The morin huur is a Mongolian bowed spike-lute chordophone with a distinctive visual feature: a horsehead neck finial (‘morin’ means ‘horse,’ ‘huur’ means ‘string instrument’). It is associated historically with central Mongolian peoples, especially the Khalkhas, who traditionally used it to accompany long songs and, some would argue, shamanic ceremonies. However, dramatic political, social and cultural changes experienced by Mongolians during the 20th century stimulated many changes to the instrument itself, the musicians who play it, its contexts of performance, and its meaning as an object of material culture. Soviet-influenced totalitarianism, through state cultural policy, attempted to create a homogeneous, socialist national identity for all Mongolians (Pegg 2001, p. 3), and one outcome of this was the promotion of the morin huur to the status of national instrument, which it still carries today in post-Communist Mongolia.
The morin huur has a trapezoid-shaped box resonator (tsar) constructed from six pieces of thin poplar wood that are glued together. Two f-shaped sound holes are cut into the soundboard. The neck (ish), pegblock, and figural finial are carved from a single piece of birch wood that, although not visible, continues through the resonator and terminates as a short stub protruding from the bottom sidewall of the resonator (this is why the instrument is classified as a spike-lute). A fretless fingerboard, made from a separate piece of wood, is layered onto the neck. The two strings (hyalgas) are each made of numerous strands of horsehair; according to tradition, the thicker one (called buduun) should have approximately 130 strands, the thinner one (nariin) about 105 strands. At their resonator end they are secured to a goblet-shaped wooden tailpiece that in turn it tied to the neck stub on the bottom sideboard of the resonator. The other end of each string is wound around a laterally-mounted tuning peg in the pegblock. The actual vibrating length of each string is articulated by a vertical bridge on the resonator soundboard (there is a sound-post directly beneath one of the bridge feet) and a vertical nut at the top of the fingerboard. The bow (num) is made of wood and stretched horsehair.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
Traditionally played while kneeling on the ground, a morin huur performer of today is more likely to be seated in a chair with the sides of the resonator pinched between his or her knees and the neck pointing straight up and tilted slightly to the left. The bow is held at its frog end in the right hand, and the strings are stopped using the thumb and fingers of the left hand in a number of ways: pressing them against the fingerboard, and free-stopping them from the side or above using, variously, knuckles, fingernails, and finger pads. Today, the strings are typically tuned a fourth apart; the range of the instrument is about three octaves.
Origins/History/EvolutionMarsh suggests that, despite nationalist fueled readings of centuries old sources none of which unambiguously mention a horsehead-fiddle, it is difficult to date the morin huur much before the early 19th century. The morin huur of that period differed from the modern, national model pictured and described here in a number of details, perhaps most significantly among them being it had a membrane soundtable. In the 1960s, a Soviet violinmaker taught workshops in Mongolia on instrument construction, and out of these the modern morin huur with wooden soundboard and f-holes was established as the new national standard.
Marsh, Peter K. 2009. The Horse-head Fiddle and the Cosmopolitan Reimagination of Tradition in Mongolia. New York: Routledge.
Nixon, Andrea. 1984. “Khuur.” NGDMI v.2: 425-426.
Pegg, Carole. 2001. Mongolian Music, Dance, & Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities. Seattle; University of Washington Press.________. 2002. "Mongol Music." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 1003-1021.