What is the pipa?

The pipa is a lute-like instrument with a history of more than two thousand years.  During the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C. – 220 A.D.), instruments with long, straight-necks and round resonators with snake skin or wooden sound boards were played with a forward and backward plucking motion that sounded like “pi” and “pa” to fanciful ears.  Hence, all plucked instruments in ancient times were called “pipa”.  During the Tang dynasty, by way of Centre Asia, the introduction of a crooked neck lute with a pear-shaped body contributed to the pipa’s evolution.  Today’s instrument consists of twenty-six frets and six ledges arranged as stops and its four strings are tuned respectively to A,D,E,A.  The pipa’s many left and right hand fingering techniques, rich tonal qualities and resonant timber give its music expressiveness and beauty that are lasting and endearing.

Try the interactive pipa! Go to www.wumanpipa.org/flash.html and click on “What Is A Pipa?”

Notes by Wu Man

See Wu Man perform live with the chamber ensemble “The Knights” on February 12 at 7:30 pm. Learn more