Chinese music

Chinese music,

the classical music forms of China.

Origins and Characteristics

Chinese music can be traced back as far as the third millennium B.C. Manuscripts and instruments from the early periods of its history are not extant, however, because in 212 B.C., Shih Huang-ti of the Ch'in dynasty caused all the books and instruments to be destroyed and the practice of music to be stopped. Certain outlines of ancient Chinese music have nevertheless been ascertained. Of primary significance is the fact that the music and philosophy of China have always been inseparably bound; musical theory and form have been invariably symbolic in nature and remarkably stable through the ages. Ancient Chinese hymns were slow and solemn and were accompanied by very large orchestras. Chamber music was also highly developed. Chinese opera originated in the 14th cent. as a serious and refined art.

Tone and the Instruments

In Chinese music, the single tone is of greater significance than melody; the tone is an important attribute of the substance that produces it. Hence musical instruments are separated into eight classes according to the materials from which they are made—gourd (sheng); bamboo (panpipes); wood (chu, a trough-shaped percussion instrument); silk (various types of zither, with silk strings); clay (globular flute); metal (bell); stone (sonorous stone); and skin (drum). Music was believed to have cosmological and ethical connotations comparable to those of Greek music. The failure of a dynasty was ascribed to its inability to find the proper huang chung, or tone of absolute pitch.

The huang chung was produced by a bamboo pipe that roughly approximated the normal pitch of a man's voice. Other pipes were cut, their length bearing a definite mathematical ratio to it. Their tones were divided into two groups—six male tones and six female. These were the lüs, and their relationship approximated the Pythagorean cycle of fifths. Legend ascribes their origin to birdsong, six from that of the male bird and six from that of the female, and the tones of the two sets were always kept separate.

The lüs did not constitute a scale, however. The scale of Chinese music is pentatonic, roughly represented by the black keys on a piano. From it, by starting on different notes, several modes may be derived. The melody of vocal music is limited by the fact that melodic inflection influences the meaning of a word. Likewise, quantitative rhythms are not easily adaptable to the Chinese language.

Musical Notation

Several types of notation were used. Singers used the syllabic symbols for the five notes of the pentatonic scale, as did players of pipes. Players of the stone and bell chimes, which were tuned to the lüs, used symbols that represented the pitch names of the lüs. Players of flutes and zithers used a kind of tablature. None of this notation indicated rhythm.

Modern History

Throughout the political and social turmoil following World War I, Western (classical and popular) and Japanese sources dominated Chinese music. At present, Western concepts of harmony are in active use but are generally applied to vocal genres, such as cantatas and music dramas, which have educational as well as musical value. The Beijing Opera has produced numerous new works since 1949, most of them concerning political topics. It is one of the few forums of traditional performance style, although there is an ongoing effort directed by the Beijing Institute of National Music to preserve the few remainders of ancient musical practice.


See J. H. Levis, Foundations of Chinese Musical Art (2d ed. 1964); E. Halson, Peking Opera (1966); bibliography by F. Lieberman (1970, 2d ed. 1979).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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