A World of Music: Strings

Oct 28, 2020

We’re exploring a world of music!

Over the last several weeks we’ve been exploring the wide world of musical instrument! We began this journey with a look at how the Spanish guitar differs from those we’re more familiar with. From there we explored keyboard instruments, drums, and last week, brass instruments from around the world. This week we turn our attention to the string section!

Although the violin, and its family – the viola, cello, bass, and more – are very familiar to us here in the West, they are hardly the only string instruments that are played with a bow. In fact, bowed string instruments date back centuries, and can be found in many cultures around the world.

Take a peek at these 6 bowed instruments you’ve probably never heard of!


Although you probably don’t know its name, or have ever seen it played, you’re probably familiar with the sound of the erhu, or “spike fiddle.” The most common of the Huqin family of bowed string instruments, the Erhu is a very expressive instrument usually made of rose or red sandalwood and is very popular in Chinese music. This is partially due to its 4,000 year history within the Chinese culture!

The erhu has a round or octagonal sound box at the bottom, with a tall, thin neck and only two tuning pegs – one for each string. Since the erhu doesn’t have a fingerboard like the violin, the performer must hold and vibrate the strings by pressing against the strings themselves.

The soundbox is usually covered with python snakeskin on one side, and ornamental wood on the other. The erhu’s bow uses horse tail hair and bamboo, and is mounted between the instrument’s two strings so it can’t be removed.

The Morin Khuur


Also known as the “horsehead fiddle,” the morin khuur is one of the most important instruments in the Mongolian culture. The traditional bowed stringed instrument is widely considered a symbol of the Mongolian nation, and is recognized as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.

The instrument’s two strings are made from horses’ tails and are strung over a wooden bridge on the body and up a long neck, past a second bridge, to a pair of tuning pegs on the scroll, which is often carved in the shape of a horse’s head – hence the instrument’s nickname. The bowing technique for the morin khuur is somewhat unique, using only the outermost two fingers of the right hand to touch the bow hair for sound accents while the other two fingers maintain a light pressure on the strings.

Legend says the first morin khuur was created by a boy named Sükhe. After Sükhe’s prized horse was killed by a wicked lord, the horse’s spirit came to the boy in a dream and told him to make an instrument from its body, so the two could be together forever.


Dating back to the 16th century, the nyckelharpa is a traditional Swedish instrument. Modern versions of the instrument have a whopping 16 strings – three melody strings, a drone string, and twelve resonance strings. It also has 37 wooden keys arranged to slide under the strings, attached to tangents which, when pressed, act as frets to change the pitch of the string.

To play the nyckelharpa, the bow is held in the right hand, while the left pushes the keys. The instrument boasts a three octave range and the sound is often compared to a fiddle, but with more resonance.


The Gadulka is a key component of traditional Bulgarian instrument ensembles, especially when it comes to dance music! Using steel strings, the gadulka has three melody strings and up to 16 sympathetic strings that give resonance to the tones. The bow is usually made of a flexible forked willow twig, tied with horse hair, and waxed with rosin.

But unlike many other stringed instruments, there is no nut at the top of the strings. Instead, they are stretched between a tuning peg at the top, and the tailpiece at the bottom.


From the musical traditions of Ethiopia comes the mesenqo – a bowed lute with only one string. Often performed by Ethiopian minstrels, called “azmaris” (meaning “singer” in Amharic), the mesenqo requires great skill to play, as the azmaris sing while playing.

The diamond shaped box at the bottom of the instrument is made of four small wooden boards glued together and covered with stretched parchment or rawhide. The single string is usually made from horse hair and passes over a bridge. The mesenqo is tuned using a large tuning peg to fit the range of the performer’s voice. Interestingly, this is an ambidextrous instrument, and can be bowed with either hand, while the other sits atop the upper part of the string.

Bowed Psaltery

Invented in the 20th century, the bowed psaltery is a kind of psaltery (an ancient Greek stringed instrument similar to a harp) with a wooden soundbox and unstopped strings over the soundboard. It is vastly different from more traditional, plucked psalteries in that its strings are specifically arranged to be played with bows.

The instrument has a triangular shape, with each string extending a little farther than the last so they can each be played individually. The instrument can be played either one note at a time, held in one hand and bowed with the other, or it can be laid flat and played with a bow in each hand. Some performers even hold two bows in one hand for double-stopping!

Looking to get yourself or your little ones started in the string section? The Music Studio is now offering live and interactive online violin, viola, and cello lessons with our top professional teachers!

As a beginning string student you will first learn how to properly hold your instrument and correct hand placement. You will then learn how to press on the strings with your left hand and how to pluck the strings with your right hand before learning correct bowing technique with your right hand. Intonation, or your sense of pitch, your ability to properly tune your instrument, and music reading skills are also important components of your lessons. You may study classical, folk, East Coast and Irish fiddle music at The Music Studio.

More advanced students may focus on refining their technique and interpreting string repertoire representing a variety of musical periods.

Sign up today!