The important role of music in the socio-political order; a detailed theory of music with limited application


Components of Chinese Sound-Culture

I. Musical Specifics

A.     Pitch –

1.     scales - a strong theoretical preference for the pentatonic scale is observed in practice; the seven note diatonic scale and the 12 note chromatic scale are also encountered

2.     melodies tend to be highly ornamented with idiomatic inflections within a hetreophonic texture

3.     (harmony)? While "harmoniousness” is praised and leads to the preference for the pentatonic scale, there is no system of harmony in the European sense prior to the 20th-century influences.

4.     Register–there is a strong preference for the high register; even if instruments have notes in a low range, these are rarely used.

B.  Rhythm – tempos range from slow to fast and are somewhat flexible, meter and subdivision is almost always duple.  The sense of somewhat loose rhythmic coordination is heard in the preferred texture, heterophony.

C.  Form – melodic variations most common

D.  Texture – a strong preference for HETEROPHONY

E.  Timbre --

1.   the preferred instrumental timbre is bright.  A guide to many Chinese instruments is part of the Melody of China website.  A few typical instruments: 

a.    qin or guqin  Pronounced "chin" (stringed instrument) or "goo chin" (old stringed instrument), the guqin throughout its long history has been the musical instrument most praised by China's literati. They categorized it as one of their "four arts", collected it as an art object, praised its beautiful music, and built around it a complex ideology. No other instrument was so often depicted in paintings, or so regularly mentioned in poetry. Because of the literati's fondness for writing things down, it also has the world's oldest detailed written instrumental music tradition, providing sufficient information to allow both historically informed performance (requiring use of silk strings) of early music, and practical exploration of the relationship between Chinese music theory and music practice.”  From

b.    pipa – 4-stringed lute

c.    erhu – a bowed two-stringed fiddle; one of the most popular Chinese instruments in the Hu-qin family, where Hu means "foreign" or "the northern folk" in Chinese.  Heard in the Jiangnan Sizhu (Silk & Bamboo) ensemble.

d.    OPERA GONG! (idiophone)

2.   vocal -due to favoring a high register, the singing is often thin and nasal, piercing or shrill

F.  Sound intensity – ranges from the very loud opera gong to the most soft & delicate effects on a qin.

II.  Social Organization of Music

A.  Who can participate (play, listen, make instruments) in this music?  Who is excluded?  Traditionally, it was held that “women and foreigners” could not appreciate qin music.  At times, the Communist Party has controlled who could play and what they could play.

B.  How many musicians are appropriate for an ensemble?  Generally small groups; some large orchestras developed in the 20th century

C. There is a clear distinction between musician and audience member for opera and virtuoso instrumentalists.  One exception to this entertainer/entertained division is the solitary qin player who could in theory be playing solely for his own edification and enjoyment. 

D.  Transmission -- how is the music learned and passed on to others?  Formal music academies in opera; “learning by doing” in Jiangnan Sizhou.

E.  Social status of musicians – not covered

III.  Ideas about Music

A.  Music and the belief system – proper rituals and behavior (Kung FuZi) and harmony with the natural order (Taoism) lead to a beneficial social order.  Most titles of Chinese pieces make some sort of reference to nature, such as “The Autumn Moon Over The Han Palace,” “South Breeze,” “Ode To The Plum Blossom,” “Moonlit Xunyang,” “Brilliance Of Lanterns And Moon,” “Geese Landing On A Sandy Beach,” etc., or they refer to a story or an emotion, such as “Along the Strategic Pass,” “The Great Ambush,” “The Sorrow of Lady Zhao-jun,” “The Tears of the Imperial Concubine Xiang,,” “Longing for the Homeland,” etc.) 

B.  Contexts for use of music -- ceremonies (religious/political), for aesthetic enjoyment – yes!

C.  History of music – with exceptions in the 20th century, there is more awareness of continuity rather than of change

D.  Composition – individual pieces are more emphasized than composers’ identities 

E.  Improvisation is not emphasized; continuation and elaboration of earlier models is the main emphasis

F.   Genres covered –

1.     regional opera

2.     Jiangnan Sizhu (Silk & Bamboo ensemble music); associate with tea houses and Shanghai

3.     collections of pieces (repertoire) for each type of instrument (qin, pipa, etc.)

G.  Theory – tablature notation in use from ancient times, very detailed calculation of intervals, driven by the belief that proper rituals and behavior (Kung FuZi) and harmony with the natural order (Taoism) lead to a beneficial social order.  Another aspect of theory is a penchant for classification.  Instruments were categorized (3rd century B.C.) according to their sounding materials:  metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, pottery, leather, & wood.

IV.  Allied Arts

A.  Texts – not covered

B.    Movement – dance

C.    Theater – opera is a spectacular integration of dance, acrobatic movement, acting and visual splendor

D.    Visual parallels – not covered

V.  Listening & Personal Response

A.  1st hearing reaction

B.  After repeated hearings and discussion?

C.  What would the “ideal” trained & sympathetic listener-participant find in this music?