Sükhe was a shepherd boy. His only possession of worth was a pure white horse. The wicked lord of the land owned a herd of magnificent horses, but none were white. He offered to buy Sükhe's horse, but when the boy refused, the wicked lord killed the horse in a fit of jealousy.
Sükhe nearly died from sadness, until the horse came to him in a dream and told him to make a musical instrument out of its body, so that the boy and the horse would never be lonely as long as he could play beautiful music.
Sükhe crafted the instrument with the horse's bones as the neck, its tail as the strings, and its skin as a cover for the soundbox. He carved the scroll into a sculpture of the horse, and so the first morin khuur was made.
The morin khuur is an instrument with its origins in the Turkic people that lived in the Mongolian steppes
. It first appeared some time before 1105 when it was first described in the music encyclopedia, Yue She, by Chen Yang, as a foreign, two-stringed, lute
. Today it is known in China
as the "matouqin" (馬頭琴). In Western Mongolia, it is called 'ikil' (икил), and in Eastern Mongolia, 'shoor' (Шоор).
It is the basis for a large part of Mongolian culture, and similar or identical instruments can be found playing a large part in the cultures of the Tuvan, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz nomads and their descended peoples.
It is a mid-sized stringed instrument, which uses either a more modern (since approx. 1970) wooden soundbox, or a more traditional animal skin wrapped wooden frame; a long neck; and a horse head-shaped scroll that carries the two large tuning pegs.
Traditionally, the larger "male" string is made from 130 hairs from a stallion's tail, and the "female" string is made from 105 hairs from a mare's tail. Today they are just as often strung with synthetic nylon cords, though these are still composed of 130 and 105 fibers, respectively.
The strings are loosely strung, and the fingers of the manipulating hand can either press down or raise the strings away from the neck in any combination or position on the neck. This, combined with the loosely strung bow, which is held with an underhanded grip, allows for very precise control of the timbre of the instrument. Its sound has been compared to the violin, though it is said to be a more "expressive" instrument even with far fewer strings.
The strings are tuned either a fifth, or a fourth, apart, depending on the player's preference or sometimes even the piece to be performed. It is not unusual to make fine adjustments to the tuning between pieces to accommodate the particular series of notes to be played in the next song.
Regionally, the soundboxes found in Outer Mongolia tend to be larger, and therefore louder, than those in Inner Mongolia. As a purely subjective comparison, a larger morin khuur is about as loud as a violin played for a small, closely-seated audience.
The morin khuur is the traditional accompaniment to Tuvan throat singing, and many masters of the art consider it to be superior to the igil (a traditional Tuvan instrument, not to be confused with the W. Mongolian word ikil) in that regard.