Matters of sound

Matters of sound


During my recent visit to China, I chanced upon an interesting musical instrument which fascinated me to no end. On enquiry, I was told it was the pipa, more popularly known as the Chinese lute.

Well, I had heard a lot about Chinese lute, and the interesting musical sounds it produces, and considered myself lucky to have been able to play it. A pear-shaped, stringed wooden instrument with varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26, it reminded me very much of the guitar.

A popular Chinese instrument, pipa’s history dates back to almost 2,000 years, I was told. So popular is the instrument and so easily does it lend itself to various types of music that it has inspired many musical instruments in the neighbouring countries like Japan, Vietnam and Korea too.

Enamoured by the versatility of the instrument, I was keen to find out more about it. Research revealed that the name of the instrument is derived from the Chinese syllables pi and pa, where pi means to pluck the strings with the right hand from right to left while pa means to strike from the opposite direction. The most interesting part of the history of pipa is the origin of the instrument. Popular belief is that the instrument has come either from Central Asia or India.

There are many schools in China that impart training in the playing of pipa, and each region has its own style of playing the instrument, depending on the musical tradition it follows. In the recent times, many Chinese and Western contemporary composers have created new works for the pipa, so that they can be played both solo and in an orchestra. This is not all.

The popularity of this instrument has reached the world of rock music too, as some rock bands in the US, China and Australia use pipa in their compositions regularly. Owing to this widespread use of pipa around the world, an electric version of pipa has also been developed, which allows its sound to be amplified, like in an electric guitar.
The story of pipa has sure inspired me to learn to play it. Long live the pipa!