Steel Instruments (And Other Musical Curiosities)

February 28, 2010

Did you know that pianos produce sounds with steel strings? Armed with that knowledge it’s not hard to see why the piano is written as 鋼琴, or steel instrument, in Chinese. While this name isn’t as epic compared to other things featured on this blog it is rather awesome relative to the English word piano, which is short for the Italian clavicembalo [or gravicembalo] col piano e forte, or “harpsichord that does soft and loud”. Those of you who read music will know that piano means soft. So basically, of all the words that we could have shortened the full name to we chose “soft”. Imagine a bunch of Italian dudes seeing a piano for the first time and going “oh man this thing can be not loud!” and a bunch of Chinese dudes seeing a piano for the first time and going “oh man this thing is made of steel!”. We can see where cultural priorities lie.

The word 琴 isn’t exactly Chinese for “musical instrument”. It’s more “musical instrument that are referred to as 琴”. I tried figuring out what musical instrument qualifies as a 琴 but I couldn’t so I gave up. The fun thing though is that, like pianos, many Occidental instruments have names that are practical descriptions followed by 琴 in Chinese. Some examples with direct translations follow. See if you can guess what they are without seeing the actual translation!

小提琴 (small carried instrument)
中提琴 (medium carried instrument)
大提琴 (large carried instrument)
手風琴 (hand wind instrument)
口琴 (mouth instrument)
豎琴 (vertical instrument)
大鍵琴 (instrument with large keys)
木琴 (wooden instrument)
低音提琴 (low sound carried instrument)
班卓琴 (class desk instrument)

The answers, from top to bottom: violin, viola, cello, accordion, harmonica, harp, harpsichord, xylophone, double bass, banjo. Everything makes sense! Except for the banjo. In reality it’s called a “class desk instrument” in Chinese not because every schoolchild in China is forced to play the banjo in school. It’s just because “class” and “desk” kind of sound like “ban” and “jo”. I mean, if you were tasked with translating “banjo” to Chinese, how exactly would you even begin to try and do that? I get the sense that they just gave up and called a banjo a banjo.

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One Response to “Steel Instruments (And Other Musical Curiosities)”


  1. […] the brand (喇叭牌 means trumpet brand—we’ll explore this term in another post on musical instruments at some point) and the actual product name. The characters 正露丸 translate to […]

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