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Mongolian art and culture




the legendary nomadic riders created their own unique music instrument - the Morin khuur (horse fiddle), the symbol of horse worshipping custom for the horse was one of the main factors of the independence and power of the Mongol throughout the history. The Mongols created and used over 400 kinds of music instruments, among which Morin khuur being most spread and appreciated through the time.

Photo: Morin khuur consists of horse head, two ears or accorder, upper cross stick, stalk, body, lower cross stick and a bow.Keeping the Morin khuur at the most honored place of the ger and playing the Morin khuur to call the good fortune and keep away from the evil spirits, Mongolians have deep respect toward this music instrument. Morin khuur is played at the start of all the rites as well as family feast, shamaist ritual and state ceremony; and accompanies everyday life occasions like story telling in the evening, singing, dancing and even livestock herding. There are a number of legends about how the Morin Khuur was first created, all based on a man's love and grief for a dead horse. These include legend of Cuckoo Namjil', legend of Left handed khuur player' and 'White horse of c boy named Sukh' in Inner Mongolia etc. So central was and still is the horse to Mongolian culture and it was registered to the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.

Much of the canon of Mongolian performance art (song, dance, poetry, drama, stories, even blessings) is inseparably entwined with the music of the Morin Khuur. It is not simply a traditional instrument; but considered to be an enchanting art and a precious treasurer and its special sound contributes much to the quality of modern music.


The first recording about Mongolian khuur is related to "Hou han shu' or the Chinese Eastern Han dynasty story, where it's written that 'the king Ling likes Hunnu dwelling, Hun bed, Hun tent, Hun khuur, Hun flute and Hun dance'. Hence, the ministers have lots of arguments and fights to entertain the king'. The Huns, ancestors of the Mongols had not only the Hun khuur, the Swan head harp, but also there were other stringed, percussion and wind music instruments like flute, harp, Mongolian zither, biivaa and shanagan khuur (eng: ladle fiddle). The Shanagan khuur or the ladle fiddle is named after its shape like ladle, which originally was first made of ladle covered with processed animal skin. There are many recordings to evidence that the Chinese borrowed most of Mongolian traditional music instrument and then spread to other Asian countries. Mongolian traditional music instruments are also spread all over Central Asia along with its Mongolian names, witnessing the traces of the travel of Mongolian tribes to the West in ancient times. The Chinese officer Li Ling, who was prisoned by the Huns in 1st century A.D., once wrote in his letter that 'In autumn, the sound of horn trumpet of Hun warriors is heard aloud and horses neigh'. The sound of'horse neighing can be a description of morin khuur. In 'Mongolian Secret History' written in 13th century, it's said that the head of Van khaan was placed on white felt carpet and there was a big offering ritual accompanied by the melody of khuur. In 'Altan tovch' or 'Golden Chronicle' by Luvsandanzan, it says:

Your Queen Khulan
Your khuur and flute
The native melody is there...


In the ancient legends and tales such as Argasun khuurch, 'Story of Two Male Horses', 'Geser' and 'Jangar', the khuur is mentioned and spoken many times. For instance, in the tale of 'Jangar':

As the queen Agai Shavdal
Plays her silver khuur
With 91 strings
It tunes of a swan...


G.Roubruk, a traveler to Mongol Empire in 13th century wrote in his book that 'During summertime, Mongols make airag (fermented mare's milk) and a khuur player sits next to the door of the ger. They have many music instruments that are unknown and very strange to us. As a servant in the king's palace give a sign, there '11 be a performance of music and men dance in front of the king and women in front of the queen'.

The King Khubilai had an orchestra ensemble of 412 musicians at his palace. These kinds of recordings about the ancient musical traditions of the Mongols are many.

The Ladle fiddle is the origin of present similar music instruments used among Western Mongolians as well as aagan khuur (cup khuur), khilduur, tovshuur (plucked ladle fiddle) and other types. Along with the time, it started to play the ladle fiddle with a bow which generated the most popular music instrument - Morin khuur. The ladle fiddle has no horse-shaped head, but horse-head khuuchir is found rarely. It has wooden body with carved handle and has 4 strings. The ladle fiddle or the initial form of Morin khuur has variably changed its design, music accord, playing technique and producing tone over thousands of years. The ladle body was converted into square shape, the body cover of skin turned into wooden board and the accord was pentatonic then quartet. The ladle fiddle was played by kneeling down on the ground, then sitting on a chair, which greatly influenced the playing method and technique of the khuur. These changes became the basis of modern morin khuur or ikhel, another type of Morin khuur of Western Mongolians. There's also a statement that it wasn't originated from the ladle fiddle, but the Morin khuur had a bow from the beginning or in ancient times the body was made of horse skull, thus was called as Morin khuur.

First the body of Morin khuur was covered with skin of goat, young camel or calf for their skin was more elastic and easy to process. The skin is soaked in curdled milk for 6-7 days and then is covered wet on the body and when dried, it was painted with mineral color, mostly green or brown. The body was ornamented with symbolic patterns. A dragon head was carved under the horse head to bless good fortune and luck. Later the horse-head was painted with green as the green is the symbol of peace and fertility, but also it might have symbolized the green horse of Maitreya, the Buddha of Future.

The strings of Morin khuur is made of black or brown tail hair of male castrated horse. The hair of race horse tail or of stallion and mare are considered to be not suitable for being weakened by sweat and hormone and it's a taboo to use dead horse's tail. Once when the appropriate tuft of horsetail hair is selected, it's cleaned in boiling water 2-3 times and then stretched for 2 days hung from the pole of the ger tied to a stone. It is said each hair fiber should be processed until it "starts talking".Then the strings are attached to the khuur body and then tuned.

Ulambayar, Morin khuur maker, has conducted an interesting test. He used tail hair of horses from different regions of Europe, America and Asia in making Morin khuur. The tail hairs of horses from Texas and Colorado of USA, Germany, Japan, Korea and Southern China couldn 't undergo the test and only the tail hair of Mongolian horses could resist the test of attaching to the fiddle, tuning and playing of Morin khuur. It was an interesting study and test to prove that Morin khuur is a native Mongolian music instrument and has very ancient origin of thousands of years.

In early 1940s, G.Jamiyan, well-known mo-rin khuur player performed a folk song 'Fly on a window' accompanied by the piano. It was the beginning to perform Western classics on Morin khuur and urged the requirement not only to reform the traditional methodology to perform and teach Morin khuur, but also to renew the design ana sound of Morin khuur.

During this time, the fixed tuning of Morin khuur was defined and the all-wood sound box is introduced in a style similar to European stringed instruments, including the carved f-holes, in order to adjust the sound and performing of classical music.

In 1980s, the Music and Dance College started to teach folk music and many professional Morin khuur players were trained. In 1990, the State Morin Khuur Ensemble was established, which was an important step to encourage composers to compose pieces for Morin khuur and to improve the sound and design of modern Morin khuur. There were many trials and experiments to introduce the new and the change the old as well as three stringed, guitar-shaped, violin-style or oversized etc. In Inner Mongolia, there have been and are conducted testing of making Morin khuur covered with artificial skin, donkey, cow or even snake skin. There were trials to make Morin khuur with steel, synthesis or three strings. However, the result of all these studies and experiments prove that the feature and quality of Morin khuur exist only in its traditional shape and design, tune and performing methods that have been developed and delivered to generations for thousands of years. The researchers and Morin khuur makers note that there's nothing to change in the design of present Morin khuur, because it's based on the firm size and form of traditional leather covered Morin khuur and the only necessity is to pay attention to follow the exact shape and style of original Morin khuur. There are many critisisms to have only wooden box khuur is a disregard to the traditional Morin khuur. They believe only the Morin khuur with skin-covered body and strings of real horsetail can produce the original sound of Mongolian melody. And it's true.

A research proved that real Morin khuur gives amazing possibilities of performance and wide range of acoustics. As A.Bat-Erdene noted, the traditional playing method of low bass gives the sound of Morin khuur to perform withing a diapazon of whole 4 octaves. There are many other playing methods such as whistling, picking and thumbed and many others, which can open more opportunities of sound.

The Morin khuur, originated from and inseparably entwined with horse, produces beautiful and natural melody that resembles horse neighing and makes one feel the freedom of galloping through the endless vast steppe. Its melody touches heart and soul and its tune is so clear and lucid. Mongolians have developed own unique design and image, formed special methodology to play. We say 'the Morin khuur has 140 different methods to play and 120 different ways of accord; and the strings have a magic to produce 100 different tunes' and 'With the melody of Morin khuur, the horse at the hitching post neighs'.

Traditionally there are two different accords of pentatonic and quartet. The pentatonic one is called as 'Khalkha' or Central Mongolian and the bass or 'male' string is located in the right or inner side. The quartet accord is widely used in Western and the male string locates in the left or outer side of the body. The pentatonic accord is more suitable to accompany the traditional long song and the other is more appropriate to perform traditional melodies and pieces like 'Four seasons'.

The ikhel, the original version of Morin khuur, is still played in Western Mongolia and it has kept its ancient simpler design and methodology to play. Its strings have a tuning difference between 5 accords, but this is on the brink of being forgotten because of less use. The accord difference between the two strings of Central Mongolian Morin khuur is quartet and can be changed to adjust to the voice of the singer. However, performing classical music or accompanying orchestra, it's needed to have a fixed accord. Thus, modern Morin khuur has a standard tuning accord, which is sometimes not proper to perform folk music or pieces.

Mongolians say if you can not play the piece 'Prince Black Horse', you are not a Morin khuur player. There's even a saying that if you play Morin khuur sitting on a horse' skull in the shadow of a mountain when it's totally dark, then the Morin khuur 'neighs' and you become a great Morin khuur player.

The traditional playing method of 'tatlaga' is the alphabet of learning Morin khuur. This very unique method can produce diverse tunes and melodies in one bow movement and expresses the idea and content through its diverse playing methods of ornamenting, glissando and double move etc. Tatlaga resembles the gallop, canter, run and trot of horses. There were many gifted and skilled Morin khuur players, whom people still remember and speak of until present like 'Sandag from Zasagt khan could play 5-6 tunes at the same time; one couldn't see the hands of Damdin-Ochir from Dariganga while his playing etc. There were and are other legendary Morin khuur players of Parchin, Avirmed, Urtnasan, Purvee, Saaral, Banzragch, Dagiiranz, Jantsanchoi and many other.

Western Mongolian Morin khuur or ikhel mainly accompanies singing and biyelgee or body dancing and plays mainly repeated rhythmic melodies. The traditional pieces include music pieces such as "Gallop of Balchin bay horse', 'Running of Yellow Camel' and 'Sound of Deer'; tatlaga pieces of 'The flow of Eeviin river', 'Call of Four Oirats'; and dance music like 'Tsatsal' (Sprinkling ritual), 'Praying', 'Yelkhen-deg' and 'Family' etc. It's interesting to note that most of these pieces were composed on the basis of true stories and legends. For instance, the piece 'The Call of Four Oirats' speaks of the great immigration and imitates the sound of this event such as dog barking, bull lowing and crying of little children.

The Central Mongolians play mainly music and often accompanies the long song. The music pieces imitate animals' and nature's phenomenon like sounds of river and wind, and also of animals like horses, camels, bulls and elk. These pieces include "The Snake Horse", "The Hawk Strong Stallion", "The Bogdo Khaan's Brown Trotter", "The Gobi's Spotty Trotter", "The Young Male Camel", 'Horse of Zasagt khan' or 'Sheep and lamb bleating', 'Crane of Blue Lake', 'Camel bellow', 'Bird' and many other. There are dozens of traditional long songs titled with names of legendary horses. The most respected ceremonial song sung at the beginning of any ceremony and festival is the "Tumen ekh", the leader of race of ten thousand horses.

The road of modern Morin khuur development was followed by the next generation of professional composers of that time, including Murdorj and Choidog, who were morin kuur players too. Soon there were 'classical pieces' for morin khuur as well as 'Cloudy brown horse' and 'On the Shore of Flower Lake'. In 1980s there were a complete concerto for Morin khuur, a symphony piece accompanied by Morin khuur and Long song. Morin khuur players performed with orchestra for the movie soundtrack of 'Mandukhai, the Wise', 2nd biggest historical movie of Mongolian cinematography and since then, many composers of Z.Khangal, N.Jantsannorov, B.Sharav, Ts.Natsagdorj, G.AItankhuyag, Ts.Purevkhuu, B.Byambabayar, B.Munkhbold and A.AItangerel have been creating classical compositions and pieces for Morin khuur. Morin khuur music has been and will be the authentic sound of Mongolia, melody of soul and the nature.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.

Photo. The Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur.



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