Along with the zither and pipa, the er hu [èr hú] is a Chinese instrument that classically represents Chinese music (outside of opera).
The er hu can produce a melancholy sound like no other that I know besides certain flutes. It is ideally suited for pieces that produce a sense of longing and can literally pull at your heartstrings and make you cry (which is not to say songs on the er hu can’t be very happy). It’s an extremely versatile instrument and also used in modern, contemporary music.
What makes the er hu’s haunting sound is the snake skin (or python skin) which covers the drum. The rest of the instrument is basically composed of: 2 strings (made of silk or now often steel), a bow made of horsehair, pegs to tune the strings, and a body made of wood. Unlike Western music which generally uses a 12 tone scale, the er hu is used to produce many sounds in between half-tones (which is true also of traditional Indian, Arabic, Hebrew and music of other cultures) and can therefore bring out sounds that elicit varying emotions very deep within us.
I do not know why I have seen many more men play the er hu than women (although many women do play the er hu and excellently), as opposed to the zither and, perhaps even more so, the pipa. (Perhaps men don’t like long nails?) At any rate, I have posted here two videos. The first one illustrates the classical sound of the er hu, and the second one is an exciting interpretation of a classic piece with modern elements (especially, and very delightfully, at the end of the video).