Saturday’s Instrument: The Morin Khuur

The Morin Khuur, also known as the horse head fiddle, is a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. It is one of the most important musical instruments of the Mongol people and is considered a symbol of the Mongolian nation. The Morin Khuur is one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.

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The most ancient string instruments are said to hail from the nomadic cultures of the East. They discovered that sound can be achieved by rubbing the strings of two bows together. The Mongolian people also have a legend that explains the origins of the morin khuur. The favorite white horse of a boy was killed by an evil khan. During the night, the spirit of the horse came to him in his sleep, telling the boy to make a musical instrument out of its body. The neck of the first morin khuur was made out of the horse’s bone, the string out of horsehair, and the main body covered with horse skin. The two then remained inseparable.


In English usually called morin khuur or translated as "horsehead fiddle" (although the more literal translation would be just "horse fiddle" (or "horse stringed-instrument") --"'Morin'"="horse", "'khuur'"="fiddle"/"stringed-instrument").

The full Classical Mongolian name for the morin khuur is morin toloγai Tai quγur, meaning fiddle with a horse's head. Usually, it is abbreviated as "Морин хуур", Latin transcription "Morin Khuur". In western Mongolia, it is known as Ikil hile in eastern Mongolia it is known as Shoor.

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Throat singing:

The music of the morin khuur often comes paired with throat singing. Battulga is talented at both and performs songs on the morin khuur as well as folk songs using throat singing. Not every morin khuur player is able to use throat singing. It is a separate discipline that requires years of training from a young age. Battulga suggests that throat singing was a tactic used by Mongolian warriors. “It might not sound particularly scary now, but imagine if a whole army of soldiers began singing at the same time.”

Origin and history:

One legend about the origin of the morin khuur is that a shepherd named Namjil the Cuckoo received the gift of a flying horse; he would mount it at night and fly to meet his beloved. A jealous woman had the horse's wings cut off so that the horse fell from the air and died. The grieving shepherd made a horsehead fiddle from the now-wingless horse's skin and tail hair and used it to play poignant songs about his horse.

Another legend credits the invention of the morin khuur to a boy named Sükhe (or Suho). After a wicked lord slew the boy's prized white horse, the horse's spirit came to Sükhe in a dream and instructed him to make an instrument from the horse's body, so the two could still be together and neither would be lonely. So the first morin khuur was assembled, with horse bones as its neck, horsehair strings, horse skin covering its wooden soundbox, and its scroll carved into the shape of a horse head.

The morin khuur traveled to Europe with the famous 13th-century traveler Marco Polo, who was in China during the rule of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty. The morin khuur has spread into other parts of the world with the Mongol people. Apart from Mongolia, it is also played in the south of Russia and in Inner Mongolia in China. The modern morin khuur has been adapted to play any type of music, ranging from traditional tunes to classical pieces.

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Construction of the instrument:

Morin Khuur consists of a trapeziform wooden-framed soundbox with two strings attached to it. It is held nearly upright with the soundbox on the musician's lap or between the musician's legs. The strings are made from hairs from nylon or horses' tails, strung parallel, and run over a wooden bridge on the body up a long neck, past a second smaller bridge, to the two tuning pegs in the scroll, which is usually carved into the form of a horse's head.

The bow is loosely strung with horsehair coated with larch or cedar wood resin and is held from underneath with the right hand. The underhand grip enables the hand to tighten the loose hair of the bow, allowing very fine control of the instrument's timbre.

Modern Usage:

Morin Khuur as an important heritage to Mongolia's musical heritage opened its way to Mongolian contemporary popular and classical music.

new versions of the instrument with pick up are being used in popular music, distortion effects make the sound of the Morin Khuur suitable for Mongolian rock music, and even in some cases, it is being accompanied with throat singing in the popular music.

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