Morin Khuur


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Without doubt the most quintessential of Mongolian instruments is the Morin Khuur, which loosely translates as the horse instrument but more affectionately as the Horse Head Fiddle.


The Morin Khuur is a Two Stringed spiked fiddle. 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” like that of a violin or cello.


I was given a brief lesson by Tsogbadraa one of Mongolia's leading Morin Khuur players. He showed me his playing technique (There are regional variations).


The index and middle fingers stop the strings by pressing with the quick of the finger. The annular and little finger press the string with the pad and the finger nail. Note that the neck or spike is never fretted like a violin or cello. The left side of the thumb is also used on the thinner string only. Sometimes the little finger goes under the thick string to play the thin string. The bow is loosely strung with horse hair and must be tightened by the fingers of the right hand to create the correct tension for the bow to sound the strings. The bow must be treated with rosin.


There are many legends about the origin of the Morin Khuur.


It was said that the Morin Khuur was born as a result of the caress that a star‑rider 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 master of the horse 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. He then made two strings and a bow out of the horse 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.


It was thought that the first bowed instruments came from the nomads of central Asia. The Scythian Harp found in a 5th Century BC grave in the Altai Mountains being evidence pointing to this. The Monin Khuur was definitely part of Khublai Khans Court 'in the 13th Century AD and is now the National Instrument of Mongolia.


The magical stories associated to the Morin Khuur may be a clue to its ritual use in the past. The occurrence of a horses head on the top of the neck is very similar to the engraved representations on the handles or staffs used by the Mongol shamans m the performance of their rites. This indicates that the Morin Khuur was at one time shamans instruments and originally in the same way as the shamans staffs and drums represented the mythical riding animals on which the shaman rose on their journeys in the realm of the spirit world.


The Morin Khuur also accompanies Biylegee, the body in movement dance. This dance originated in the Altai mountains in the west of Mongolia and essentially involves the upper body and is usually performed by women.


The dance repertoire and other instrumental music of the Morin Khuur is known as Tatlaga. Erdenechimmeg, a musicologist at the ministry of culture gave me her recently published paper on Tatlaga. The paper contains various Yastan’s or minorities Tatlaga. Also Hanning Halsund's book of Mongolian music shows some old photo of Morin Khuurs


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