A brief essay on history of music in China

I first published this on my long-defunct website back in 2006. I’ve been looking for the original for some time with no luck, however, I finally found a backup copy that enabled me to reproduce the essay here.

Writings on music in China can be traced back to the 4th Century BC. To the Chinese, as with other ancient civilizations, music had the power to influence people emotionally and physically. This power was a free energy that could be used or abused dependant upon man’s free will.

The traditional Chinese philosophy of music was Confucian. Confucius condemned several styles of music that he thought were morally dangerous – “The music of Cheng is lewd and corrupting; The music of Sung is soft and makes one effeminate; The music of Wei is repetitious and annoying; The music of Ch’i is harsh and makes one haughty.” Conversely, Confucius said “The noble-minded man’s music is mild and delicate, keeps a uniform mood, enlivens and moves. Such a man does not harbour pain or mourn in his heart; violent and daring movements are foreign to him”

According to Confucius “If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer”

The following two paragraphs from Yueh-Chi also illustrate the Chinese philosophy to music –

“It is the tao of Heaven and Earth that if cold and heat do not come at the right time there will be epidemics; if wind and rain do not come in due proportion there will be famine. [When the ruler] teaches [what is required by means of ritual mimes], that is the people’s cold and heat. If his teaching does not come at the right time he may blast a whole generation. [When the ruler] acts, that is the people’s wind and rain. If his actions do not observe due proportion they will be without effect. That is why the former Kings organised [the ritual mimes accompanied by] music, and so governed by force of example [i.e. by sympathetic magic]. If these were good, the activity [of the people] mirrored his moral power.”

“Therefore the ancient Kings did not initiate rituals and music for the mere purpose of satisfying the desires of our senses [“the mouth, the stomach, the ear and the eye”], but rather for teaching the people the right taste and the return to normality”

Cosmology became integrated with Confucianism towards the end of the first century BC. The Chinese believed that all audible sound was a manifestation of the Primal Sound – known to Hindus as OM. Primal Sound was present everywhere as an inaudible Divine Vibration. Audible sound on Earth was considered a manifestation of the Cosmic Tones – an “undertone” that conveyed supernatural powers. Music was often performed at the same time as mystical ceremony to align man with the rhythm and harmonies of the universe. According to Li Chi “Music is the harmony of heaven and earth while rites are the measurement of heaven and earth. Through harmony all things are made known; through measure all things are properly classified. Music comes from heaven; rites are shaped by earthly designs.”

There are twelve Cosmic Tones or lu that emanate from the Primal Sound and according to legend, imitate the cries of the phoenix. Each Cosmic Tone was associated with one of the twelve zodiacal regions of the heavens. Furthermore, six of these Cosmic Tones are yang (male, positive) in nature and the other six yin (female, negative). The five notes Kung, Shang, Chueh, Chih and Yu that first appeared in Kuan-Tzu (4th century BC) are generally considered to be the earliest Chinese pentatonic scale. The number 5 had cosmogenic significance, and the five notes were often associated with planets, animals, colours etc. Some of these associations are shown below.


The concept of yang and yin is an integral part of Chinese philosophy and consequently was also an integral part of the Ancient Chinese philosophy towards music. The Chinese believed that everything in the universe consisted of different combinations of these two fundamental opposite forces. These different combinations are symbolised in sets of three lines called Kua, where an unbroken line represents yang and a broken line represents yin. There are eight different combinations representing all matter in the universe. Musical instruments would therefore invoke the spirit of a particular season or element by association as shown below.


Early classics such as Yueh-Chi supply rich sources of music theory.  The emphasis on a world view of music had a lasting influence on later theorists.  In the Six Dynasties period (220-581) and the T’ang Dynasty (618-907) when China was under the cultural influence of central Asia, a great number of foreign musical practices were received and assimilated.  By the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), these foreign elements had been incorporated into Chinese music theory and, together with the doctrine of neo-Confucianism, became part of the orthodox teachings for many centuries.

The earliest complete account of the intervallic relationships of the 12 lu first appeared in Lu-shih ch’un-ch’iu (3rd century BC).  The method of their calculation is the simple application of the Pythagorean (cycle of fifths) method. The names of the 12 lu first appeared in Kuo-yu (4th century BC), but discoveries of accurately tuned stone-chimes suggest that the system could have been known as early as the 2nd millennium BC.  The method for calculating the twelve lu is as follows; after the length of the vibrating string, which produces the fundamental note (known as huang-chung, “yellow bell”) has been determined, the next note is obtained by multiplying the length of this string by a factor of 2:3.

This process is called san-fen-sun-i (“divide into three, take away one”).  The resultant note is a perfect 5th higher in frequency than the huang-chung and is called lin-chung (“forest bell”). This process is repeated to form the series of 12 notes.  Similarly, a factor of 4:3 could be used to calculate lu using the cycle of fourths.  If C is taken as huang chung, then the twelve lu are huang-chung (C), ta-lu (C#), t’ai-ts’u (D), chia-chung (D#), ku-hsien (E), chung-lu (F) jui-pin (F#) lin-chung (G),i-tse (G#), nan-lu (A), wu-i (A#) and ying-chung (B).

Since the earliest times Chinese theorists have placed great emphasis on absolute pitch, as it was related to official standards of measurement for length, capacity and weight. The pitch of huang chung, which generates all the other notes, was naturally the most important and was always represented by the measurement of a string or pipe.  Time and again attempts were made to “rediscover” the true measurement of huang-chung; a survey by Yang shows that there were at least 35 pitch reforms between the late Chou period (c. 3rd century BC) and the Chi’ing Dynasty (1644-1911) during which time the pitches used for huang chung varied between C and A.

The Pythagorean system of the 12 lu produces an untempered scale which means that pairs of adjacent pitches do not all have the same interval.  A further problem with this method results when the process of derivation is carried from the twelfth note, as the resulting 13th note is slightly higher than a perfect octave above huang chung.  To continue the calculation results in an endless spiral.

The first attempt at creating an equal tempered scale was made by Ho Ch’eng-t’ien (5th century BC) who lowered the frequency of each of the notes of the Pythagorean series by a simple factor so that the 13th note was exactly twice the frequency of huang-chung. By this method he not only completed the cycle but also reduced the differences in intervals between adjacent notes.  Chu Tsai-yu (16th century) finally created an equal-tempered scale of 12 notes by successively dividing the fundamental number (i.e. that of huang-chung) by the 12th root of 2.  Kuttner’s study shows that Chu discovered the calculation of a tempered scale not through a theoretical understanding and calculation of the role of the 12th root of 2, but by a numerological manipulation which gives an identical solution.

There is little evidence that tempered or other theoretical scales were really put into practice. The just intonation was apparently applied by ch’in performers as early as the 6th century.  Studs marking the stopping positions placed at simple divisions of the strings show that harmonics were used widely; but ch’in manuals from the 16th century have also indicated certain adjustments that seem to bring the intonation closer to equal temperament.

The five notes making up the Chinese pentatonic scale that first appeared in Kuan-tzu are also the first five of the Pythagorean series.  When arranged in an ascending order they are equivalent in terms of relative pitch to C D F G A.  However, the series F G A C D which is discussed in the much later work Shih-chi, seems to have been the more common pentatonic scale.  The concept of a scale may well have been recognized at that time because the names of the five notes, kung, shang, cheuh, chih, yu were listed according to ascending pitch although the ordering according to the Pythagorean series should have been kung, chih, shang, yu, cheuh.

The heptatonic scale of F G A B C D E referred to widely in later theoretical treatises is formed by the first seven notes of the Pythagorean series. It was first discussed explicitly in writings of the 2nd century, although an earlier work, kuo-yu, mentions it vaguely.  Furthermore, the concept of transposition could have been formed early as li-chi (c. 1st century BC) mentions the successive use of each of the 12 lu as kung, the starting note of the scale.

The term tiao is used widely by musicians for different purposes, probably the most important being the classification of melodies.  Names of tiao appearing as headings to musical pieces serve as a reminder of the melody to be adopted for new texts.  However, many theorists’ definitions and presentations of tiao can be equated with the Western term “mode”.  Earlier writings vaguely allude to a modal concept, while Shen Kua (1031-95) and the authors of Tz’u-yuan and Shih-lin Kuang-chi Chang Yen (1248-c1315) and Ch’en Yuan-ch’ing (c1270) respectively) described modes in exact terms.  According to the two latter works the heptatonic F mode can be constructed by using any of the twelve pitches within the octave as the tonic, and each of the seven notes of the scale can act as the final note of a melody.  A mode is thus defined by the pitch chosen for the tonic F and by the choice of the final note.  Theoretical definitions and descriptions of modes must be a drastic simplification of what happened in practice, where recognition of melodic identity undoubtedly involved much more than a mere mechanical use of beginning and ending notes. For example, analysis of ancient music manuscripts and of dramatic and instrumental music still performed shows that pieces belonging to the same mode tend to have similar melodic fragments.

The complete list of 84 modes derived from the heptatonic scale on the 12 pitches is of course only a theoretical one.  Although presented fully in the 13th century works mentioned above, not all of the names appeared in connection with actual musical pieces.  Shen Kua, who did report from factual observations, listed only 28 modes; his list even shows slight variation in the range, and omits certain notes in the scale.  Ts’ai Yuan-ting (1135-98) allowed only F G A C D to act as final notes; his set therefore consists of only 60 modes for the heptatonic scale.  He also initiated the use of the first as well as the final note of a melody as a criterion in determining its mode.  Codification and listing of modes continued to interest later theorists, but the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) can be considered the highpoint of development of modal theory in Chinese musical history.

The question of fitting music with vocals has been of special interest to theorists partly because the Chinese language has many elements analogous to music and also because words were of special interest to the literati.  Many theoretical works on singing and songwriting are really studies of Chinese phonology.

The outstanding characteristic of Chinese language is that it is tonal, with some tones moving up or down, others remain on a fairly even level. From ancient times Chinese syllables (each represented by a character which is usually a lexical unit) were grouped into four classes “even”, “rising”, “going” and “entering”, the last consisting of syllables ending abruptly in a voiceless stop consonant.  In some dialects, each of these classes is subdivided into higher and lower pitch categories.

Actual examples of Chinese vocal music show that the degree of correlation between word tones and melodic contours differs according to region, style and genre.  For example, many folksongs have low correlation, as is evident in songs which use the same melody for various stanzas of text which differ considerably in tonal patterns.  In operas and popular and narrative songs using the cantonese dialect, however, melodies closely imitate the word tones; furthermore, tonal imitation is used constantly.  In contrast, the Peking opera usually employs close imitation of actual speech tones only at selected moments for dramatic accentuation.  Most of these musical practices are virtually subconscious and are handed down among performers through oral tradition.  Theorists who have written on vocal music have usually concentrated their attention on the more sophisticated genres such as k’un-ch’u opera; their works are always prescriptive and do not describe the performance itself.

Despite all the philosophy behind ancient Chines music,it appears that theory was only put into practice on a few occasions. Because musical theory was written down, it was vulnerable to censorship and often represented the opinions of the authorities at the time, rather than the consensus of contemporary musicians and scholars.  For instance, theory says that music should educate people, regulate society, strengthen the government and above all, exist in harmony with nature.  Music that does not do this i.e. stimulates sensual pleasure was “immoral” and therefore undesirable.  However, this “immoral” music would have been enjoyed at all levels of society, although discussion would have been limited to “proper” music such as ceremonial and court music.

Source: Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians (most of the text)

Other References: The Secret Power of Music by David Tame (tables and some text)