Traditional music of the Morin Khuur

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)

Country(ies): Mongolia



Traditional music of the Morin Khuur

The two-stringed fiddle morin khuur has figured prominently in Mongolia’s nomad culture. String instruments adorned with horse heads are attested to by written sources dating from the Mongol empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument, for it was traditionally an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of the Mongolian nomads.

The design of the morin khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse. The instrument’s hollow trapezoid-shaped body is attached to a long fretless neck bearing a carved horse head at its extremity. Just below the head, two tuning pegs jut out like ears from either side of the neck. The soundboard is covered with animal skin, and the strings and bow are made of horsehair. The instrument’s characteristic sound is produced by sliding or stroking the bow against the two strings. Common techniques include multiple stroking by the right hand and a variety of left-hand fingering. It is mainly played in solo fashion but sometimes accompanies dances, long songs (urtiin duu), mythical tales, ceremonies and everyday tasks related to horses. To this day, the morin khuur repertory has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame animals. Owing to the simultaneous presence of a main tone and overtones, morin khuur music has always been difficult to transcribe using standard notation. It has been transmitted orally from master to apprentice for many generations.

Over the past forty years, most Mongolians have settled in urban centres, far from the morin khuur’s historical and spiritual context. Moreover, the tuning of the instrument is often adapted to the technical requirements of stage performance, resulting in higher and louder sounds that erase many timbral subtleties. Fortunately, surviving herding communities in southern Mongolia have managed to preserve many aspects of morin khuur playing along with related rituals and customs.



These videos (and many more) can also be consulted through the UNESCO Archives Multimedia website

Safeguarding project (09-2004/09-2007)

A prominent musical expression among nomadic Mongolians, the Morin Khuur is an integral part of rituals and everyday activities. Distinct in sound, this two-stringed fiddle is characterized by its long neck bearing a carved horse head, reflecting the all-important cult of the horse among the nomad communities.

Intensive field research was undertaken to obtain updated information on diverse forms of Morin Khuur and its master players. A training workshop was organized in order to provide master players with basic teaching skills necessary to conduct training courses in the Morin Khuur traditions to be organized at pilot secondary schools in four administrative regions in Mongolia. A national Morin Khuur competition and festival was also organized and broadcast nationwide.

Field research extended and updated the existing archive of the Morin Khuur tradition and its master players. The training workshop contributed to strengthen the capacities essential to the preservation of the tradition. Masters were encouraged to preserve and transmit their traditional skills. Competitions and festivals enhanced the knowledge of and appreciation by young people for the Morin Khuur.

Related document:

  • Summary description of the project (English)