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What does a pipa (琵琶) sound like? It sounds like it's spelled.
The pipa is one of the world's few major instruments that derives its name from the sound it makes.
Its four strings are plucked with picks worn on the performer’s fingertips. Depending on which direction the string is plucked, it produces either a "pi" or a “pa” sound.
Although it is now intimately associated with Chinese music, both as a solo instrument and as part of groups and orchestras, the pipa is not native to China. The pipa originated in Persia, now Iran, where examples of it can be seen in paintings of court life.
Instruments similar to the pipa began appearing in China during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). The one most like what’s played today, like many other goods and ideas, made its way along the Silk Road, eventually arriving in China almost 2000 years ago.
Over time, the pipa has evolved in its size, shape and design. Initial iterations had five strings, and were longer and larger than today. It may have originally been played by men, but gained favor as an instrument for women after its arrival in China. As such, it has become more slender, with a shorter neck.
Pipas are made of lightweight wood, formed into a teardrop or pear shape. The neck tapers and ends in a crook. The neck was traditionally made from ivory; however, in modern times ox horn or even plastic has replaced that rare material.