The question of why one should/ought to use silk strings in lieu/as well as m-n (metal-nylon) has raged on for decades since the introduction of m-n. The whole issue boils down to two points; modernity and practicality.
The practicality issue has led to players asking ‘why bother?’ and this inevitably leads to apathy of stringing traditionally and questionable shortcuts. I have drawn up a pros and cons list in the Wikipedia article regarding qin strings which will now be replicated here (drawn up in 2006):
1. Uniqueness: has a special quality and sound that metal-nylon strings cannot fully embody.
2. Elegance: more elegant and ancient to use. Preferred by the traditionalists.
3. Re-usability: one string can be re-used several times before it must be replace.
4. Less harmful: does not damage the instrument or wear down the lacquer.
5. Stringing: more easier to string than metal-nylon.
6. Environmental: bio-degradable and natural. Renewable source. Can last centuries.
1. Stability: tends to de-tune from time to time and requires re-stringing or re-adjusting. Also, the climate plays a part in its playability.
2. Strength: tends to break more often and more easily than metal-nylon. Not suitable for excessively hard play.
3. Volume: very quiet and requires you to be in a near perfect environment in order to hear yourself play.
4. Usage: much more difficult to play. Weaknesses in play become more noticeable.
5. Sound: some may find the scratchy sounds during the slides not to their taste. Also, buzzing sounds can occur, but that arises from the player plucking too hard.
6. Cost: quality sets are expensive, but that is mainly due to the market situation
1. Volume: louder and more suitable for concert and performance to a large number of people.
2. Strength: stronger and breaks less often than silk.
3. Stability: retains tuning without further adjustments.
4. Usage: easier to play and smooth to slide on.
5. Cost: inexpensive in the long run.
1. Harmful: tends to wear the instrument down (especially the lacquer), meaning more repairs.
2. Tone: tends to be too ‘metallic’ for some.
3. Stringing: hard to string. High tension requires a lot of strength and effort on the player, though this is eliminated if you use the new tuning device.
4. Re-usability: once a string has broke, it cannot be re-used like silk.
5. Environmental: not bio-degradable.
These are the basic pros and cons of silk and m-n. Of course, even if these points are considered, many still choose m-n because on the practicality issue, the m-n strings slightly incline in its favour; mainly its volume and stability. But that doesn’t necessary mean that silk is best confined to the history books, no. If silk is beaten in stability and volume (which is also questionable as we shall later see), the tone it cannot be beaten on.
Indeed, the tone of the silk strings make the qin sound unique, and this is especially so for the fanyin (harmonics) which the m-n strings cannot compete with. They are more rich and soft, like slowly melting chocolate in the mouth. The tone is warm and natural, unlike the sharp and stony tone of m-n.
Fred Wong adds more reasons why m-n strings are preferred:
1. Brighter timbre which is comparable to other instruments
2. Smoothness of the strings (this tied in with ease of play)
3. Stable market and easier to mass produce
He adds that m-n sound is problematic because:
“1. Steel strings produce a metallic noise. According to Hong Kong qin musician Dr. Tse Chun-yan, this noise is caused by longitudinal vibration. He describes it thus:
‘The metallic noise from steel strings varies with each qin. It appears most on the second string, then first and forth, occasionally third and fifth but rarely sixth and seventh. The noise is most distinct when playing forcefully, particularly when playing an open note. When using the gunfu technique the audience may hear that someone is striking metal elsewhere. Problems can also arise when playing a stopped sound. In serious cases, sliding one’s finger on the string can cause an unpleasant whistling noise.’
“2. Steel strings’ metallic noise is too strong and its sustain too long, resulting in excessive sound. Sometimes the loud volume effects a loss in appeal, robbing guqin of its ancient, rich yet simple tone. Traditionally, players believed that the nuances in tone are the most important part of playing guqin. If one can hear zheng- or pipa-like sounds from a qin, the quality of playing plummets. Some players, historically, have used babao lacquer in order to emphasize a distinct sharp sound, but this differs from metallic noise. Some guqins with steel strings can sound like a guitar.”
Wong makes another important point about the sound of qin strings here. Very too often the sound of m-n strings are ever so similar to those of other instruments that one cannot easily distinguish between the two. An example of this inter-instrumental blur can be clearly heard in a recording of Prof Li Xiangting’s recording of his composition, “Sanxia Chun Ge.” http://www.chineseculture.net/guqin/ram/sanxiachuange.ram (RealPlayer required) Especially in the beginning sections, one can hear the sound of the guzheng, but it is far from it. Prof Li employs a lot of zheng techniques but one can of course infer that the bad recording quality make it sound more zheng-like (whether it is intentional on his part is another matter). Nevertheless, it throws a question about the nature of the sound of the qin and what it is or ought to be. My belief is that such an aim to mimic the sound of other instruments is counter-productive, if not totally anti-music in itself, for if one can produce the same sound much easier on another instrument or the ‘correct’ instrument, why go through all the trouble of trying to mimic it (with high level of difficulty) on a different one? Such an exercise is merely a musing and personal exploration one can guess and is close to the realms of ‘look at what I can do.’
But, of course, there is some naughty play going on here. If one can drop the bait and essentially trick the layman into thinking the qin sounds like a zheng (and hook-line-and-sinker them into paying attention to and taking up the qin even though it would be near impossible for such laymen to mimic the mimic), it is essentially a good thing in itself (if nothing short of a dubious falsity). Wong on the other hand, does not see this as anything good. In his ‘Discussions on silk strings’ (http://www.silkqin.com/03qobj/strings/shuchee3c.htm) he questions the whole premise of attracting new audiences with m-n sound. He says that it would be better to attract them with the sound of a truly (i.e. silk string) guqin sound rather than resort to cumbersome tactics. He compares the qin strings to that of Chinese calligraphy; even though we all use ball-point pens, in calligraphy we still use the brush (i.e. if you use the pen, the whole essence and point (no pun intended) of calligrahy goes down the drain); the same can be said of the qin (i.e. why not use silk instead/as well as?) His anology is questionable however as the qin string issue is transcribable to the brush shaft/bristle material composition rather than a complete change in writing implement.
The main point is that silk and m-n sound distinctively different and so ought to be classed as two different genres (as per in guitar, etc). This position is supported by the likes of John Thompson MA. This point I have begun to agree with (and essentially, there is also the genre of electric qin which was given birth to by Dr Stephen Dydo). And for those who wavy-finger and point to the Western tradition, they can be shown the likes of the Academy of Ancient Music or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who use gut strings on their instruments (and also perform new works/compositions that are not of the Baroque/Early Music era). The sound the gut strings make is rich and the untempered scales are like being stroked by a bunny rabbit. It is legit in itself and highly successful (sold out concerts I have been to). So there should be no denying the legitimacy of the use of silk strings, for whatever reason. Modernity is not an issue since the Chinese still use chopsticks.
But the crime is not trying them out in the first place. And again, we go back to the issue of volume.
Wong explains that even though m-n has a higher volume, it is far from being out of the woods when it comes down to the nitty-gritty issue of amplification. Stick a qin in a large concert hall (or a restaurant with a huge possé of chatty Chinese diners) and you might as well mime to nothing. Thus, even though m-n has higher volume, it still does not have greater projection (and this is also the case for the guitar) so amplification comes in regardless (yes, you could hear the qin in a good concert hall but unless you’ve got the ears of an owl, you might as well not bother turning up). Thus, for m-n strings, amplification is required and for silk, the same again. When amplification is had with both, the volume is more or less the same so the whole issue is now consigned to the issue of apathy. And if you play in a small room with friends, volume is no issue.
In regards to stringing, it is again an issue of apathy. Practice makes perfect and the tuning device is the millennium bug of the qin world. A physically fit person has no excuse but laziness if they would not (as opposed to cannot) string a qin. This needs not to be discussed any further.
Now, for the issue of playability. Yes, silk is harder to play because one can easily created scratchy sounds and all that. The reason for this is that silk strings require a different approach to playing and if you play silk like m-n, you are like hammering a teeny nail with a massive sledge-hammer. No. One must be gentle and slide with clean and dry fingers. Yes, a lot of things to pay attention to but you’re paying similar attention if you’re doing other forms of art. Besides, if you start learning with silk from the beginning, there is no issue; you just have to learn to play the qin from scratch.
So, in conclusion, unless you’re Catherine Tate and is ‘not bovvered’ about the using silk because of the whole practically issues, or you’re Chairman Mao because of the whole modernity issues, you have not a shred of excuse why you shouldn’t try silk. Of course, the big question is should silk REPLACE m-n. I have to say no to that since m-n is as legit as silk and to say so otherwise is utterly mad. And as for supplies of silk strings, these will inevitably grow and become cheaper and easier to get hold of as the market demand grows so patience and sincerity is key.