Tongue Techniques

While this article talks about tongue techniques, it is really more of a subset of articulation control in disguise (the counterpart to finger techniques since dizi articulation often includes all kinds of interesting acciaccatura).

The introduction of the relevant vowels can be long---it is possible to skip ahead.

Vowels and Consonants

Traditionally, there was no easy way of explaining what is happening to the tongue when articulating. Now, we have the International Phonetic Alphabet from phonetics and linguistics to help us specify precisely what is needed to get the right position of the tongue within the buccal cavity. Here we will lay the basic ground work on how the vowels and consonants are related to articulation requirements. In the next section, we will combine them and produce the list of onomatopoeia that governs the different tongue-based articulations.


Previously in the tongue position topic in the buccal control article, we talked about the relationship between harmonics excitation and related buccal shape as outlined using the International Phonetic Alphabet. We reproduce the table here once more for completeness.

Excited dizi HarmonicsBuccal shape
Fifth Harmonic[i]
Fourth Harmonic[y]
Third Harmonic[ɵ]
Second Harmonic[u]
Table of tongue positions as IPA vowels for a dizi by excitation harmonic frequency of dizi.

From the previous table, we observe that with high notes, the tongue assumes a more closed and forward position without completely obstructing the air-stream to become a consonant, and as the harmonic to excite lowers to the fundamental, the vowel steadily gets more open and moves farther back on the tongue. Taking these positions into account is the start towards having a wonderful tone, and can build up towards good tonguing techniques.

Note that this table does not mean that if one were to create the buccal shape indicated, one would naturally excite that particular harmonic---the main way of selecting a harmonic is via control of the air stream length. The vowels here are to tune the entire vocal tract to ensure that the quality of the air stream's oscillations bring out the frequencies that we are interested in from the dizi.


If vowels represent the steady state nature of a tone from the dizi, then the consonants represent the attack (and sometimes, the decay) of the tone, or analogously, when the tongue is in motion. The consonants that we are most interested in for dizi playing are those that involve the front (tongue tip or shejian (舌尖)), and the rear (base of tongue or shegen (舌根)).

defining the tongue tip and tongue base
Diagram highlighting what it means for the tip of the tongue and the base of the tongue.

Tip of Tongue

The tip of tongue in motion has three useful positions for dizi playing, namely the ``t'' [t] sound and the ``d'' [d] sound for single tonguing, and the ``r'' [ɻ] sound for flutter tonguing. [t] is used when a harder articulation needs to be done, while [d] is used when a softer articulation needs to be applied. The position of the tip of tongue varies smoothly across the spectrum from [d] to [t] as on moves from the lowest notes up to the highest, with the size of the dizi being a rough gauge on which of the two consonant extremes one ought to use.

When annotating scores, single tongued notes may be explicitly annotated with a stylised T on top of it, while flutter tongue uses a stylised ٭ on top of the note.

Base of Tongue

The base of tongue in motion has three useful positions for dizi playing, namely the ``k'' [kʰ] sound and the ``g'' sound [ɡ] as counterparts for double tonguing, and the ``r'' [ʀ] sound for uvular flutter tonguing. [kʰ] and [ɡ] are the double tonguing counterparts to the hard and soft single tonguing starting attacks respectively.

When annotating scores, the ``reflex'' phase of the double tongued notes may be explicitly annotated with a stylised K on top of it. Note that it is common to see a series of Ts and Ks written in a rhythmic form to demonstrate the pattern to apply.

1235 2321 6165 3561
==== ==== ==== ====
          ˙ ˙˙ ˙˙˙ 

Unlike in the concert flute where the choice between [ɻ] and [ʀ] are fluid, dizi has some exacting requirements. When ٭ appears on top of a note, it is [ɻ]. If or houyin (喉音) is annotated instead, then it is a [ʀ]. It is important to ``tune'' the throat cavity to resonate at the same pitch as the tone, otherwise the uvular flutter tongue effect will not work as well.


Traditionally, articulation is more or less limited to only the tongue, but there has been a recent trend to make use of the lips as means of helping with circular breathing double tonguing. The two consonants relevant to this include [p] and [b].

Tongue Articulations

With all the basic leg work out of the way, we now look at a systematic presentation of onomatopoeia for commonly seen tongue techniques used in the dizi, arranged roughly in increasing tempi.

Technique Name1st2nd3rd4th5th
(轻吐 or qingtu)
(轻吐 or qingtu)
(T or )
(单吐 or dantu)
(TK or )
(双吐 or shuangtu)
(T TK or )
(三吐 or santu)
(TK T or )
(三吐 or santu)
(T or )
(单吐 or dantu)
(TK or )
(双吐 or shuangtu)
Flutter tongue
(٭ or flz.)
(花舌 or huashe)
Table of commonly used tongue articulations by harmonic and technique, in increasing tempi. Harmonics are labelled as ordinals in columns, while each technique is in rows.

Here are some important notes about the tongue articulations:

  1. The tongue should be as relaxed as it is possible. The more tense one's tongue gets, the harder it is to be at speed. Double tonguing sixteenth notes at 140+ quarter notes per minute is not unheard of, and can only be done if one's tongue were sufficiently relaxed.
  2. A good breath support base is needed to keep the articulated notes clear, especially at high tempi where each articulated note is short and likely to have little to no sustain---the breath needs to push just hard enough such that the tone can be heard instead of just the articulation, which is largely made up of transients.
  3. The qingtu articulation is not always indicated. For pieces composed specifically for the Chinese Orchestra, legato playing (i.e. slurred playing) is the norm. For pieces transcribed from Western classical music, articulation is the default, with legato playing occurring when slurs are explicitly written).
  4. The difference between articulation, staccato, and staccatissimo is only on how the rest of the note is played. Articulation lets the note play out to almost its full length before it is broken, while the staccatissimo is almost immediate in terminating the note once it sounds. These points are articulated through the different vowel lengths.
  5. Regarding tuplet articulation, it is often wiser to articulate tuplets with as little doubled consonants as possible. For example, suppose we have two triplets that need staccato or even staccatissimo articulation. An obvious way would be to play TKT TKT, but that ends up with the T consonant doubling up, making it hard to go fast. A better way to play is TKT KTK, with enough practice to ensure that the T and K are even. Same goes for five-tuplets: TKTKT KTKTK instead of TKTKT TKTKT.

Naturally, tonguing techniques alone are insufficient for articulation in dizi---the fingers that are covering and uncovering tone holes to play the right notes need to match up in the speed as well, otherwise the end effect is a muddled sound where the articulated breath does not resonate with the note the fingers are attempting to get the dizi to play.

Uncommon Tongue Articulations

There are other invented tongue articulations that are less commonly seen---some might even consider these to be ``special effects'' or advanced techniques. We list them here using the best known onomatopoeia.

Technique Name1st2nd3rd4th5th
Circular breathed staccato
(循环呼吸双吐 or xunhuan huxi shuangtu)
``Broken'' tonguing
(碎吐 or suitu)
Uvular flutter tongue
(喉音 or houyin)
Table of less commonly used tongue articulations by harmonic and technique. Harmonics are labelled as ordinals in columns, while each technique is in rows.

Here we see for the first time the use of the lips to aid in articulation in the form of [p]. The idea is to replace step (b) of circular breathing with the tone articulated with the puffed up cheeks into a stronger [p] sound to take in enough air to carry on with the next three regular articulations. This technique has been used for sixteenth notes played at 120 quarter notes per minute---it is envisioned that it is possible to play it at higher speeds, but the time period between each breath in the circular breathing needs to be kept the same, i.e. play more notes with regular articulation before attempting to steal a breath of air.