Chinese Music

Introduce your class to the Musical Styles, Vocal Music, Instruments, and Tradition of the Han Chinese culture.


When discussing Han Chinese music, it is common to distinguish two major styles: northern and southern. The styles correspond to the two major geographical and cultural areas where most Han people live. Although both styles emanate from the general Han Chinese culture, they differ in detail because of environmental conditions. The north is cold, dry, and windy. The hardships of life are reflected in the high-pitched, tense, and agitated style of folk song. The south, on the other hand, has mild weather and much rain. Life seems to be easier, and the folk songs of the south are generally lyrical and gentle in nature. Chinese music today is also influenced by Western musical concepts, which is an inevitable consequence of historical and social change.

Musical Styles

The common belief that the Chinese scale is a pentatonic scale (without half steps) is only partly correct. The Han Chinese have at least three forms of a seven-tone scale (See figure 1 in Han Chinese Music Scales). They also use various forms of a five-tone pentatonic scale (See figure 2 in Han Chinese Music Scales).

Southern Chinese folk songs tend to progress in more conjunct motion and smoother lines and emphasize the intervals of thirds and fifths. Northern melodies tend to progress in more disjunct, angular motion, and emphasize intervals of a fourth. These tendencies in the use of melodies are related to the tonal characteristics of the contrasting dialects of the two areas.

Except in special cases (such as free-rhythm introductions), most Chinese music is in duple rhythm. This fondness for duple rhythm (the Western equivalent of 2/4 and 4/4) can be attributed to the belief in the principle of natural duality (such as the female-male or yin-yang relationship). Chinese rhythm patterns may also reflect the Confucian Zhongyong concept: a “doctrine of the mean” that stresses moderation and balance. However, the weak beat to strong beat stresses in Western music are not necessarily used. Triple meter is rare, even in modern folk compositions. Syncopation, on the other hand, is the norm rather than the exception.

Chinese instrumental music is traditionally heterophonic if it is performed on more than one instrument or for an instrument and voice. Although Chinese music does not use the triadic, four-part harmonic progressions of Western music, harmony may occur occasionally. In fact, the sheng mouth organ produces fourths and fifths when played in the traditional manner, and some qin and zheng zither passages have two or more pitches sounding together when the musicians pluck two or more strings simultaneously. The Chinese people's fondness for clarity may have prevented them from developing a heavy musical texture.

Perhaps the most intricate aspect of traditional Chinese music, and of much East Asian music, is the use of nuance in instrumental and vocal timbre. Even when playing one instrument, there are minute differences in timbre production of a single tone. Much attention is placed on the production and control of single tones; each tone is regarded as a musical entity. The best example of this is heard in qin zither music.

Vocal Music

Vocal music is also complicated because of complex tonal inflections and the intricacies of the Chinese language. For example, even though Chinese words are monosyllabic, a singer takes great care in enunciating the “head” (beginning), “belly” (middle), and “tail” (end) of each word in Kun opera and Nanguan music. Therefore, timbre in Chinese music has a deeper meaning than simply tone color as an end in itself.

Chinese vocal quality is often described as being high-pitched and nasal. This is generally true, but there are regional differences. The northern style of singing (such as Peking opera) tends to be higher and more shrill than the southern style of singing (such as Kun opera or Nanguan). This north-south contrast in vocal quality can even be heard in the local Baiguan (northern-style theater) and Nanquan (southern-style theater or lyric song) on the island of Taiwan.


Thousands of indigenous and Sinicized musical instruments exist in China, but the Chinese seem to favor chordophones and aerophones. The famous term “silk and bamboo” refers to the ancient use of stringed instruments with silk strings and wind instruments made of bamboo. Of all the chordophones, the qin zither is by far the most venerated. It is depicted in many paintings and mentioned in classic literature. Next in importance to the qin zither is the zheng zither. In the past, solos and small ensembles were more characteristic of traditional Chinese music making; the large Chinese orchestra with a baton-waving conductor is a product of the twentieth century.

The pipa lute originated in Central Asia and is an instrument of great virtuosic possibilities. It is the subject of many paintings and poems and has held a societal position similar to that of the guitar in Western culture. Currently, the erhu, or two-stringed fiddle, is the most popular instrument in China. It originated in the northern tribes and is available in many sizes and variations. This fiddle is the “violin” of the modern Chinese orchestra. The sanxian lute is a banjo-like instrument that is used to accompany narrative singing. The yangqin is a many-stringed hammer dulcimer that originated in Persia. Its function is somewhat like that of the piano: it serves as either a solo instrument or an accompanying instrument.

In the aerophone category, di or disi side-blown flutes are the most numerous. The xiao end-blown flute is also a popular instrument. Perhaps the most exotic wind instrument is the sheng, a mouth organ that can produce many notes simultaneously. A popular folk wind instrument is the suona, a double-reed instrument that evolved from the Middle Eastern zurna. Because of recent archaeological discoveries, Chinese musicians have had a revived interest in the ancient bianzhong (bronze bell chimes) and bianqing (stone chimes). Variations of many Chinese musical instruments can be found in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, and Mongolia.

Tradition and Folk Songs

Westerners sometimes describe Chinese music as “loud.” The Chinese themselves consider the northern style more dynamic and energetic and the southern style softer and more graceful. All of these characterizations are oversimplified, as the dynamics in Chinese music actually vary according to the nature of the musical genres and instruments. The classical music of Confucian scholars, such as qin zither music and lyric songs, is naturally soft. Players of pipa lute music are capable of expressing a full range of dynamics. Music for the suona is loud and piercing because of the instrument's construction and its function as an outdoor instrument. Theater orchestra music is loud because it was originally played outdoors in a festive atmosphere. Because of the many factors affecting dynamics in Chinese music, there is no one concept that can adequately describe them.

With the exception of work songs and shange (mountain songs), most Han Chinese folk songs, like most songs in Western folk music, are constructed in strophic form. Chinese folk music, however, uses fewer refrains. Typically, a folk song consists of two or four phrases of equal length; each phrase contains a new musical idea. Two-phrase songs are called "question-answer" songs, and four-phrase songs are "open" (qi), "inheriting" (cheng), "turned" (shuan), and "closed" (he) songs, all of which are terms borrowed from literary writing techniques. Much of Chinese opera music is based on a more complex melodic and rhythmic motivic system called Banqian

Of all the instrumental forms of Chinese music, the most popular are suites and variations. These forms are not, however, entirely equivalent to their Western counterparts. A Chinese suite is a series of musical movements that are loosely connected. These movements may be independent selections that do not have an apparent melodic or rhythmic relationship, or they may be related for programmatic reasons.

A major characteristic of Chinese instrumental variations is the use of identification motives called the hetou (refrain head) or hewei (refrain tail) that appear in the beginning and end of each movement. Again, except for these refrain motives, there might be no other relationship between the variations and the refrains or among the variations themselves. Sometimes, a movement appears several times among the other movements in a suite; this is considered a variation technique. Due to Western influence, ABA form has become extremely popular in modern instrumental folk music.

The Chinese have traditionally shown a fondness for extra-musical connotations, so Program music, poetic titles, and descriptions of compositions are popular. The existence of a sophisticated literary class is responsible for shaping this tradition, which is found not only in old music but also in modern socialist and so-called revolutionary work.

¹For more information, see Mingyue Liang, Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Music Culture (New York: HeinrichshofenEditionn, 1985), 143-254.

Excerpted from Multicultural Perspectives in Music Education.

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