The Mongols have traditionally shown great respect for the horse, honoring it in their national values and symbols (flags and emblems) as well as in folk songs. The morin khuur, so named for the ornamental horse-head carving at the top of its neck, is a unique two-stringed musical instrument developed by nomadic Mongols. The strings of both the bow and fiddle are made from the hair of a horse’s tail.
There is a legend among the Mongols which tells of the origin of the morin khuur: Once upon a time, a man was traveling on horseback in a faraway land. During this long journey, his beloved horse died. The man was full of sorrow and mourned a long time for his horse. Suddenly, he heard what sounded like music made by the wind through the horse’s main and tail and decided to create a musical instrument in memory of his dear steed.
The morin khuur embraces an aggregation of Mongolian traditional customs and culture. Most significantly, there is a tradition of playing the morin khuur at all ritual and ceremonial events. To symbolize the might of the Mongolian State, the prosperity and the happiness of its people, the valor of everyone on Tsagaan sar or New Year’s Day, the national anthem should be played on the State Khan Khuur and be broadcasted live on radio and television across the country.
The morin khuur clearly expresses the unique characteristics of the Mongols’ musical consciousness. The various Mongol ethnic groups have different traditional melodies (tatlaga), such as Jonon Khar (Black Jonon-’name of a horse’), which musically depicts the gait of highly-valued horses and is spread throughout Mongolia with distinct characteristics of its own by different regions in the central Khalkh area. In addition to horse-related melodies, there are melodies derived from western Mongols, especially for ikel and bii biyelgee and others representing the sounds and appearance of other animals and herds.
No discussion of the morin khuur would be complete without having considered the folk ‘long song’, for which provides principal accompaniment to the morin khuur. Besides bii biyelgee and the folk long song, many other artistic folk forms such as ulger (tales), tuuli (epic), yorool (song of benediction), magtaal (song of praise) and others can always be performed with morin khuur.
Acknowledging the fact that the Mongols have been able to develop the traditional art of making and playing the morin khuur into highly refined art forms, is one of the contributions made by Mongols to the sector of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. UNESCO inscribed the ‘Mongolian Traditional Music of the Morin Khuur’ as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
In recent years there has been an upsurge in the number of compositions dedicated to the morin khuur, as well as the number of morin khuur musicians. Since 1992, the morin khuur ensemble existed as an independent musical organization, permitting Mongolian morin khuur musicians to perform for audiences both locally and abroad. Many foreigners have become interested in playing and learning more about the instrument; and through interests such as these, the morin khuur has become a hallmark of Mongolia introducing the whole nation to other parts of the world.