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There are several words that seem to be related to playing musical instruments (specifically 演奏, 弹 and 奏), and I would appreciate an elaboration on the nuances between them. Are some used in specific cases where others do not apply?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

演奏 (yǎn zòu) to play a musical instrument in a performance

弹 (tan1) to play sth by hand, sometimes roughly equivalent to "pluck"

弹钢琴 (tan1 gang1qin2) to play the piano

弹琵琶 (tan1 pi2pa) to play the pi2pa

拉 (la1) to pull; to play an instrument, usually with a bow

拉二胡 (la1 er4hu2) to play the er4hu2

拉小提琴 (la1 xiao3ti2qin2) to play the violin

吹 (chui1) to play sth by mouth

吹小号 (chui1 xiao3hao4) to play the trumpet

Unrelated but funny:

吹牛 (chui1 niu2) lit. "to blow the cow"; to brag/boast/talk big

奏乐 play music for the padshah in ancient times,but not now

奏 a team( or one) play a musical instrument in a performance On formal occasions

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Note: 吹牛 is sort for 吹牛皮, and means "blow a leather balloon". Since a balloon made by leather usually too hard to blow by human mouth, any one who claimed to be able to do so can be considered playing the role of Baron Munchausen. –  Earth Engine Mar 2 at 10:29
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演奏 tends to be used in English as the equivalent of 'perform'. If you were practicing in a room by yourself, you wouldn't use it. While English only uses the word 'play' to refer to playing an instrument, in Chinese, 'play' changes depending on the type of instrument. 弹 would be used for the piano. I'm not 100% sure, but I think 弹 is also used for plucked string instruments such as the zither. Instruments you blow through (eg clarinet, flute) would use 吹, literally, to blow. String instruments you play with a bow like a violin or the 二胡 would use 拉 (to pull), referring to pulling the bow. For instruments you strike such as a drum, you would use 敲.

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You could also use 打鼓 in addition to 敲鼓. 弹 is the correct verb for plucked string instruments. For example, you 弹古筝 (guzheng) or 弹吉他 (guitar). –  gonnastop Mar 18 '12 at 17:34
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I think a simple way to distinguish the three is that 演奏 can be intransitive and transitive. and when transitive, its object is normally 'a piece of music', e.g 演奏乐曲, whereas 弹 and 奏 in the sense of playing and performing, they are transitive. The objects of 弹 are usually instruments such as piano, e.g. 弹琴 but one can also say 弹一首歌, which implicates play a song with piano (so I suppose 弹 is strongly associated with keyboard instrument). 奏 often has pieces of music or melody as objects, e.g. 奏乐,奏曲. Also regarding register, 奏 sounds more literary and has a feeling of antiquity.

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