Horse Headed Fiddle

The qu’ur - horse headed fiddle: from the “Secret History of the Mongols”“The Secret History of the Mongols” is one of the most important sources for the study of the history, literature, oral tradition, and folklore of Mongolia during the 13th century. The horse and the fiddle (qu’ur) have played a very important role in the life of the nomadic Mongolian cattle breeding culture. Much of the oral history and literature of the Mongolian people contains stories about horses and the horse-headed fiddle instrument.

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From ancient times the Mongolian people have used the horse for transportation and have given it an honored position in their everyday lives. For example, when a horse died, its head was placed on top of a mountain, rather than buried in the dirty ground. The horse's tail was carefully preserved to make strings for musical instruments, and the soft skin of the horses groin was used to cover the body of the “horse-headed fiddle” instrument.

The ceremonial use of the qu’ur

“The Secret History of the Mongols” gives a detailed description of horses, the horse headed fiddle, wedding ceremonies, and other. (see sections 57, 58, 64, 65, 189 and 267).

“The Qongirad people were peace loving, and had many beautiful red cheeked Qongirad girls who were taken away in carriages to be married to kings” This is described in Mongolian wedding song :

“Many white male camels are carrying the dowry in the caravan
When the bride enters the carriage her father and mother weep
Many white female camels are carrying the dowry in the caravan
As the dowry is loaded on to the camels her parents weep“ (H.S., 1983)

Mongolian weddings traditionally consist of thirty ceremonies. One of them is the “bride's farewell ceremony,” which includes the singing of songs such as “The girl is leaving song” and “The Saddle song." The bride’s family will be crying because their daughter is going away to join a different family and she has to stay away for three years. For example, section number 64:

“We Unggirad people from days of old,
Having [for us] the comeliness
Of the daughters of [our] daughters,
Have not been disputing empire.
For those of you which are become qahan,
We make daughters comely of cheek to ride in a Qasag cart
And making [one] to harness
A black male camel [to it],
Making him to trot, we go [unto the qahan]
And make [them] to sit together [with the qahan]
On the qatun throne. We dispure not [either] empire [or] people”
(F.W.C., 1982)(№3 an ancient Qongirad poem)

So we see that “The Secret History of the Mongols” is not merely a history of kings and wars of Mongolia, it also encompassed the Mongols' everyday life, from weddings to deaths, oral traditional literature to music, and other elements of their culture. For example: in section 189, we read about a funeral ceremony: “Tsaγaan tolog de’er-ee berinedien berileüljü,
Otoqlu’ulju qu’urdaulju ayaga barin taijui”

“Placing [it] on a white tolog , making the daughters-in-law, making [one] to present refreshments the otog , making [one] to play the qu’ur, holding a bowl, [and] sacrificed unto [it]....” ( Cleaves,1982, p12-14)

This ancient description of the funeral ceremony is very important because it shows the early role of the horse headed fiddle in the ceremonies. It describes what one possible ritual when a king dies: his head was placed on white felt (tolog) rather than on the dusty ground. Around him, the daughters-in-law presented refreshments to the guests while the musicians played the horse headed fiddle. Playing the horse headed fiddle is not restricted to delightful celebrations such as wedding ceremonies, but it also is the custom in funeral rituals. (But generally a noble’s blood should not be shed, so cutting off the head was not normal.)

Symbolic Colors and NumbersIn ancient times, the makers of the horse headed fiddle used 81 white horse hairs for the [Yin] strings and 81 black horse hairs for the [Yang] strings. The color white being an important symbol for the mongolian people, is a most honored color for celebrations and holy days.

“Salaalj mordoh zamaa tsaγaan zam
Sar shiniin türüüg tsaγaan sar
Saikhan setgeliin ehleliig tsaγaan khadag - ааr
Salshgüi mönkhiin nasyg tsaγaan uul” -ааr tölöölüüldeg (Narangerel, 1989)

("To wish a good journey one says travel the white wayThe first month of the year is the white monthTo show good feelings to another one should present a white silkThe white flower, eidelweiss, means long life and togetherness.")

The makers of the horse headed fiddle used 81 horse hairs, because it is a factor of three, which is an important number for the Mongolian people. Examples of three are symbolic of mother/father/child, past/present/future. According to the culture, everything complete is shown in threes and nines. The multiplication of nine by nine to produce eighty one is significant, as for example in a section 267 of “The Secret History of the Mongols”.

“Yesün yesü nayan nigen alt möngön ayaγa sab-a
Yesün yesü nayan nigen nuγuud okid
Yesün yesü nayan nigen aγtas temeed
Yesün yesü nayan nigen busad züil-i beleg barijuhui” (16.267)

The following is a translation of the verse in English: “The ruler of the Tan gut (Xia Dynasty) Burqan presented himself at the moment when he presented himself with [girls consisting] first [in] golden images of the Buddha and besides those, in bowls and [other] vessels of gold and of silver nine and nine, [in] boys and girls nine and nine, [in] geldings and camels nine and nine, and [in yet] every kind of [other] things, having distributed [them] after their colors and forms, nine and nine.”

The Tan gut ruler Burqan presented gifts by “nine and nine” because he knew the ancient Mongolian customs. Not only were gifts given by “nine and nine," but so were fines and penalties. P. Golstunskii discusses this issue in the book Law of the Western Mongolians (1740). For example if someone broke the law, the king might require 81 large livestock or 81 days labor. Additionally the 13th century epic Jangghar and The History of the Yuan both record references to the “nine and nine” custom. Some of the other traditions of use of symbolic numbers consist of other prime numbers. While “nine and nine” is very important, other numbers form the basis of Mongolian traditions. For example, the Mongolian four walled yurt (traditional felt tent) has 64 rafters in the roof. The five walled yurt has 81. In the larger yurts the number of roof rafters always corresponds to prime numbers.

Other examples are found in Mongolian games. The chess board, for example, has 64 squares. Celebrations also reflect the use of prime numbers. At the wedding celebration the head of the feast offers “The Singing Cup” to the guests. The third time the cup is offered, the guest must sing three of the traditional wedding songs. If the guest has not learned the songs before the ceremony, he must take the prayer beads offered by the head of the ceremony and sing the song one time for each of the 108 beads. The number 108 has other interesting connections: The 13th century (Tibetan) lama Lubsandambiijalsan wrote a book, “The Golden Mean of the Human Body”, in which he stated that there are five kinds of bodies measured by finger widths. The hamsa body is 108 finger widths tall. The second is 96; the third is 81; the fourth is 72, the fifth is 64.

There are other examples of numbers in Mongolian traditions that relate to Mongolian Pentatonic musical scales. An example of symbolic, colors and numbers of the musical notation is written in a “The History of the Yuan” section 3, volume 71. Asian music is based on the ancient “factor of three” sound theories “(San Fen Xuan Yi Fa)”. It is a five-note scale; each note has a name: 1. Гündaγuun [Gung] is the name of the first note which is an F with the symbolic number 64, (sky sound temperament),2. Sandaguun [Shang] is the name of the second note which is a C with the symbolic number 96, (wind sound), 3. Hiudaguun [Tsue] is the name of the third note which is a G with the symbolic number 72, (the sound of wood) 4. Jidaguun [Chi] is the name of the fourth note which is a D with the symbolic number 108, (the sound of fire) 5. Yudaguun [Yui] is the name of the fifth note which is an A with the symbolic number 81, (the sound of water).

3x3x3x3=81 (9x9=81)
81+ (81:3) =108
108-(108:3) = 72
72+ (72:3) =96
96-(96:3) = 64

Τhe temperament of sounds: the yang-yin on the quurThe horse headed fiddle has a pentatonic musical scale and temperament with Yang and Yin tunes. Each pentatonic musical tone has 12 intervals. In one tone scale there are 12 sharps and 12 flats for a total of 24 microtones. Each of the 12 microtones has the name of a month of the year and the name of an animal astrologically associated with that month. This is true of all Asian instruments including the qu’ur or horse headed fiddle. The number 12 recurs in astrology, hours of sun light and moon light, and in the cycle of the human body. I have related the 12 microtones of the pentatonic scale to the shadows in the Mongolian yurt created by the sun and moon. Additionally, I have given names to these microtones that represent the shadows of the sun and moon clocks in a Mongolian yurt. Each hour has a name.

Between each of the five notes of the scale on the horse fiddle are 12 tones. Six of the tones are consonant or Yin and are related to the animals of even months of the year. Six tones are dissonant or Yang and related to the animals of the odd months of the year. The Greek scholars Pythagoras and Plato also believed that the ancient musical scale was connected to the science of astrology. Early music research began with the study of intervals of the diatonic scale, the notes of which were “c and f." Strings of the horse headed fiddle or qu’ur today are tuned to “F and b,” the same interval as the early Mongolian music interval and scale. Even though today’s modern horse–headed fiddles are made of wood a scientifically designed, rather than made of soft horse skin it is still possible to play the ancient music on them. Music specialists today are more concerned with the tone and range of the fiddle in order to play a broader repertoire of music. There is also the need tune the modern instrument to play in concert with other instruments. The ancient skin fiddles are still played in homes for solo performances. I believe it is possible to retain understanding and appreciate the ancient instrument while respecting the improvements to the instrument for the modern orchestra.

The ancient songs of the horse headed fiddle played today retain the ancient use of this interval. The Mongolian poet Ts. Tsedenjav wrote of the horse headed fiddle saying:

The two strings of the horse fiddle
Tell of all life in the world
Ancient and modern today and tomorrow
My mothers and children

ConclusionFrom ancient times to the present, the history of the Mongolian people is grounded in the history of the horse headed fiddle. The sound of this fiddle expresses the feelings and emotions of this people. Previous research on the Secret History of the Mongols has focused on literature and culture. It is the purpose of my research to expand and enrich existing research by translating ancient texts related specifically to music. Modern technology allows the researcher the ability to investigate more thoroughly the Asian pentatonic scale and more specifically the 12 microtones in the micro-intervals of that scale. These microtones are unique in the entire world to the horse headed fiddle alone.

Because the horse headed fiddle retains a revered position in Mongolian society and is still used for funeral rituals, ceremonies and many other aspects of everyday life, the study of its history is central to an understanding of the Mongolian people themselves. The Secret History of the Mongols is much more than a history of the lives of khans and generals. The translation of these ancient texts regarding music is necessary to guarantee that this valuable aspect of cultural history of an ancient people, whose traditions are still alive today, will not be lost. My study of the ancient texts regarding the history of the horse headed fiddle has inspired me to write two books about new aspects of the sound theory of microtones in Mongolian music. As of this writing, there are plans to translate my books into English. These new aspects of the sound theory are very likely to expand the understanding of micro- chromatic scales in non-Asian music as well.

European musical theory, while extensive in its understanding of rich harmonies, is often one-dimensional. My current research in sound theory leads me to believe that a single note of the scale contains many microtones and micro-harmonies. The unexplored intervals of this extraordinary stringed instrument [Mongolian bowed fiddle] may yield fascinating possibilities for composition and instrumentation. Endnotes 1. The horse headed fiddle is a bowed stringed instrument which consists of two bundles of horse tail hairs, especially the horse headed fiddle. One bundle is white and the other is black.The qu’ur is used in all Mongolian public events.

2. The horse headed fiddle ’s white bundle consists of 150 hairs, while the black bundle contains 120 and the bow has 90 hairs.

3. The horse headed fiddle 's sound box body is covered with the soft skin of the horse groins.

4. Qongirad is one of different minority in the Mongols. When a Qongirad family requests a girl from another clan for marriage to its son, which is always the case in view of the custom imposing exogamy, the parents of the girl, before giving their consent, in spect the other family's encampment. They examine the state of the fortune, the riches in herds, etc, of the family which wishes to ally itself with them. They give their girl only if they judge that the daughter will lack for nothing in her new abode. A. Mostaert, Op cit. [12].

5. In Mongolian oral tradition there are three red worlds: the red of the setting sun, the red of the cheeks, and the red grasses in the valleys,

6. Unggirad is one of the names for the Qongirad minority,

7. The Qasag cart is a carriage (süikh tereg), which is used in wedding ceremonies,

8. A black male camel (qar buur) – gelding’s is used in the wedding ceremonies,

9. White is the color of good omens for the Mongols,

10. The tolog is a white felt carpet,

11. The otog is a tribal clan,

12. The original name of the qu'ur is from the root “qi-ki." The word qi means space or air. However, researcher G. Badraa believes that the word quur is from the root qög or khög, which means a stringed instrumental tune,

13. Eighty one is a very important symbolic number, especially for gifts,

14. Tsagaan khadaq is a white silk used to show good feelings to another person. (Narangerel, yatuga qögjmiin surah, 1989, Khöhe hot)

15. Tsagaan uul is the name of the edelweiss flower, which symbolizes long life and togetherness,

16. Ts. Damdinsuren 1980, “The Secret History of the Mongols” UB,

17. Golden Images of the Buddha; and beside those, in bowls and vessels of gold,

18. F. W .Cleaves 1982, “The Secret History of the Mongols" volume 1, Harvard, Yen-Ching, Ins,

19. “History of the Yuan” (XIII century), volume 71, 3,

"May good deeds blossom"