The Morin Khuur is the most widespread
instrument in Mongolia, and is played during celebrations, rituals and many
other occasions, as well as an accompaniment for dances or songs. Today
Mongolians and Mongolian government is paying special attention to development
and deepening interest of people in Morin Khuur. An example of this is 999
horse-head fiddle players who performed during Naadam. Also horse-head fiddle players’
assembly is now about in its 20th anniversary. This assembly
consists of the best Morin khuur players and plays all around the world
promoting this traditional instrument to Europeans as well as Asians.
The horse and the fiddle have played a
very important role in the life of the nomadic Mongolian animal herding culture.
Much of the oral history and literature of the Mongolian people contain stories
about horses and the horse-head fiddle instrument. 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-head fiddle” instrument.
The horse-head fiddle is evident in
sources dating from the 13th century during the Mongol empire. It was thought
that the first bowed instruments came from the nomads of central Asia. The
Scythian Harp found in 5th Century BC grave in the Altai Mountains being
evidence pointing to this. In Chinggis Khaan’s era the Morin khuur was
used to open important state ceremonies and is now the National Instrument of
There are many legends about the
origin of the Morin Khuur. One of them was said that the Morin Khuur was born
as a result of the caress that a man gave to his dead steed. Its wings had been
cut off by the rider’s sweetheart in order to prevent him from going away. The man
who was inconsolable and obsessed by the memory of his dead companion set about
carving the head of the horse out of a long piece of wood which was then put
into a vessel after having been covered with horse hide. Then he made two
strings and a bow out of the horse’s hair from its tail and he made use of the
instrument in order to praise the exceptional qualities of his dead horse thus
allaying his grief.
The instrument consists of a trapezoid
wooden-framed sound box to which two strings are attached. It is held nearly
upright with the sound box in the musician’s lap or between the musician’s
legs. The strings are made from the tail of a horse and run from the end of the
spike at the base, over the wooden bridge on the body, over the nut and through
the neck to the tuning pegs or ears. The strings are called thick and thin and
also male and female. The thinner string should have about 105 hairs from the
mare's tail while the thicker 130 from the stallions tail. These strings are
now tuned a fourth apart, but used to be tuned a fifth apart. The traditional
wooden framed sound box used to be covered on the front with baby camel, goat
or sheep skin with a circular sound hole at the back on the belly. Nowadays the
workshop produced ones have a wooden face with “F holes” similar to
European stringed instruments.
The fiddle’s significance extends
beyond its function as musical instrument and it is a traditionally integral
part of rituals and everyday activities of the Mongolian nomads. Playing the Morin
khuur is accompanied with dances, long songs, mythical tales, ceremonies and
everyday tasks related to horses. The Morin khuur also accompanies Biyelgee,
the body dance of hand, shoulder and legs movement. This dance originated in
the Altai mountains in the west of Mongolia.