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Applications for Contemporary Harp Composition

3.3 Indian Techniques — 3.4 Asian Techniques

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Indian Techniques

The music of India is legendary for its extensive development and categorization of many aspects of music, particularly regarding ragas, rhythms, form, advanced improvisation devices, and appreciating the spiritual nature of music. Broadly speaking, Tamil Nadu music, in existence from the start of that civilization BCE 15,000, split into Carnatic music in the south and Hindustani music in the north starting around the 12th century. 150 By the 16th century Carnatic and Hindustani music were recognizably distinct from each other, with Hindustani’s northern location exhibiting more Persian and Arabic influences given its proximity to those regions. Hindustani music also generated Dhrupad, Qawwali and Khyal music, the latter two featuring even more Middle Eastern influences.

Marc Rossi states:

Hindustani [music] is considered more romantic and expressive in nature, and Carnatic is more like classical or baroque. North Indian music favors simple repeated compositions that serve as vehicles for extended improvisations, while South Indian music is based on a repertoire of extended compositions called Kritis—art songs that are learned note for note. Hindustani music has always been more popular with the public because of its aesthetic appeal and association with 1960s rock culture, and the sheer number of performers that play it. Carnatic music, now growing in popularity, has always had a foothold in academia, because it is highly organized and tends to be taught in a more systematic way. 151

━ Marc Rossi

Harp (originally called vina in India) was one of the first instruments in India. Roderic Knight cites numerous early bas relief images (interestingly, showing possible use of plectra and plucking, as with other ancient harps) throughout India as evidence of widespread use of the harp. 152 It can be argued that some of the most important instruments in Indian music today (sitar, sarod, swarmandal, santoor) evolved from the harp. Although we have little information regarding actual physical techniques of playing in comparison to the ancient lyres of Africa and the Middle East, we have ample evidence of current musical devices in Indian music. The varied sizes of ancient Indian harps further suggests the possibility of developed contrasting timbres and techniques - fertile grounds to speculate upon.

Incredibly, an early form of vina survives intact today, the bin-baja mentioned in Chapter 1 (Fig. 3.10). Played in similar style to the krar, it is tucked under the left arm, strummed with plectrum on the right hand, with strings dampened by the left hand (Ibid.) This approach garners a “rhythmic ostinato on a tone cluster” (Ibid.) with little evidence of melody except for occasional grace notes created by the left hand.

Example 3.2

Example 3.23

Today in India, one of the most common descendants of the vina is the swarmandal. Sitar maestro Ashwin Batish describes his playing technique on this instrument:

I hold the swarmandal in front of me and can play with both hands, or I use a slide in my left hand and pick with the right. There are two plectrums on my index and middle finger of the right hand when I use it as a slide. When playing harp style, I don't use any picks as they have a harsh attack. 153

━ Ashwin Batish


Use of curved mallets is also common, providing yet more coloration options. 154 Incidentally, this technique is also used in qanun/cimbalom/hammer dulcimer playing.


Accompanying most Indian music and deeply symbolic spiritually is the tanpura. Similar in shape to a sitar (again, both possibly derived from the harp/vina), it has 4 strings tuned to the tonic (called “sa” in Indian solfege, known as sargam: sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni or S, R, G, M, P D, N = do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) and either the 5th (called “pa”), 4th (“ma”) or 7th (“ni”). The strings are brushed arrhythmically and represent the musical underpinning of the universe, creating an effect described thusly:


The harmonics of the strings interact with each other in complex ways throughout the cycle. The effect for the listener is not of individually-plucked strings: it is more of a shimmering and buzzing drone that is constant in pitch but varying in timbre. 155

━ Catherine Schmidt-Jones


The use of a constant drone (analogous to use of a pedal point in Western practice) automatically invites a different approach to harp composition, as chord progressions are no longer the focus. Horizontal music, such as we find in Middle Eastern genres, becomes the standard, with its accompanying development of monophony, heterophony and all that implies melodically, rhythmically and formally.

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Perhaps the mostly instantly recognizable aspect of Indian music is its vast repertoire of ragas, which can be very roughly translated as scales/modes, although they have much more in common with the maqamat mentioned above. Like maqamat, ragas feature: 156

  1. A basic note set
  2. A prevailing tendency of movement
  3. Important notes upon which the raga tends toward, often referred to as dominants (although they are not always based on the 5thdegree of the scale, as in Western music)
  4. Characteristic modulations to other ragas

Further elucidating the character of ragas:

A Raga may be defined as a specified combination, decorated with Varnas (embellishments) and graceful consonances of notes within a Thaat (mode) which has the power of evoking a unique feeling distinct from all other joys and sorrows and which possesses something of a transcendental element. This esthetic feeling was termed by ancient pandits of musical science as Rasavadhana - a state completely unrelated to desire or fulfillment of desire; a feeling which is pure, self manifested, compounded of joy and consciousness, a sort of mystic experience. 157

━ Batish, Shiv Dayal Batish & Ashwin Batish

Regarding the historical development of ragas:

Ragas may be invented, combined, borrowed from other traditions, or dropped from the repertoire, so the tradition itself, including the "theory", is in many ways more fluid and more varied than the Western tradition. It is also important to understand that a raga is not just a collection of the notes that are allowed to be played in a piece of music. Particular ornaments or note sequences may also be considered typical of a raga. The raga may even affect the tuning of the piece. 158

━ Joep Bor

Just intonation is the most common temperament used, although this has to be modified when fixed pitch instruments such as harps and keyboards are included. Indian music theory uses the concept of a shruti (somewhat analogous to a comma in Middle Eastern music, although Indian shrutis are generally wider than commas): the major whole step interval between C and D would be 4 shrutis; the minor whole tone between D and E would be 3 shrutis. In certain ragas, various notes are therefore flattened or sharpened by one shruti. Dhrupad style divides the octave into 84 rather than 22 microtones.

Considering that Indian music had a system that inherently emphasized gamak (ornamentation) and meend (glissando between notes) as its main tools for exploiting the beauty of a raga, a clear example of this intonation structure was needed to make all practitioners of this art follow a specific understanding of the various shrutis that made up a raga's movement. These shrutis were 22 in number but were very elusive to many practitioners of the art. Hence, the swarmandal became a tuner of sorts for the instrumentalists that wanted to set the frets of their instruments to the right shrutis, very much like a modern day tuning device that many of us use to tune our guitars, or sitar to. 159

━ Ashwin Batish

Ragas are derived from Thaats or parent modes. North Indian music recognizes 10 such modes. They are Sampooran i.e. containing seven tones in the octave, whereas a Raga may contain five, six or all the seven notes or any combination thereof. A Thaat is only a group of abstract tonal forms, but a Raga is a combination of notes having the power of generating and creating emotional values. 160 The 10 Thaats (pronounced “tot”) meaning skeleton or framework…developed by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) of Mumbai. 161

━ Ali Akbar College of Music, Sathi

[Note: The equivalent scales are given only as a general frame of reference - for example, in practice Asawari is not performed in the manner as Aeolian Mode regarding tendency of movement, and is not tuned in equal temperament.  Also, the pitches referenced below are relational only – one can actually transpose the tonic to any pitch:]

Example 3.2

Example 3.24

There are additional organizational systems in use today. Also, there is crossover between Carnatic and Hindustani ragas, such as the recent adoption of Charukeshi (C D E F G Ab Bb C) and Vachaspati (F Lydian with Eb) from Carnatic into Hindustani repertoire.

Since many ragas contain the same note sets:


Pakar is an easy method of distinguishing a Raga from other similar forms in the same or similar modes. It is a phrase consisting of a minimum collection of notes that basically spell out the gist of the Raga. By repeating this phrase over and over again the Raga form becomes stronger…The intricate variations in melodic formations in Ragas of the same mode can sometimes tend to confuse…knowing the pakar provides a handy and convenient approach. 162

━ Batish, Shiv Dayal Batish & Ashwin Batish


As seen above, each raga is recommended to be performed at a specific time of day, even season. This is in order to be in alignment with the cycles of nature and the human body, and offers an intriguing perspective on adding additional depth to composition.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe all the characteristics of each raga, but delving into the shapes, colors and tendencies of individual ragas invites great creative possibilities for all harpists and composers.

Following is advice on how to approach Bhairav, a daybreak raga:

Since many ragas contain the same note sets:


For many centuries Bhairav has been considered the first and foremost raga. It is a good example to show the continuity of the raga tradition. In its ancient form, it was a pentatonic raga omitting both Re and Pa; Dha was (and still is) the dominant note…Although all seven notes can be used in ascending passages, many artists omit Re and Pa...A distinctive feature of Bhairav is the slow oscillation on Dha and Re…The most characteristic movement of Bhairav is G, M, grace note G, slide to R oscillation, S. 163

━ Joep Bor


Examples of standard Bhairav ascent/descent movement, characteristic motifs, and a realization of the raga by bansuri (Indian bamboo transverse flute) maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia (Ibid):

Example 3.2

Example 3.25

Example 3.2

Example 3.26

Ashwin Batish discusses how he applies ragas to the swarmandal:


The strings of the swarmandal are usually tuned to the raga I want to play in. When plucking multiple strings, the rule of consonance applies although in certain ragas, it is very desirable to break this and come back. 164

━ Ashwin Batish

Batish is referring to modulation (ragmala, meaning “garland of ragas,” as in several ragas in sequence), which can be an important feature of Indian music:


In an effort to create and reinforce the Raga image the expert performer or composer adds certain shades of other Raga melodies with great skill, taking it to the limit, expertly maneuvering in ascending and descending movements, until finally bringing the melodic shape of the Raga back to its original form. This state of change however should not be maintained for a long period, as this would mean over-indulgence in a different tonal field. 165

━ Batish, Shiv Dayal Batish & Ashwin Batish



Rhythm is a profoundly developed art in Indian music, and many fascinating possibilities are suggested for harp composer and performers:>

Talas (Sanskrit “to clap”) are rhythmic patterns/cycles in Hindustani music:


Common Dhrupad:

Dhammar 5+2+3+4

Sulfak 2+2+2+2+2

Teora 3+2+2

Melodic shapes

Khyal (Qawwali):

Tintal 4+4+4+4

Ektal 2+2+2+2+2+2

Jhaptal 2+3+2+3

Motifs/stock pattern

Light classical:

Sitarkhani 4+4+4+4

Chachar 3+4+3+4

Kaharwa 4+4

Rupak 3+2+2

Dadra 3+3

Dipchandi 3+4+3+4

Regarding rhythm in Carnatic music, classification systems such as the following chart demonstrates the characteristic complex and detailed nature of Indian classical music: 166

Example 3.2

Example 3.27

Pieces often terminate with a rhythmic motif called a tihai:

The basic internal format of the tihai is 3 equal repetitions of a rhythmic pattern (or rhythmo-melodic pattern), interspersed with 2 (usually) equal rests. The ending point of the tihai is calculated to fall on a significant point in the rhythmic cycle (called Tala), most often the first beat (called Sum and pronounced like "some"). The other most common ending point of a tihai is the beginning of the Gat or Bandish, which is often found several beats before the sum. 167

━ Ashok Damodar Ranade


In Indian music, we find Alankar (ornaments), literally meaning “worked out with the permutations of the notes”, which are taught aurally; 168

Andolan, a “slow up & down oscillation” “delicate”;

Kan: a single grace note before or after articulated tone;

Mind: slow, continuous slide from one note to another;

Murki: like a mordent, containing 2 or more notes



Following is one of the most common forms we find in Indian music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, bearing in mind that there is variability in both order and spelling:

  1. Alap: a rhythmically free improvisation on the raga, slowly introducing its key characteristics
  2. Jod (medium)/jhala (fast, with accelerando): “joining” episode, the pulse starts
  3. Gat/Bandish : a fixed instrumental melodic composition set in a specific raga, usually 4 phrases in length and performed with rhythmic accompaniment. Tempi are variable.
  4. Layakari: rhythmic improvisation
  5. Tana: fast passages, often traded between two performers

Beyond form, Indian music is divided into these overarching emotions, greatly affecting dynamics, raga choice, range and rhythms:

  1. Shringar - This depicts the sentiment of love, sensuality, and erotic emotions.
  2. Raudra - This covers the realm of anger, rage, and other violent wrathful emotions.
  3. Hasya - Under this Rasa come the joyful, the comic, and happy emotions.
  4. Vibhatsaya - Disgust and ludicrous emotions.
  5. Veera - Bravery, heroism, and manliness are some of the attributes of this Rasa.
  6. Karuna - Sadness, pathos, compassion, sympathy.
  7. Bhayanak - This Rasa caters to the emotions of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
  8. Adabhuta- Wonder and curiosity are two of the attributes of this  
  9. Shanta - Contemplative, meditative and peaceful emotions form this  

Rossi states:


It is important to note that many jazz musicians' interest in Indian music was intrinsically connected to their interest in yoga and Indian spirituality. 169

━ Marc Rossi


This reminds us of the spiritual underpinning of many other musics, such the Turkish music we just discussed.

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Again, Indian music has absorbs many elements describes in 3.1 and 3.2. It includes both a percussive and/or melodic approach, and developed use of ragas in terms of greatly varied pitches, contours, microtones, and temperaments. The use of a drone throughout encourages development of monophony and heterophony, with deep attention given to the development of improvisation.

Rhythms are highly classified and can reach extremely long and complicated cycles. Multiple forms exist. Attention to very contrasting dynamics and intention is evident from the categorization of the major emotions associated with music into 9 parts. The spiritual aspect of music is further augmented by connecting ragas to particular times of day, or even season.


Asian Techniques

Harps appeared relatively late in Asia, therefore many of the above techniques where known and used.  Many innovations have developed in Asia and are practiced throughout the region today.  As with most harp traditions, cosmopolitan influence is evident far back in Asian musical history, witnessed by this description of the following piece from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE):

Qinghai Bo, or “Waves of the Blue Sea”, may have been a folk tune from the Turkic-speaking Xinjiang area, reflecting the Tang dynasty’s (618-906) embracing of foreign influences. The tune is still in the Japanese Togaku repertoire, but the [Pickens] team members found that the tempo has slowed down four to eight times during the last milennium. 170

━ Bo Lawergren

Burmese harp:

As mentioned in Chapter 1, the Burmese harp (known as saung-gauk, also called “Fong Shou Konghou” in Mandarin (“head of the phoenix” ), referring to its characteristic neck decoration on the Chinese version - the saung-gauk features a bodhi tree leaf as the neck decoration in reference to Buddhist teaching) is the only unbroken tradition of Asian harp and bears great resemblance to the vina of India, from where it came, accompanying Buddhist teachings.  Burmese harp repertoire incorporated many of that country’s musical forms into its canon with assistance from artist and militarist Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa, who lived 1766–1853,  172 plus absorbed influences from Siamese (Thai) music via court visits. 173

The Burmese harp features many similar playing techniques to ancient lyres: fingers up, fast filigree, dampening with the left hand hand, staccato as well as lyrical orientations, and string stopping.  The latter is particularly sophisticated, perhaps also because string stopping is especially clear in tone on this design of harp, with the stopped pitches sounding very close in timbre to open string pitches – stopping two strings at once is also common.  However, string bending is not a strong element in Burmese harp repertoire, unlike many other Asian harp genres such as guzheng music.

In Burmese music there is great development of heterophony, syncopation, and variation in melodic direction and range, as we see in the excerpt below (courtesy of Rick Heizman).  Reminding us somewhat of European Baroque music in texture at first glance, we see a greatly varied melody which moves in steps, skips, jumps, varied note lengths from quarter notes to 16th notes, and a countermelody which does the same while moving in contrary motion or similar motion, sometimes in the same tempo, at others in a slower tempo, sometimes with grace notes ornamenting.  Regarding ornamentation, grace notes are most common, followed by connecting runs; octaves, including parallel octaves, are very common.  Filigree is also added at the discretion of the performer, and each artist has their own style.  Improvisation, especially variations on the main melody, is expected of all advanced players, similar to jazz music.  Pieces average 5-6 minutes in length, although works attached to epic and religious stories can last up to 15 minutes (Ibid.)  This score (“Nan Bon Thu Har Bwe,” meaning “The Distinguished Royal Kingdom”) shows us the differences in approach between the more homophonic, arpeggiated textures we find in much current harp composition and this heterophonic, rhythmically varied texture:

Example 3.28

As we have seen with other world harps, design developments continue to take place, such as experimentation by saung-gauk master Hlaing Win Maung in adding three extra strings to the instrument. This brings the total to 19 strings in order to accommodate ever more virtuosic repertoire.

Finally, tuning itself provides a large part of the unique Burmese harp sound, with many possibilities regarding microtunings presenting themselves. I am indebted to ethnomusicologist Rick Heizman for his extensive research into Burmese harp tunings, presented below:




tuning: low G B↓ C E↓ F G B↓ C E↓ F G B↓ C D F G high

full scale: C D EF G A BC


U Myint Maung and other master harp players tune the B and E notes so flat that they may be thought of as a sharpened Eb and Bb, however when the same tunes are played on a fixed-pitch instrument (Burmese piano, mandolin, guitar) the notes E and B will be selected. U Myint Maung tunes the E approximately 56 cents flat, and the B about 62 cents flat. In addition the note A is added by using the left hand thumb. The tonic is usually C, though sections of a piece - even an intro - may be in F.


tuning: low G A C D E G A C D E G A C D E G high

full scale: C D E F/F# G A Bb/B C


The notes of Apo tuning are similar to Western pitches. The tuning uses a pentatonic (five-note) scale. The tonic is usually C, although in Hpan Htweila [a Burmese harp song] many sections are also in F. The extra added notes may be B or Bb, and F or F#. In Hkain Pan Soun [ditto], B and F# are often used, and sometimes F. In Hpan Htweila there is a slight adjustment to the tuning. The 5th note from the lowest pitch is tuned to F instead of E. F and B are used in the intro, and then in the body of the piece F and Bb are used often.


tuning: low G Bb C Eb F G Bb C Eb F G Bb C D F G high

full scale: Eb F G Ab/A Bb C D Eb


In Myin Zaing tuning the notes approximate Western pitches, and the tonic is usually Eb. The A note is added, and sometimes Ab is used - even in the same piece - as in Hsehse Yaun [a Burmese harp song].



tuning: low F BbC EbF ABbC EbF G BbC D F G high

full scale: F G ABbC D Eb


U Myint Maung tunes the Eb approximately 41 cents high, the Bb 25 cents high, and the A is 50 cents lower. The tonic is mainly F.


tuning: low G BC D F G BC D F G A C D E G high

full scale: G A BC D E F G


In Pyi Daw Pyan tuning the B is approximately 28 cents flat, and the tonic is G.


tuning: low F A C D F G A C D F G A C D F G high

full scale: F G A B C D E F


The notes of Hna Pauk tuning approximate Western tuning. B and E are added, and the tonic is F.


tuning: low G Bb C D F G Bb C D F G Bb C D F G high

full scale: Bb C D E F G A Bb


Pale is tuned to a pentatonic scale similar to Western pitches. The notes A and E are added, and the tonic is usually Bb.

Technical notes

The tunings of the Saung Gauk are notated here with G as the highest note. In practice the entire tuning may be higher or lower, often lower by a half or whole step to avoid breaking high strings. U Myint Maung uses stronger nylon strings for the highest five or so strings. The exact placement (temperament) of certain pitches may vary between players, between pieces with the same player, and between upper and lower Burma.

The tunings as listed are not the only way to tune in that scale/mode [i.e. variations exist].

Sometimes the highest note in the tuning may be omitted and an additional low note added, effectively shifting the range


The konghou, similar in shape to the angular harp of the Middle East, enjoyed a long history in Asia before dying out.  As mentioned in Chapter 1, harpist Tomoko Sugawara is the primary performer on the kugo, a revived konghou.  Composer Stephen Dydo comments with regard to a piece he was commissioned to compose for Sugawara and this instrument:

Since there is no surviving music for the konghou, and virtually no information on playing technique, save iconographic evidence (showing such things as the use of two hands to pluck the strings), we are obliged to create our own technique. Much of this is based on implementation, on the konghou, of musical devices found in the pipa and zheng manuscripts, as well as a style derived from study of the transcriptions of similar pieces by Picken’s group, with some initial help from Wolpert 1979. 174

━ Stephen Dydo


A number of different types of ornamentation have emerged from this research, many having much in common with Middle Eastern music: (Ibid.)

Octave changes/leaps, and sometimes more extended range modifications;

Repetitions at the unison and octave;

Doublings, often taking on a rhythmic character of their own;

Mordents and trills, often after the repetition of a note;

Lunzi, or tremolos;

Upward bends, caused by the left hand either pulling the string or pushing it down against the fret;

Arpeggios using octaves plus either fifths or thirds;

Passing tones, or stepwise motion connecting larger intervals;

Glissandi sometimes filling a fourth, sometimes extended for an octave

Some of the most unique aspects of Asian harp music is the extensive development of note bending, which will be explored more fully below in the guzheng section, and advanced use of plectra.  Early lyres feature the use of one plectrum; guzhengs may have up to 8 plectra attached to the fingers.

 The following example shows how ornamentation was developed for the aforementioned Qinghai Bo. The top staff is a version of the tune from a transcription published by Wolpert in 1974. The grand staff below is a possible performance realization.  Texturally, heterophony is again the main device:

Example 3.2

Example 3.29


The guzheng emerged almost 3,000 years ago, during the Warring States period in China. 175 Today, two main playing styles are recognized, Northern and Southern, although many traditional regional styles also exist. Since the 1950s pieces have been composed which use more modern playing techniques such as employment of harmony, and counterpoint by the left hand.  Since the 1980s, contemporary experimental and atonal pieces have been composed, allowing greater flexibility in the instruments’ musical scope. 176

However, this approach also has its limitations, as it often prevents the subtle ornamentations provided by the left hand in more traditional Asian music since the left hand is occupied with creating tones beyond the pentatonic scale in which guzhengs are tuned.

Although the guzheng is technically a zither, it has much in common with the harp and its techniques can be successfully applied to pedal and lever harps.  Traditionally, the right hand has a plectrum attached to fingers 1, 2, 3 and 4, although modern pieces may call for plectra to be attached to the left hand as well (Fig. 3.12).  The right fingers  are the main pitch players, focusing on the strings to the right side of the bridge.  The left hand bends the strings on the left portion of the guzheng; there is much development of different types of pitch bending and vibrato.  This bending technique can be applied to pedal and lever harps by pressing between the bridge pin and the tuning pin.  Because the strings on the left portion of the guzheng are so long, pitches can be raised by as much as one and a half steps higher than the open string pitch (Ibid.).

Guzheng notation uses numbers rather than staff notation, seen in this piece by Li, Zuji:

Example 3.2

Example 3.30

“Simplified Notation” reading guide provided by Winnie Wong (Ibid.):

No line under = quarter note

1 line under = eighth note

2 lines under = sixteen

and so on...


1 = do

2 = re

3 = mi

4 = fa

5 = sol

6 = la

7 = ti


Dots on top = 1 octave higher (for each dot)

Dots on bottom = 1 octave lower (for each dot)

Empty circles on top of the pitch = harmonics

Key is written at the top left hand corner of each page (or on top of a measure if there are key modulations)

Example: 1 = D

1, meaning "do" = D, meaning key of D major

1 = F, means Key of F major

and so on...


For all the bending techniques, they vary depending on the region of the folk piece

Regarding these extremely important bending techniques: the “rou” vibrato can be described as casual and light, and its intention is to extend the ring of the string so is often applied to long notes.  The “can” vibrato is stronger and faster, bringing forth a more dramatic intention. 177

“Shang hua yin” is a forward portamento, or upward bend to a higher pitch note.  “Xia hua yin” is the opposite, a reverse/backward portamento, created by releasing a bended string.  “Hui hua” combines the two into a light forward portamento plus reverse portamento. 178

Pedal and lever harps do not easily have quite this much scope in terms of pitch bending, but several designs have been created to handle this situation more successfully, notably Robert Labaree’s çeng described in section 3.2, and Mariano Gonzales Ramirez’s patent US7674962 (Fig. 3.11) which shows extended playable strings past the soundboard, and of course the Chinese modern konghou, which will be explored more fully below.  Nonetheless, vibrato effects can sound very striking even with current harp construction, and experimentation with speed of vibrato, vibrating two strings at once and so on is fertile ground for creativity.  Bending with levers and slow pedal changing is also an option for achieving these effects.  Additionally, using devices such as the sharping rings developed by John Kovac or metal rods (as we see with avant-garde harpists such as Zeena Parkins) allows for pitch bending both high and low across a very wide pitch range, since the whole string can be utilized.

As we shall see with Celtic harp technique below, in guzheng performance there is great sensitivity regarding how variation in plucking technique allows color differentiation, such as: 179

Example 3.2
  1. Ring finger plucks inward toward palm
  2. Thumb plucks toward the body
  3. Index finger flip plucks away from the body
  4. Middle finger plucks outward and upward away from the body
  5. Thumb plucks outward and inward repeatedly and rapidly

Following up on technique number 5, numerous plucking methods for tremolo effects exist.  One involves the thumb and index finger repeatedly plucking the same note.  Another calls for using fingers 4, 3, 2, and 1 rapidly in order on the same string.  This device also has parallels in Celtic and Latin American harp technique - perhaps not surprising as both play with nails, which arede facto plectra. The first tremolo technique creates a strong and direct sound, while the second technique, known as “lun zhi” creates a “crystal sound like raindrops” (Ibid.)

Harmonics are created via a method similar to Latin American harp practice and general guitar playing: lightly touch the string at the halfway point with the left hand and pluck the right portion with the right hand, immediately releasing the string as soon as a tone is heard.  This is a different approach to pedal and lever harp harmonic creation, and offers the intriguing possibility of multiple rapid harmonics, as well as clusters of harmonics, which are impossible with standard harmonic techniques.

Xi Yao Chen is one of the world’s current guzheng masters, and is concerned about the influence of Western music diminishing the characteristics of traditional Chinese music:

Chen’s work has been heavily influenced by Daoism and Ancient Chinese philosophy, just as both have influenced the evolution of Chinese music. In China, music is traditionally regarded as the harmony between heaven and earth and it is as important to understand the music spiritually as it is technically. “A player has to follow four different steps to become a musician. The fundamental step is to know the type of instrument you should use when you perform different styles of music; the second step is to learn the techniques and be able to understand the techniques; the third step is to understand the methodology of how to perform guzheng pieces such as the dynamics, contrast, expressions etc.; and the fourth step is to understand the true meaning of the music. When the player reaches this level, he will be a real musician.” 180



Again we find the strong connection between music and philosophy/spirituality, and the belief that this link is crucial to true creativity.

New developments


In the 1980s Zhou Guang Yuen, a professor at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music, developed a hybrid pedal harp/guzheng. Joyce Rice describes its construction:

It is based on the principle of double-row connected strings, using the modulation installation of the western harp as a reference. Modern Konghou is unique among Chinese folk instruments, for the double action pedals make it possible to play a 12-tone scale, while most others can only do a pentatonic scale. It can be played with traditional Chinese technique called “Yin, An, Swing” that came mainly from Guzheng and Pipa, to decorate and prolong the melody...Each of the double rows has 36 strings, or 72 in all. Each string has a bridge that is set in the middle of the sound board. The strings on both sides cross the bridges and are tied to the back of the sound box. 181

━ Joyce Rice

One of the most striking features of this harp is the extensive note bending that can be achieved, like the guzheng.  Like the double strung harp of Europe, interesting effects such as rapidly repeating chords creating an echo effect can be achieved on the modern konghou.  Use of both hands within the same range also reminds one of kora music and its dense textures.

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As with the previous harp genres, Asian harp has absorbed techniques from earlier sources, such as the Burmese harp’s similar techniques to the lyre, and the konghou’s similar techniques to Middle Eastern music. Heterophony is again the norm, and can be highly developed as we find in Burmese harp music.

Many alternative tunings present themselves. Variation, improvisation and ornamentation are emphasized, from a basic orientation towards grace notes and runs to extremely fine filigree depending upon the performer’s skill. Plectra can be used, such as with the guzheng, this time in a greater number than ever before, up to 8 per performer. Very characteristic of Asian harp music is great development of note bending, vibrato and glissandi. Direction of pluck is important and categorized clearly. Harmonics are performed as on the guitar. Philosophy joins spirituality as a crucial underpinning to the art.

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Note: due to extensive use of multiple languages, there is great variation in spelling regarding instruments and terms.
The most common spellings will be used throughout, with note made of popular alternate spellings.


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