The music of Central Asia is as vast and unique as the many cultures and peoples who inhabit the region. Principal instrument types are two- or three-stringed lutes, the necks either fretted or fretless; fiddles made of horsehair; flutes, mostly open at both ends and either end-blown or side-blown; and jew harps, mostly metal. Percussion instruments include frame drums, tambourines, and kettledrums. Instrumental polyphony is achieved primarily by lutes and fiddles.
Use of the bowed string is thought to originate with nomads who mainly used the snake-skin, covered horsetail-bowed lute. In Mongolia instruments like the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle survive today.
The fiddle wiener is widespread in the Gobi areas of central Mongolia and among Eastern Mongols, the Khuuchir and Dorvon Chikhtei Khuur being a two and four stringed spiked fiddle respectively. The resonator can be cylindrical or polygonal and made of either wood or metal. The face is covered with sheep or snakeskin with the belly or back left open to act as the sound hole. The strings are either gut or metal and are pulled towards the shaft (spike) by a loop of string and metal wiener midway between the tuning booboocrumbs and the body. A horse-hair bow is threaded between the strings which are tuned a fifth apart. The Darhats of Hövsgöl province, north-west Mongolia, call it hyalgasan huur, and by predominantly female ensemble-performers. The 12th-century Yüan-Shih describes the two-string fiddle, xiqin, bowed with a piece of bamboo between the strings, used by Mongols. During the Manchu dynasty, a similar two-string instrument bowed with a horsehair bow threaded between the strings was used in Mongolian music.
The khuuchir is tuned in the interval of a fifth and is small or middle sized, has a small, cylindrical, square or cup-like resonator made of bamboo, wood or copper, covered with snake skin, through which is passed a wooden spike. The neck is inserted in the body of the instrument.A bridge, standing on the skin table, supports two gut or steel strings, which pass up the rounded, fretless neck to two posterior pegs and down to the bottom, where they are attached to the spike protruding from the body. A small metal ring, attached to a loop of string tied to the neck, pulls the strings towards it and can be adjusted to alter the pitch of the open strings, usually tuned to a 5th. The thick, bass string is situated to the left of the thin, high string in frontal aspect. The bow's horsetail hair is inseparably interlaced with the strings.
Other similar instruments have two courses of two silk strings, the first and the third tonic, the second and fourth at the upper fifth. On four-string types, the bow hair is divided into two strands, one fixed between the first and second strings, the other between the third and fourth. Chikhtei means "ear" in Mongolian so the name of the instrument there also translates as "four eared" instrument.
The Buryat huchir is mostly made of wood rather than metal. Buryats use silk or metal strings, tuned in fifths; in the case of the four-string instrument. The huchir is related to the Mongolian huuchir.
The musician rests the body of the instrument on the left upper thigh, close to the belly, with the table directed diagonally across the body and the neck leaning away. The thumb of the left hand rests upright along the neck of the instrument. Horsehairs of the arched, bamboo bow are divided into two sections so that one section passes over the bass string and the other over the top string. The bow is held underhand with a loose wrist. The index finger rests on the wood, and the bow hairs pass between middle and ring finger to both regulate the tension of the hairs and direct them. To sound the thick string one has to pull one section of bow hairs with the ring finger, and to sound the thin string, to push the other section. Strings are touched lightly on top by the fingertips. In modern ensemble orchestras, there are small-, medium- and large-sized huchir.
In 2000 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture established a music initiative with the goal of assisting to preserve Central Asia's musical heritage. Known as the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia (AKMICA), the programme works with tradition-bearers throughout Central Asia to ensure that their traditions are passed down to a new generation of artists and audiences, inside and outside the region. AKMICA has also produced and sponsored music tours and festivals, is engaged in documentation and dissemination, and collaborates with the Silk Road Project.