16-year-old Benjamin Lee Teaches Us About The Erhu

My name is Benjamin Lee. I’m 16 years old and I play the erhu. People call the erhu the Chinese violin. However, it should be the other way around because the erhu is about a thousand years older than the violin. Maybe the violin should be called the Western erhu!

So what is the erhu, exactly?

Benjamin Lee, erhu

A five-inch sound box sits on the players thigh, which is attached to a long, vertical neck.  The neck leads up to the tuners and strings where the pitch is changed and the instrument is bowed. The most interesting aspect, however, is not that the instrument has two strings, but that the erhu’s bow is in-between the strings rather than on top of them.

The sound of the erhu is close to that of the human voice, which is one of the reasons why the erhu is so good at expressing human emotions, animal sounds, and much more. One example is the human suffering in this piece, “River of Tears.” 

Another striking feature of the erhu is that the notation is different than western music. Instead of the lines and spaces of the Western staff, it’s all numbers.

Erhu Notation

1 through 7 for a scale and dots to represent the octave. In a D major scale, one would be defined to equal D. So you would get 1 (D), 2 (E), 3 (F#), 4 (G), 5 (A), 6 (B), 7 (C#) and a 1 with a dot over it to represent a new octave (D). That leads to something called a “moveable do” system where you can easily and instantly change keys based on the numbers. I’m a math geek too so I like having a notation system that combines my two loves: music and math.

Every erhu piece comes with a unique story and history 

One major difference I’ve noticed between traditional erhu pieces and Western music is that most erhu pieces are much more specific in terms of their representation. Every erhu piece comes with a unique story and history including the piece I’m about to play.

“Tai Ji Qin Xia” or “Tai Chi Warrior of Erhu” is by an erhu master named Chen Jun. The composer connected the mechanics and sound of the erhu with Tai chi and Taoism while exploring the Wudang Mountains. For example the outside string is yang, while the inside string is yin. The piece itself illustrates the duality and soul of the erhu. I hope you enjoy it.


Watch Benjamin Perform “Feeling Good” with Charles Yang, Peter Dugan, and Charlotte Marckx on NPR’s From the Top Show 364

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