Mongolian art and culture
MONGOLIA ARTS AND CULTURE
MORIN KHUUR. THE HORSE TALE
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.