Breathing Techniques

Ornamentation based on breathing techniques are subtle but can affect the overall timbre and character of the tone. For a basic understanding on how to breathe properly for dizi playing, read the article on diaphragm control.


Just the bog-standard breathing ``ornamentation'', the breathing mark.

Breathing Mark

Some may balk at the breathing mark (吸气符号 or xiqi fuhao, with fuhao meaning `symbol') being an ornamentation technique, but it ought to be taken as one due to how it can create space needed for phrasing or for rhythmic purposes. In jianpu, the breathing mark is marked as a v in the space in between two notes where a breath should be taken:

 v    v    v    v  
5 11 1 11 7 66 5 55
--== --== --== --==
˙         ˙ ˙˙ ˙ ˙˙

When a breathing mark is seen, a quick breath should be taken with the mouth. It is also possible some times to take the breathe with the nose, but this will require a good understanding of the purpose of that breath mark, i.e. if it is to aid in a specific fast-rhythm breathing pattern or to mark phrase. In the above example, breathing through the mouth is the better way, whereas the example below is best done with the nose (phrasing).

1235 6532 1 - 
==== ====     

Duration Altering

These group of ornamentation control how long and how much ``punch'' the tone has. These include the tenuto, and the accent.


Tenuto (保持音 or baochiyin) means that the note should be sustained to its full value without changing the strength of the breath. It is annotated in jianpu as a small dash on top of the notes to be played with tenuto:

- -  - -  -  
1 2  3 5  6 -
---  ---     

Incidentally, tenuto is not an accent---the breath is even and sustained without strengthening or weakening whatsoever.


Accents (强音 or qiangyin) require a much stronger attack on the note (i.e. heavier but short breathing in the beginning) before tapering off quickly. It differs from tenuto in that it always starts with a much stronger expelling of air and may not always end up with a sustain that is the full length of the note. In jianpu, it is annotated with the `>' symbol on top of the note to accent:

> > > >
6 6 6 6
˙ ˙ ˙ ˙

It's basically similar to the start of a sneeze, breathing-wise.

Flutter Tongue

Flutter tongue (花舌 or huashe) is a technique that breaks up the note played with it into multiple very short-duration versions of it and is best represented with the IPA symbol [r] (the alveolar trill). While it definitely uses part of the tongue, we file it under breathing techniques because it is something that can only be done when breathing out (because it is voiced). In jianpu, this is annotated by an asterisk (`*') on top of the note in question:


Note that the number of spokes of the asterisk is insignificant---but traditionally, it is kept at five.

The flutter tongue can be hard for some people to get right. There are three points to take note of towards mastering the flutter tongue:

  1. To flutter the tongue, the tongue must be allowed to flutter under influence of the air that is coming out from the lungs.
  2. To achieve the fluttering effect, the sides of the tongue must brace lightly against the soft palate, leaving the tip of the tongue loose but behind the upper front teeth.
  3. There is a minimum rate of volume of air passing through that tongue channel across the tip of the tongue before the relaxed tip can flutter.

The hardest part to get the flutter tongue right is to relax the tip of the tongue. If that can be done, everything else is a little easier to achieve.

Uvular Trill

Uvular Trill (喉音 or houyin) is a type of flutter tongue, best represented with the IPA symbol [ʀ]. While it definitely uses part of the tongue, we file it under breathing techniques because it is something that can only be done when breathing out (because it is voiced). In jianpu, this is annotated by a circled `X' () on top of the note in question:

5 - - -

The uvular trill can be created by attempting to clear one's throat, but in a continuous sort of way. Note that unlike western woodwind instruments, this is not a suitable replacement for the flutter tongue.


Dynamics can be considered as a type of ornamentation because it alters a fundamental character of the tone being played. The symbols used for softness and loudness follow that of mainstream staff notation, i.e. with `p' for piano (more for stronger versions of piano), `f' for forte (more for stronger versions of forte), relevant hairpins for crescendo and diminuendo, all of which occur below the jianpu notes.

1 2  3 5  6 -
---  ---     
p         f  

Piano, Pianissimo, Pianississimo

The manner to achieve the ``soft'' dynamics is to push less volume of air through, i.e. slow down the rate of pushing from the diaphragm. However, this lowered volume cannot be at the expense of a lower jet stream speed since that determines the correctness of the pitch. To still play in tune while playing soft, one needs to use the techniques of note bending to correct the pitch. In particular for piano and softer, the note must be bent sharper to counteract the flatness from the lowered volume/jet stream speed.

Naturally, the note played at a lowered loudness can be sustained for longer.

Forte, Fortissimo, Fortississimo

The manner to achieve the ``loud'' dynamics is to push more volumes of air through, i.e. speed up the rate of pushing from the diaphragm. But doing so tends to increase the overall jet stream speed, making the note sharper. Thus, note bending is needed again to correct the pitch, this time to bend the note flatter to counteract that sharpness effect.

Since the volume of air used is much larger the louder the note, the duration of the note tends not to last that long.

Crescendo, Diminuendo (Decrescendo)

Just apply the relevant corrections (piano for diminuendo and forte for crescendo) in a smooth fashion.

Sforzando, Forzando

Play it like an accent.

Pitch Modification

These group of ornamentation alter the frequency of the played tone in one way or another without messing around with the tone holes.

Note bending

Note bending makes use of the jaw position to alter the angle the embouchure makes with the embouchure hole or chuikong. We file this under the breathing technique article of ornamentation because it is often used in conjunction with breathing to obtain the correct intonation.

When the jaw moves forward slightly, the angle is more shallow relative to the horizontal plane, and the pitch of the note sharpens.

Conversely, when the jaw moves backward slightly, the angle is deeper relative to the horizontal plane, and the pitch of the note flattens.

Depending on the size of the embouchure hole of the dizi, note bends of up to 2 semi-tones sharper or flatter can be possible, with 1 semi-tone sharper/flatter being more normal. The extreme ranges of note bending can be met with more exaggerated jaw movements with extra lipping, but the tone that comes out will be weak and breathy (if the angle is too shallow), or weak and muted (if the angle is too deep).

Note bending can be used to correct for intonation when playing very loud or very soft notes, or to help with glissandi of very small intervals (less than a third). There is usually no annotation in the jianpu to indicate these normal cases.

When note bending is needed for a special effect, it will be deliberately annotated with instructions on what to do.


Vibrato (腹振音 or fuzhenyin) relies on the ``belly'' oscillating to impart a variation of force behind the air-stream (see diaphragm control article). Vibrato is annotated in jianpu with a wavy line (`') on top of the notes to apply the ornamentation.

1 - - -

The type of breathing involved is like how someone might laugh heartily. The frequency of the vibrato depends on the particular interpretation of the music---it is common to start a vibrato from a low repeat rate up to the normal one.