Styles & Forms | China | World of Music | Classical
The earliest recorded dynasty in China, the Shang (c. 1766–c. 1122 bc), developed the system of writing that today offers a record of Chinese musical activity spanning 5,000 years.
From these writings can be gained information on the destruction and reinvention of music theory through centuries of change: its mythological origins, theoretical basis, an inventory of court instruments, and the role of music in court life, sacred and secular.
The Twelve Lü
According to legend, in 2697 bc, Emperor Huang-ti (‘Yellow Emperor’) sent one Ling Luen (‘Music Master’) to the western mountains to make musical pipes cut from lengths of bamboo (lü) tuned to the songs of the phoenix. Some key ideas underpinning ancient Chinese music were derived from the sound of these pipes. When, by tradition, subsequent sets of pipes were made, the first one gave the foundation note and was called the ‘yellow bell’ (huang-chung). Its length was a standard measure. It was used to cut and tune the full set of 12 pipes; the resulting set of 12 notes had the same proportional relationships as the mathematical ratios discovered by the ancient Greek theorist Pythagoras in the sixth century bc.
The ‘Eight Sounds’
The traditional classification for instruments was called pa-yin (‘eight sounds’): each of the eight materials from which instruments were made had a particular significance – the skin of a drum was related to the north, the season of winter, and to water. The idea was to combine musical sounds in order to evoke the balance between different aspects of the natural world. The ‘eight sounds’ and their associated instruments are shown below.
- chung metal bells
- ch’ing stone chimes
- yü wood boxes that were scraped
- hsuan clay ocarinas, blown into
- ko skin drums with animal skins
- ti and chih bamboo pipes and flutes
- sheng gourd mouth organs
- ssu silk stringed instruments
Among the earliest instruments found in China are bronze bells, stone-chimes and ocarinas from the second millennium bc. Stone reliefs from the Christian era show panpipes, drums, bells, stone chimes and zithers. The pre-eminent classical Chinese instrument is the ch’in, a long zither with seven silk strings. Other classical string instruments include the sê, a zither with 25 strings, the cheng, a plucked zither used for personal and popular entertainment, and the p’i-p’a, a four-stringed fretted lute.
China boasts over 300 forms of regional theatre; the most esteemed of these is Beijing (Peking) opera, developed in late eighteenth-century tea houses. The typical characters include: male characters and generals (usually baritones); unbearded scholar-lovers (falsettos); the virtuous daughter or faithful wife (high falsetto); and the flirtatious woman. The stock repertory of some 30 tunes encompasses the required set of moods. The singers are accompanied by bowed and plucked strings, drums, clappers, gongs, cymbals, bamboo flutes and oboes. After 1949, Beijing opera was reformed according to the ideology of Mao Tse-Tung, and during the Cultural...
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