Part of the Traveling the Silk Road exhibition.

The Sound of Music

From a solitary flutist in the desert to grand orchestras in the palaces of Xi'an, musicians played all along the ancient Silk Road.

Drumbeats rhythmically pounding in the distance, airy notes from a flute drifting by on the breeze, gentle tones from a bow drawn against strings, all punctuated by the sharp clash of cymbals--these made up the soundtrack of Xi'an during the Tang dynasty. Indeed, music was a constant feature of life in Xi'an, enhancing rituals, telling stories, and bringing communities closer together though festivity and celebration.

The Pipa and the Moon Lute

A lute against a white background.

These stringed, fretted instruments are called lutes. Similar ones were first played in China over 2,000 years ago. During the Tang dynasty, lutes were often strung with twisted silk and were played as accompaniment to dancing and singing at the royal court, as well as in solo performances.


Chinese erhu and bow

The erhu is part of a group of Chinese stringed instruments or fiddles called huqin, which means "foreign string instrument."



A sheng or reed instrument made of vertical pipes against a white background.

Mouth organs such as the sheng date back at least 3,000 years in China. Though variants developed over time, the type that was popular during the Tang dynasty had the same number and arrangement of pipes as the traditional sheng in use today. Scholars think the symmetrical arrangement of the pipes represents the folded wings of the mythical phoenix.

Drums and Cymbals

A small round drum and a mallet against a white background.

Percussion instruments such as drums and cymbals played important roles in Tang-era orchestras.