Also:       pip’a      p'ip'a      p'i p'a      

Title: Chinese pipa; Yang Hui, pipa. Format: DV.

Title: Floating Petals … Wild Geese … The Moon on High: Music of the Chinese Pipa--Yang chun bai xue (Snow on a Sunny Spring Day); Lui Pui-yuen, pipa. Label: Elektra Nonesuch. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 9 72085-2. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The pipa is a pear-shaped plucked bowl-lute chordophone of the Han Chinese. It has been and continues to be used primarily for entertainment either as a solo instrument or in an ensemble setting (see ‘Jingju (Beijing Opera) Ensemble from China’ and ‘Sizhu Ensemble from China’). Historically, it was at times used as a tool of self-refinement by members of the scholar-literati class and in the solo and ensemble music making of imperial households. But it has also been an instrument of the common people and used for the accompaniment of narrative songs and regional opera, and in amateur instrumental ensembles in many regions of China. Also associated with Buddhism, the pipa is often seen in the hands of angels in Buddhist iconography and incorporated into Buddhist narrative singing. During the twentieth century its historic use as a solo instrument made it a natural choice for inclusion in the evolving conservatory-based concert hall tradition. The instrument itself is often decorated and viewed in symbolic ways. For example, each string represents a season, the finial at the top of its pegbox can represent a symbolically meaningful creature (dragon’s head, phoenix’s tail, bat’s head), and the front and back of some very old surviving pipa resonators are lavishly decorated with inlays.


The distinctive pear-shaped body with a short neck of the pipa is made from a solid piece of teak (see the first detail image for the reverse side of the instrument, where the single piece, or monoxyle, construction of the body, neck and pegbox is most evident). Wutong, a soft wood, is used for the soundboard. A side view perspective, as seen in the second detail image, reveals how shallow the hollowed out resonating chamber is on this instrument and how the plane of the strings rides just above the instrument’s many frets. The six peaked fret ledges (xiang) on the instrument's neck are made from a soft stone, while the twenty-five frets (pin) glued to the soundboard itself are made of bamboo strips. Four tuning pegs made from soft stone are laterally mounted onto the arched, back-bending pegbox. The four wire strings of varying gauges that are connected to these pegs pass over a nut at the top end of the fingerboard and are attached at their other end to a string fastener glued to the face of the soundboard that also serves as a bridge. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The instrument is held in a nearly vertical position when played, the soundboard facing outwards. The bottom edge of the resonator rests on the performer’s lap, which relieves the performer from having to support with their arms the considerable weight of the instrument. All five of the player's right-hand fingernails, sometimes reinforced with taped-on picks, are used to pluck the strings. Named plucking and strumming techniques exist in contemporary practice, some involving all five fingers at once (e.g., tremolo plucking called lun for which all five fingers are rotated inward). The strings, tuned to A2 - D3 - E3 - A3, are stopped using the fret ledges and frets with the fingertips of the player's left hand; the range of the pipa pictured here is from A2 to E6. The frets on this modern soloist model pipa are located so as to produce a chromatic scale over its entire range, however, older and especially ensemble models might have far fewer frets capable of producing diatonic scales over a narrower range. Much of the favored solo repertoire for this instrument today is programmatic in character and virtuosic in its delivery. A wide dynamic range is possible on this instrument.


Introduced to China from central Asia sometime during the late Han dynasty (first few centuries CE), the pipa has had a long presence in Chinese music making. By the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) it was a mainstay in court musical life. Sometime after the Tang dynasty the instrument, up to this time held horizontally, started to be held vertically and played in a more dramatic fashion by commoner musicians who started composing solo pieces. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE) several schools of solo pipa playing were established in the Shanghai area. Publishing of notated pipa pieces commenced in the first half of the 19th century, when a number of new compositions and arrangements of older works started to coalesce as the core of this instrument’s present day solo repertoire. 

Bibliographic Citations

Liang, Mingyue. 1985. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.

Lui, Tsun-Yuen. 1984. “Pipa (i) [pip’a].” NGDMI v.3: 115-116.

Myers, John. 2002. "Instruments: Pipa." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 167-170.

Thrasher, Alan R. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Aalst, J. A. 1964. Chinese Music. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - integral

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


40.6 in. height

Primary Materials

string - wire

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin