Chinese Music: History
Chinese music is a rich and diverse tradition that has evolved over thousands of years. It encompasses a wide range of musical styles, instruments, and forms, including traditional Chinese instruments like the , , and , as well as more modern instruments like the piano and guitar. Chinese music is characterized by its use of scales and complex rhythms, as well as its emphasis on melody and expressiveness. Traditional Chinese music is often associated with specific occasions, such as weddings and religious ceremonies, and is often accompanied by dance or other performances. In recent years, Chinese music has also been influenced by Western styles, resulting in the emergence of a vibrant contemporary music scene in China.
The early history of Chinese music can be traced back to ancient times, with the earliest known examples dating back to the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE). During this period, music was primarily used for ceremonial and religious purposes, and was often played on instruments such as bronze bells and stone chimes.
As the Chinese civilization developed, so too did the complexity and diversity of its music. During the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE), music became more sophisticated and was used to express emotions and convey political and social messages. This period saw the development of a system of musical notation, known as , which is still used in traditional Chinese music today.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), music continued to evolve and diversify, with the emergence of new instruments such as the, , and . Music also played an important role in court life and was used to entertain the emperor and his courtiers.
During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), Chinese music reached its golden age, with the development of a wide variety of musical forms, such as the (court music) and (popular music). This period saw the emergence of famous musicians, such as the blind qin player and composer Bo Ya, who was celebrated for his virtuosity and creativity.
Overall, the early history of Chinese music reflects a rich and diverse tradition that has evolved over thousands of years, shaped by the political, social, and cultural context of each historical period, and it has a great influence in the world today.
Pitch in Chinese Music
Chinese traditional music is based on a which is a five-note scale. The most used pentatonic scale in Chinese music is the gong hexatonic scale, which consists of the notes C, D, E, G, A, and C. This scale is often used in solo instrumental and vocal music.
In addition to the pentatonic scale, Chinese music also uses various modes, which are similar to Western modes such as major and minor. Some of the most common modes used in Chinese music include the Zhi mode, the Yu mode, and the Shang mode. Each of these modes has its own unique characteristics and is used in different types of music.
The Zhi mode is often used in and has a bright and lively character. The Yu mode is used in slower, more contemplative music and is often associated with sadness and longing. The Shang mode is used in more formal and ceremonial music and has a more serious and dignified character.
Overall, the scales and modes used in Chinese music are an integral part of its unique character and help to create the diverse range of emotions and feelings expressed in the music.
Timbre and Instruments in Chinese Music
There are many traditional Chinese instruments, some of the most well-known include:
– a seven-stringed zither
– a plucked zither with up to 21 strings
– a two-stringed fiddle
– a four-stringed lute
– a flute
– a hammered dulcimer
– a mouth organ
– end-blown bamboo flute
– a plucked lute
These instruments have a long history and are an important part of Chinese culture and music. They are used in traditional Chinese music, as well as in contemporary and fusion music.
A Chinese orchestra typically consists of a variety of traditional Chinese instruments, including string instruments such as the and , wind instruments like the and , and percussion instruments like the gong and drum. These instruments are combined to create a unique and distinct sound that is associated with traditional Chinese music. The orchestra may also include a conductor and a vocalist who performs traditional Chinese songs and . The ensemble typically plays both traditional Chinese music and contemporary pieces that are based on traditional Chinese music.
Watch this video to review what you learned about Chinese musical instruments:
Texture in Chinese Music
Heterophonic texture is a common feature in traditional Chinese music, particularly in ensemble performances. It is characterized by multiple voices singing or playing the same melody, but with slight variations in rhythm or phrasing. This technique adds depth and complexity to the music and creates a sense of improvisation and spontaneity within a performance. It is often used in Chinese , as well as in traditional , where it is used to create a sense of unity among the performers.
is a technique commonly used in traditional Chinese music. It is a musical texture where multiple voices sing or play the same melody, but with slight variations in rhythm or phrasing. This technique adds depth and complexity to the music and creates a sense of improvisation and spontaneity within a performance. Heterophony is often used in ensemble performances, such as Chinese and traditional , where it is used to create a sense of unity among the performers.
Heterophony can be found in different Chinese traditional instruments such as , and in vocal music. It is also present in some regional music such as the Nanyin, a genre of traditional Chinese music from the Fujian province, which is characterized by its rich use of heterophony.
It’s important to note that Heterophony is not unique to Chinese music, it can be found in other musical cultures such as in the Malian music and in some traditional Japanese music.
Overall, heterophony is an important technique in traditional Chinese music that adds depth and complexity to performances, and is often used to create a sense of unity and improvisation among performers.
Improvisation and composition play important roles in traditional Chinese music. Improvisation is a common practice in Chinese music, particularly in ensemble performances, where musicians will often add their own variations to a melody or create new melodies on the spot. This allows for a sense of spontaneity and creativity within a performance. Improvisation is particularly important in Chinese traditional instruments such as and , where the player is expected to have a high level of skill in improvisation.
Composition is also an important aspect of traditional Chinese music. Many Chinese traditional compositions are based on classical literature, such as poetry, and are often intended to tell a story or convey a particular emotion. In the past, it was common for composers to use pre-existing melodies and forms, but in recent years, there has been a trend towards more original compositions.
In , compositions are often based on historical events or legends and the music is written to reflect the emotional content of the story. Improvisation is also present, especially in the form of “Xipi” and “Erhuang” , two traditional operatic style that demands a high level of improvisation skill.
Overall, both improvisation and composition play important roles in traditional Chinese music and are considered essential skills for Chinese musicians.
Genres in Chinese Music
The main genres of music in China include traditional Chinese music, , and popular music. Traditional Chinese music includes elements such as the use of pentatonic scales and the guqin, a seven-stringed instrument. Folk music includes regional styles such as Cantonese and Hokkien music. Popular music in China includes a range of styles, including (Mandarin popular music), (Cantonese popular music), and (contemporary Chinese popular music). There are also emerging genres such as Chinese hip-hop, rock and electronic music.
The main genres of music in China include traditional Chinese music, , , and Chinese rock. Traditional Chinese music is characterized by its use of ancient instruments and classical structures, while Cantopop and Mandopop are popular music genres that originated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively, and are heavily influenced by Western pop music. Chinese rock, also known as Mandopop, is a relatively new genre that has gained popularity in recent years, featuring rock and roll music with Chinese lyrics.
Some famous pop singers in China include:
- Faye Wong
- Jacky Cheung
- Jay Chou
- Na Ying
- Liu Huan
- Han Hong
- Wang Leehom
- Jane Zhang
- Eason Chan
- JJ Lin
This is not an exhaustive list and there are many other popular and talented singers in China.
Watch this video to experience a contemporary pop song:
MAINLAND AND TAIWAN
Chinese music in mainland China and Taiwan can differ in several ways, including the types of instruments used, the styles of music that are popular, and the historical and cultural influences that have shaped the music.
In mainland China, traditional instruments such as the , , and are commonly used, as well as more modern instruments like the piano and guitar. The music that is popular in mainland China can vary, but it often includes traditional Chinese music, as well as pop music and Western-influenced music.
In Taiwan, traditional instruments such as the and are also commonly used, but the island’s unique history and cultural influences have led to the development of unique musical styles, such as Hokkien pop and Taiwanese aboriginal music. Pop music and Western-influenced music are also popular in Taiwan.
Additionally, Taiwan has a more developed and diverse music industry, as well as a more freedom in the art expression.
In sum, mainland China and Taiwan both have their own unique styles and influences in their music, but Taiwan’s music is more diverse, and has a more developed music industry.
, also known as Chinese theatre, is a traditional form of Chinese performing arts that combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics. It is one of the oldest forms of Chinese art, dating back to the 7th century. Chinese opera is performed in various regional styles, such as Beijing opera and Cantonese opera, and it is often accompanied by a traditional Chinese orchestra. The stories and characters portrayed in Chinese opera are typically drawn from Chinese literature and folklore.
Watch this video to experience a performance of Chinese opera:
Rap and hip hop have been gaining popularity in China in recent years. The genre has been embraced by young Chinese people to express their individuality and challenge societal norms. However, the Chinese government has been known to censor and restrict the spread of hip hop culture, as it is seen as a potential source of Western influence and a threat to traditional values. Despite this, many Chinese rappers and hip hop artists have found success and have a dedicated fanbase in China.
in China refers to the traditional music of the country’s ethnic minorities and Han Chinese people. It encompasses a wide range of styles and instruments, including regional folk songs, dances, and . Some examples of popular Chinese folk music include the music of the Miao and Dong ethnic minorities, which often feature the use of traditional instruments such as the and the ; and the music of the Uyghur ethnic group, which features the use of the and the . Folk music in China also encompasses the traditional art of storytelling, known as “story-singing,” which is still practiced in some rural areas of the country. Folk music in China has been passed down through generations and has an important cultural significance, providing a connection to the country’s history and traditions.
PRESERVING, TEACHING, NOTATING
Music teaching and pedagogy in China has a strong emphasis on traditional Chinese music and the mastery of traditional instruments. The most common instruments taught in schools and music conservatories include the , , and . Students typically begin learning music at a young age and progress through a rigorous curriculum that includes both theoretical and practical studies. Music education in China also often includes ensemble performance and training in traditional vocal styles such as . Additionally, many students participate in national music competitions and exams to showcase their skills and progress.
China is home to a diverse population of ethnic minorities, and each group has its own unique musical traditions. Some of the main ethnic minority groups in China include the Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs, and the various ethnic groups of the Yunnan province.
Tibetan music is characterized by the long-necked lutes and flutes, as well as chanting and throat singing. Mongolian music features the use of the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and the yatga (zither), as well as traditional vocal styles. Uyghur music includes the use of the and the (plucked lute), as well as traditional dances such as the “dap” dance.
Watch this video to experience different “throat” singing styles:
The music of the various ethnic groups of Yunnan province is also diverse, with influences from Southeast Asia and India. The music of the Dai people, for example, features the use of xylophones and bamboo flutes, while the music of the Bai people features traditional singing styles such as “da ku.”
China’s ethnic minority music is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and efforts are being made to preserve and promote it. However, the government’s policies towards ethnic minorities in China have been criticized in recent years, which has affected the music of ethnic minority groups in different ways.
Regional music in China encompasses a wide variety of styles and forms, from traditional folk songs and dances to modern pop and rock music. Some examples of regional music in China include:
Cantonese music, which is popular in the southern province of Guangdong and Hong Kong. It is known for its use of complex rhythms and melodic ornamentation.
, which is a traditional form of opera that originated in the Beijing area. It is characterized by its elaborate costumes, acrobatic performances, and exaggerated gestures.
Mongolian throat singing, which is a traditional form of music from Inner Mongolia that involves singing in a deep, guttural voice.
Chinese rock music, which is a relatively new form of music that has emerged in China in recent years. It combines elements of Western rock music with traditional Chinese instruments and themes.
, which is a traditional form of opera that originated in the Sichuan province, and it is known for its use of colorful face masks, acrobatic and martial arts performances, and comedic elements.
Music of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, which has its own set of traditional and modern music forms, like the traditional Uyghur Muqam, which is a form of folk music that is characterized by the use of complex melodies and rhythms, and it is passed down orally.
CENSORSHIP AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
In China, the government uses censorship for music and other forms of media to ensure they align with the values and ideologies of the Communist Party. This includes removing lyrics or themes that are deemed politically sensitive, such as references to democracy or criticism of the government. Some foreign songs and music videos are also banned from being distributed in China. Additionally, many popular foreign music streaming services, such as Spotify and YouTube, are blocked in the country. Overall, the censorship of music in China is a reflection of the government’s efforts to control the flow of information and maintain a tight grip on the country’s cultural landscape.
Western classical music has a long history in China, dating back to the late 19th century when it was first introduced by foreign missionaries and diplomats. Over time, it gained popularity and was embraced by many Chinese musicians, composers, and audiences.
In the early 20th century, Western classical music began to be taught in Chinese conservatories and universities, and Chinese musicians began to study and perform it.
During the cultural revolution, the study and performance of Western classical music was discouraged, but it regained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, it has become an important part of the Chinese music scene, with many orchestras and ensembles dedicated to performing it, and many young Chinese musicians receiving training in Western classical music.
There are also several music festivals, concert series and educational programs dedicated to Western classical music in China. Some Chinese composers have also taken inspiration from Western classical music to create their own works, combining elements of Chinese and Western music to create a unique sound.
GENDER AND SEXUALITY
In traditional Chinese culture, there are distinct gender roles and expectations for men and women in relation to music. Historically, men were typically the ones who performed and composed music, while women were expected to be listeners and appreciators. This is reflected in the traditional instruments that men and women play, with men tending to play instruments such as the and , and women playing instruments like the zither and dulcimer.
However, in recent years, there has been a shift towards greater equality and representation in the Chinese music scene, with more women taking on traditionally male roles as musicians, composers, and conductors.
Additionally, there is a growing popularity of female solo artists in the Chinese music industry, which is a significant change from the past where the majority of famous singers were men.
While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality in the Chinese music industry and in the way that music is taught in China.
In traditional Chinese culture, there has been a long-standing stereotype that women should not play certain instruments, such as the and the , which are more “masculine.” Women were also often discouraged from becoming professional musicians. However, this perception has been changing in recent years, with more and more women breaking through these barriers and achieving success as musicians in China.
Also, there’s the phenomenon of “diva” culture in Chinese pop music, where many female singers are known for their powerful and emotive vocal performances, often characterized by the use of vibrato and belting. This is a popular and successful genre, yet some argue it reinforces traditional gender roles and expectations for women in Chinese society.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of female composers, music producers, and sound engineers in China, which reflects a growing recognition of the importance of women in the music industry.
Some Web Resources for this Chapter
A two-stringed fiddle.
A plucked zither with up to 21 strings.
A five-note scale.
A system of musical notation.
A seven-stringed zither.
An end-blown bamboo flute.
Court music during the Tang Dynasty.
Popular music during the Tang Dynasty.
The traditional music of the country's ethnic minorities and Han Chinese people.
A four-stringed lute.
A hammered dulcimer.
A mouth organ.
A plucked lute.
A double-reed instrument (oboe).
Also known as Chinese theatre, is a traditional form of Chinese performing arts that combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics.
A type of texture or musical technique where multiple musicians or singers perform the same melody simultaneously, but with slight variations in rhythm, melody or ornamentation.
Mandarin popular music.
Contemporary Cantonese popular music.
Contemporary Chinese popular music.
A mouth organ with multiple bamboo pipes used by the Miao and Dong ethnic minorities.
A three-stringed traditional lute used by the Miao and Dong ethnic minorities.
A traditional long-necked two-stringed lute used by the Uyghurs.
A frame drum used by the Uyghurs.
A traditional Uyghur long-necked bowed lute.