Suona, the Passionate Rhythm

Suona, the Passionate Rhythm

The suona, the Chinese oboe that is sometimes called a trumpet, is the loudest Chinese instrument, and is so passionate and lively that it frequently sets the rhythm and beat for a band. The instrument is typically used in the woodwind section of traditional instrument orchestras in China. The distinctively loud and high-pitched sound of the suona is also perfect for outdoor performances. It has been used for festival and military purposes, and currently is widely used in traditional weddings and funerals in the countryside of northern China.


The suona has often encountered a lot of misunderstanding and even discrimination due to the stereotype that the instrument is simply loud and common, and is lacking in sophistication. However, it can be a magical instrument that quickly stirs emotions. It can produce some very touching, deep timbres, perfectly expressing feelings such as the crying and shouting of a man, which allows you to go directly to the heart of the performer.


The suona was originally introduced to China by Central Asia, developed from Central Asian instruments such as the “surnay” or “zurna,” from which its Chinese name probably derives. It was formerly made out of wood and was used in military processions as a bugle. People later used brass or copper to make the mouthpiece for an even louder and brighter sound.


The humble suona is a simple and inexpensive instrument. It has a conical wooden body, similar to that of the European oboe. However, it uses a brass or copper mouthpiece to which a small double reed is affixed, possessing a detachable metal bell at its end. The best suonas are made of old rosewood, costing around $100.


Unlike Western oboes, which have keys to control the pitches, the two-octave suona has only eight holes and relies on the breath and fingers of a performer to control the pitches and tunes. With such a simple structure, the instrument can vividly imitate the talking, singing or even Chinese opera singing of a human being.


Mastering the suona is difficult and the eight-hole instrument has been called the “eight-eyed monkey” because, like a monkey, it is difficult to control. The bigger ones sound lower and deeper, with a more melancholy touch, while the smaller ones sound more crisp and joyful. Some composers tend to use suonas of different sizes in different parts of a concerto to express a variety of emotions.