This manual is written for composers interested in writing music for the contemporary 21-string zheng.
Strings & Bridges 弦與琴碼
The earliest zheng had five strings. More strings have been added over time. Today the most common zheng is the 21-string version, which is what the Orchid Ensemble uses. It is safe to assume that every zheng player has a 21-string zheng, but very few will have access to other variations. Therefore, compositions for other versions of the zheng are less often performed.
Each string is supported by a wood bridge from underneath, dividing the zheng into the left and right sides. The strings on the right side of the bridges are tuned to various pitches. The strings on the left side are of random pitches (not tuned). Modern zheng strings are made of steel and wrapped with nylon. The strings are numbered from 1 to 21, starting from the thinnest (highest pitch) string.
The zheng picks are made of hard plastic or turtle shell. Modern zheng picks are wrapped around to the fingers with tapes. Traditionally, the zheng players only wear the picks on the right hand because the traditional repertoire used mostly the right hand for plucking and the left hand for bending the strings (see below for bending techniques). Contemporary repertoire requires more fast and even two-hand plucking techniques. Therefore, the zheng players today often wear picks on both hands. There are 4 picks for each hand, making a total 8 picks for the two hands. No picks for the pinky.
Tone Colour 音色
The sound of the zheng covers the low, mid, and high registers. Each register has the range of about 7 strings (not strictly). The strings further away from the zheng player are the thicker strings of lower pitches. These strings are often used for bass notes because of their rich bass tone. The strings closer to the zheng player are thinner and tuned high. These strings have brighter tone. The zheng player or the composer can also specify whether to play certain notes with/without the picks to alter the tone colour. However, this is limited by the practicality of the fingering of the passage.
On the same string, plucking closer to the movable bridge (toward the left side of the player) produces darker tone. Plucking closer to the tuning pegs on the right produces brighter tone. There is no standard notation to indicate the tone colours. The zheng players often change tone colours as personal interpretation of the music.
Another important factor to change the tone colour is to play with or without picks. If the zheng player only wear picks on the right hand, the left hand can play without the picks to produce more gentle tone. If the zheng player wears picks on both hands, the pinky of both hands can play without picks. For example, in order to enhance the richness of the bass tone, the bass notes are often played without picks. Although the composer can choose to specify whether to play with or without picks, it is often left for the zheng player to decide. There is no notation for this. Just write a note on the music if the composer wants to specify.
The earliest zheng had five strings and was tuned to a pentatonic scale. Although the zheng has developed into 21 strings today, the tuning is still based on a cycle of five notes per octave. To tune the zheng to a diatonic scale (7 notes per octave) requires changing to special strings. Therefore, it will need to be done on a second zheng if the pentatonic tuning is required for other pieces in a concert. The Orchid Ensemble tours with only one standard 21 string zheng. Diatonic tuning is not practical and, therefore, not used in the ensemble.
It is common practice to tune the zheng strings to different scales as required in each piece. Most strings can be tuned to pitches within a major 3rd, while maintaining the desired tension of the strings. For example, the lowest string may be tuned to C, C#, D, Eb, or E. Non-pentatonic scales can be achieved by having different notes in different octaves. Therefore, tuning possibilities are endless. See Orchid Ensemble Zheng Tuning Chart for examples.
It is possible to change tuning of one or more strings in the middle of the piece, taking approximately 10 seconds per string. This is achieved by moving the bridges underneath the strings. Moving the bridge to the right will shorten the strings on the right side of the bridges and raise the pitch. Moving the bridge to the left will lengthen the strings and lower the pitch. Because the bridges are arranged in a row on the sound box, there is limited distance for how much the bridges can move before hitting the next bridge. It is best to keep the interval change to no more than 2-3 semi tones for each bridge. Greater interval changes require the zheng player to tighten or loosen the tuning pegs, which can not be done quietly and should not be done in the middle of a piece.
Zheng music can be notated using grand notation in the combination of treble and bass cleves when the full range of the instrument is used. Usually the right hand plays the upper staff, and the left hand plays the lower staff. Zheng music can also be notated in only treble or bass clef when the two hands are playing in the same register, or when only one hand is used for plucking. The notes for the right hand have stems going up; the notes for the left hand have stems going down. The right hand most often plays the melodic materials, and the left hand plays the accompaniment. When the two hands are playing equal roles in the same register, it is possible to just write out the notes and leave for the zheng player to decide on the fingering/hands.
Pluck single note or multiple notes at the same time. Each hand can pluck up to 4 strings simultaneously, spanning over the maximum of 7 strings. When both hands are used, usually the left hand plucks the lower strings. The two hands can be in the same octave or any octave apart. Plucking technique can be used to play melodies, chords, basslines, arpeggio, or special effects.
Arpeggio with one hand can play up to 4 notes. Play with one hand followed by another hand can produce up to 8 notes. In slow tempo, it is possible to alternate the hands to play up to ten notes in an arpeggio. The span of notes should be the maximum of six strings distance for each hand in fast tempo.
2) Chord: Up to four notes with one hand; eight notes with two hands. The span of notes should be the maximum of seven strings distance with each hand. For faster tempo, more complex rhythms, or larger jumps of intervals, keep the notes within one octave for each hand.
3) Double Picking 點奏
This technique is used to produce strong and even sound in fast tempo only.
a) 2 fingers/notes (1 finger each hand): forefingers only, alternating between the left and right hands.
b) 3 fingers/notes: one hand thumb and forefinger (2 adjacent strings); another hand forefinger only (1 string)
c) 3 fingers/notes: one hand thumb and middle finger (increase interval of the 2 strings); the other hand forefinger only (1 string)
d) 4 fingers/notes: both hands thumb and forefinger; 2 adjacent strings for each hand.
e) 4 fingers/notes: both hands thumb and middle finger; 2 strings of larger interval for each hand.
4) Roll or “Yao” 搖指
Hold the hand to a soft fist. Fast rolling back and forth with the thumb (supported by the forefinger) on the string. The sound is similar to the guitar rolling with a pick. This is notated with 3 lines on the note stems. It is possible to roll one, two, or more adjacent strings at the same time. Rolling one string at a time is more common.
5) “Sao” 掃
Strum a number of adjacent strings quickly to produce a strong accented sound.
6) “Sao Yao” 掃搖
This is the combination of “Sao” and “Yao” techniques. Strum the nearby strings with the middle finger to add an accent over the thumb’s rolling in every 4 attacks. This technique can only be used in fast tempo.
7) “Lun” 輪指
a) Alternating four fingers on the same string to create a fast roll. The tone is more gentle comparing to Yao. The notation can use a 4-petal flower above/under the note.
b) Using “Lun” technique but have the thumb playing different strings from the other three fingers. This technique can be used for the thumb to play the melodic line, with accompanying rolling effects played by the other fingers, creating complex pattern with only one hand. This allows the other hand to bend the strings or play other gestures.
8) Glissando 刮奏
Glissando is produced by plucking a serie of adjacent strings. Glissando may be played in two directions: from high to low strings, or from low to high strings. This can be notated with the direction of a zig-zag line or with a diangle line with an arrow in the end. To specify the notes in a glissando, write out all the notates and place the zig-zag line above or under the notes. It is also very common to not specify the notes and use only the graphic. Glissando may be used in soft or loud dynamics, fast or slow tempo, in time or out of time, and in changing tempo (speeding up or slowing down). Because glissando technique needs to play adjacent strings, it may not work if some of the strings are tuned to notes not supposed to be heard at the time.
a) Short Gliss: A short high to low glissando (played by the thumb) can be played in time as pick up or ornament and arrives to a specific note. The note it arrives may be played by the thumb or forefinger or middle finger or the combination of the thumb and another finger.
b) Long Gliss: A long gliss over a number of strings in either direction: high to low or low to high. Write out the beginning/ending notes to specify the notes. Otherwise, just use the graphics.
c) Continuous Gliss: A series of glissando in the same direction or alternating directions, with one hand or alternating the two hands. When it is played gently, this technique is often used to depict the flowing river. A series of glissando over a number of beats can be used effectively to build up the dynamic and intensity.
e) Glissando can be played on either the right (tuned) or left (untuned) side of the bridges. It can also be played on both sides simultaneously in the same or opposite directions. Glissando played on the left side of the bridges creates more dramatic effect.
- Combinations of plucking techniques
The two hands can play the same or different gestures at the same time. To play different gestures, it is common to play the melody (single notes, combination of notes, yao/roll, lun) with the right hand and the accompaniment (chords, basslines, arpeggio, yao/roll, lun, or glissando) with the left hand. This makes the zheng a versatile solo instrument.
1) Change the pitch 按音
Pressing down the strings on the left side of the bridges will raise the pitch. Each string can be pressed down to raise the pitch up to a minor third. All micro tones in between can also be played. This allows the zheng player to play notes not in the tuning. The bent note has darker tone, and is an important aspect of the zheng. Therefore, the zheng player will choose to play bent notes even when the notes can be found in the tuning on other strings in order to create contrasting colours. However, when bent notes are played, the left hand can not pluck the strings. This will reduce the number of notes can be played at the same time.
- It is possible to press one or two strings with the left hand in a chord played by the right hand. Therefore, a chord can be played with notes not in the tuning. However, releasing the pressed notes too soon will make the original pitch (not in the chord) heard. If the next chord needs to be played by two hands together or has notes that also need to be bent, this can be an issue.
2) Vibrato 吟、顫、點
Right after plucking the string with the right hand, the left hand apply and then release pressure at the left side of the bridges to create vibrato. This technique raises the pitch slightly and then returns to the original pitch. It changes the tone colour and is an important technique of the zheng. The zheng player often decides when to use vibrato, which is not always notated. But if more dramatic vibrato (greater pitch variation, slow or fast vibrato) is required, the composer will notate it with a wavy line above/under the notes. However, when vibrato is played, the left hand can not pluck the strings. This will reduce the number of notes can be played at the same time.
a) gentle vibrato 顫音
Press and release the string repeatedly and evenly for the entire duration of the note, similar to the violin’s vibrato. As the zheng player interprets the music, it is common to slow down the vibrato, especially on long notes or the end of phrases.
b) strong single vibrato 點音
While plucking a string, press once very hard with the left hand on the left side of the bridge and then release quickly. This changes the tone colour and creates intensity. It is also possible to press the string after it is plucked in time to create a change of tone colour rhythmically.
3) Slides 滑音、揉弦
Pressing or releasing the string on the left side of the bridge after it is plucked can create slides. The slide can reach to the maximum of a minor 3rd. This technique can be used in slow or fast tempo, in time or out of time. However, when slides are played, the left hand can not pluck the strings. This will reduce the number of notes can be played at the same time.
a) Low to High 上滑音
Pressing down the strings on the left side of the bridges to the desired pitch after the string has been plucked will create a slide from the open tuning to a higher pitch. This can be notated with an arrow pointing from the lower to the higher note.
b) High to Low 下滑音
Pressing down the strings on the left side of the bridges to the desired pitch before the string is plucked. Release the left hand after the note is plucked. This will create a slide from a higher pitch to the pitch the string is tuned to. This can be notated with an arrow pointing from the higher to the lower note.
c) Low to High to Low 揉弦
After plucking a string, press down the strings on the left side of the bridges to the desired pitch. Then release the pressure.
d) High to Low to High 揉弦
Pressing down the strings on the left side of the bridges to the desired pitch before the string is plucked. Release the left hand after the note is plucked, and then press the string again.
- Slides or bending can be used while the right hand plays different plucking techniques. The combination with rolling is very effective. Pressing and releasing the bent note continuously on a long roll creates very dramatic effect.
All harmonics on the zheng are natural harmonics, produced at positions of the 1/2, 1/3, 2/3, 1/4, 3/4…etc of the string length (referring to only the right side of the bridges). The notation is to place a small circle on top/underneath the note.
most commonly used harmonics:
1/2 string length, produces the pitch at one octave above the open string tuning
1/3 or 2/3 string length, produces the pitch at one octave + 5th above the open string tuning
1/4 string length, produces the pitch at two octaves above the open string tuning
2/5 string length, produces the pitch at two octaves + major 3rd above the open string tuning (better in bass register, longer string length)
1) Two-Hand Harmonics
Place the finger (do not touch with the picks) of the left hand lightly at the harmonic spot on the string. Pluck the string with the right hand. Release the left hand immediately after plucking. It is possible to play two harmonic notes within one octave at the same time.
2) One-Hand Harmonics
While plucking the string, touch the string lightly with the side of the palm of the same hand, and release it immediately. This is more difficult to play than the 2-hand harmonics. It is possible to produce 1-hand harmonics with both hands at the same time. But it is better to use in slow tempo only. To play two harmonic notes further apart than one octave, this technique is used.
3) Harmonic Glissando
When it is not specified, zheng plucking is assumed to leave vibrate and die down naturally, even if there is a rest written in the notation after the notes. The resonance can last for a while in quiet passages. To request for the zheng player to mute the strings, put a dot above/under the notes, the same as writing staccato for the strings.
It is possible to mute and pluck with the right hand and bend the string with the left hand.
The strings can be bowed. Bowing can be done with either hand. The zheng player may bow with one hand and pluck other strings with the other hand, or bow multiple strings with both hands (2 bows). Bowing with the right hand allows the zheng player to use the left hand to add vibrato or to bend the strings being bowed. It is easier to bow the lowest or the highest strings. Bowing other strings may require the zheng player to place the bow in between the bridges and not as easy. Bowing can produce both the fundamental notes and various harmonics. Bowing is generally used for effects rather than melodic passages because it is not easy to maintain the pure fundamental pitches when bowing strings other than the highest or the lowest notes. Please allow time for the zheng player to pick up and put down the bow.
Left hand arco, right hand plucking
Hitting the strings with the bow
There is no standard notation for this. The composer can create symbols (with explanation on another sheet) or write “bow” on the music.
Percussive Techniques (non-pitched)
1) Kou Xian 扣弦 (extended technique, no standard name) – mute before playing
While plucking normally with the right hand, hold the string tightly with the thumb and forefinger of the left hand between the bridge and where the string is plucked. There is no standard notation for this. The composer can create symbols and include explanation on another sheet). Moving the left hand left and right changes the pitches (not specified pitches). It can also produce harmonics.
2) Kou Yao 扣搖
While rolling the string with the right hand, hold the same string tightly with the thumb and forefinger of the left hand between the bridge and where the string is plucked. Move the left hand left and right to change the length of the string (left hand movement not majored in time). This is a dramatic effect to create intense emotion. The notation is a double sided arrow on top of the notes.
3) Pluck behind the right side “bridges” (extended technique, no standard name)
Pluck the short strings near the tuning box to produced muted untuned random pitches.There is no standard notation for this. The composer can create symbols and include an explanation with the music.
4) Knocking on the sound box
The sound box is a large resonating wood box. Knocking with the palm or fist of either hands on different spots can produce various percussive sound. There is no standard notation for this. The composer can create symbols such as black and white square or triangle noteheads, and include an explanation with the music.
5) Hit the strings with the palm (extended technique, no standard name)
6) Hit the movable bridges with the palm (extended technique, no standard name)