages and you should be fine, it's meant to be an expressive and vocally-imitative instrument. and the strings being as close together as they are, fingering 7+ note scalar runs would be difficult, as would be keeping the bow from simultaneously playing both strings when only one was asked for. so lyrical/vocal/expressive melodies using pentatonics with double stopped fifths and fourths are the most idiomatic way of writing, though octaves and thirds aren't out of the question, but only easy to perform at a decent speed/skill toward the middle of the neck (keep in mind it's all harmonics in a sense, because the strings don't touch a fingerboard they are suspended and stopped by fingers/fingernails, like an esraj from india).

that's not to say that fast runs cannot be done, and in fact many erhu players can perform certain violin works, I wouldn't do any fast runs above a 11th above the open string (from the open D string you have G). again, it'd be better to note have them play 7 or more note scales for these fast passages, arpeggios are actually pretty idiomatic of the instrument (D F# A C or D F# A D would be able to be played pretty fast, just 2 fingers per string after all).

I recommend getting something like EastWest Ra and messing around with it, keeping in mind the tuning and range that you are going to be doing for the work (and I'd only use one tuning for the entire work, unless your performer happens to have several erhus they can pretune to the desired work, otherwise you will have to spend some time in intermission between each movement). so keep in mind the actual tuning of the open strings when doing chromatics and whatnot.

some charts in various keys (note that there are 5 positions available)


this one should help with writing 7 notes stuff:



listen to lots of liu tianhua!

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Wowza! Awesome info, guys! Thanks! The piece I'm going for is very much along the 'expressive' end of the spectrum (a love theme, I'll admit), but I've always loved the sound of the Erhu, and it's awesome to have some resources to help develop my working knowledge of the instrument!

Re EastWest libraries: if only I could afford them! What music I could render...

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