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morin khuur

chordophone

The morin khuur or 'horsehead fiddle', is a large two-stringed fiddle. It is the musical emblem of Mongolia.

The neck ends in a carved horse's head, under which there is often a carved dragon's head, as well. The neck goes through an isosceles trapezoid sound box, traditionally covered with an animal skin, which is often painted green and decorated with colourful motives.  Also characteristic of the aesthetic design are the two long pegs for tuning the horsehair strings. Nowadays the sound box is entirely made of wood and sound holes are cut in the  soundboard. Synthetic material, is now often used instead of horsehair.

Just like the music of most other peoples in East Asia, Mongolian music is based on a pentatonic scale (a five-tone scale) without semitones. The two strings are tuned a fourth or a fifth apart. When played the strings are shortened with the finger nails or the fingertips without pressing the neck. With his bowing hand the player adjusts the tension of the bow hair, which is slack when not being played.

Besides other fiddles related with the morin khuur, Mongolia also has two- or four-stringed fiddles with small sound boxes and a bow which stays attached to the instrument, the hair being "trapped" between the strings.  These instruments are related to fiddles that are also known in China.

Traditionally Mongolian music is made by nomadic herders who live in isolation in the wide-open space. Singing and oral literature have an important place in their culture, and an accompaniment is often provided by a fiddle. Moreover, the morin khuur, which is an male instrument, is played to accompany dancing and as a solo instrument. The music is inspired by the surrounding nature and the nomads' daily life. The rhythm often imitates the different horse gaits. An original custom consists of playing the fiddle to encourage a mother camel to re-adopt a newborn calf she has rejected. This practice is shown in the film The Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Davaa, 2003)

In 2008 the morin khuur was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In 2015 the MIM received an important donation of a collection of 37 musical instruments from Mongolia, among which nine ritual instruments that were made in Nepal, but also played in Mongolia. The donation also included a particularly rich collection of field recordings, records, photos, books and scores concerning these instruments, and Mongolian music in general. All these documents are kept in the MIM's library under the name Fonds Alain Desjacques.

This collection is the fruit of the countless research trips that the French anthropologist Alain Desjacques, who teaches at the Université de Lille III, has made in Mongolia since 1983. He chose the MIM to preserve his collection and make it accessible for researchers.

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Images: 
morin khuur
morin khuur
morin khuur
morin khuur
morin khuur
sculpture of horse head in progress, 1984 (c)Alain Desjacques
1st position (c)Alain Desjacques
a series of horse heads (c)Alain Desjacques