In Chinese orchestras, both Western and Chinese percussion instruments are used in order to produce three different effects: rhythmic (to mark the tempo), decorative (to add drama to a passage) and melodic (to play melodies by means of definite-pitched instruments). Common Western instruments in Chinese orchestras are the timpani, the marimba, the triangle, and others.
Since the dawn of times, drums have been used by peoples from all over the world for a large variety of purposes. China is no exception: in ancient times, large drums called gu were sounded, for example, to launch an attack during battles, thus intimidating the enemy and boosting the morale of the army, or during religious and ceremonial occasions. Nowadays, drums are more often used in music ensembles and orchestras for entertaining purposes; their sounds often portray scenes of vibrancy and majesty. Many kinds of drums made of different materials (metal, bamboo or skin) have been developed throughout ages: the twirling "rattle" drum, the hanging drum, the drum suspended on a foot frame, the drum on a pedestal, etcetera. Chinese drums are usually made of wood and stretched buffalo skin, and are traditionally played with a pair of thin drumsticks, although other techniques have also been developed: the skin is sometimes pressed in different parts to produce varying pitches, while the running of the drumsticks along the studded sides of the gu is also commonly used in many musical pieces.
The paigu ("row of drums") is a set of five to seven tuned drums arranged in a row of adjustable metal stands. The drums are painted red with decorative patterns. Most drums are double-sided and can be turned. Both sides have different tunings and are tunable within a range of a fourth or a fifth. The paigu is frequently played by means of two beaters. It frequently appears in ensembles and the large Chinese orchestra, where it sometimes features as solo instrument (for example, in the lively and exciting piece Leaping Tigers, Flying Dragons).
Versions: shimianluo 十面锣, yunluo 云锣
The luo, better known as the gong, comes in different sizes. It is a round metal plate, usually of bronze, that is suspended from the rim and struck at the center by sticks or mallets. While the drum was used in attack, the luo was traditionally sounded to signal a retreat. Parallel to his military use, the luos have been used in celebrations and folk festivals for centuries. Small luos can be hung on a wooden rack and arranged in different ways to create two other instruments, the shimianluo ("ten-faced gong") and the yunluo ("cloud of gongs"). Made up of up to ten gongs of different sizes, pitches and tones, the shimianluo is played with one or two mallets by a single performer. In the yunluo, the number of gongs is significantly higher (more than 30), thus greatly expanding the range of this instrument. The yunluo can be played with two kinds of mallets: soft-tipped mallets, which produce a soft and gentle sound and hard-tipped mallets, which produce a bright and loud sound. Both the shimianluo and the yunluo can be used for solos.
Bo 钹 (or cha 镲)
The bo are cymbals, that come in a pair. They are made of brass and very often decorated with colored ribbons. There are three ways to play them, by banging or rubbing them together, or by tapping a stick on their rims. Big bos are loud and booming and are mainly used in opera and on ceremonial occasions. Small bos are bright and clear and can be used to depict happiness and liveliness, for example in the traditional Chinese Lion Dance.
The ban is the Chinese version of the wood block, made of two pieces of wood linked together by a thin rope, as in a wood clapper. The note that it produces is short and its sound is bright. It is used in all kinds of music ensembles (large Chinese orchestras included), and especially in traditional Northern Chinese operas where it provides the rhythm for the singers and is also used to imitate the sound of the hooves of horses galloping.
The muyu ("wooden fish") is a hollow block, often carved and painted red to resemble a fish. It is a popular instrument in the whole Asian continent and can be easily found in Buddhist temples. Different stories explain the origin of this curious name. One goes like this: since fishes do not seem to sleep, they have been taken as an example for emulation by the Buddhist monks, who first used the striking of the muyu to provide a rhythm as they chanted their scriptures. In modern Chinese music, the muyu usually comes in a set of five sizes and pitches, mounted on a stand and struck with a pair of sticks. It is often used in fast and lively pieces.
The bianzhong ("arranged chimes") is one of the most valuable treasures left to us from China’s ancient past, a treasure that has been talked about since the end of the 1970s, when a set of 65-bells bianzhong was unearthed by Chinese archaeologists from the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng (V – III sec. BC). A bianzhong set consists of a series of large bells of different pitches hung on a rack. The bells are sounded by striking them on the rim with small metal sticks or a long rod, producing chiming melodies. The special shape of the bells gives them the remarkable ability to produce two different musical tones, depending on where they are struck. The interval between these notes on each bell is either a major or minor third. Some Chinese orchestras have recently introduced pieces composed for bianzhong in their repertoire.