Chinese Classical Music

 

The body of vocal and instrumental music composed and played by the Chinese people has a history of more than 8000 years. It has a very early development of theoretical, systematic, acoustical, and material science, and orchestral practice.

Traditional Chinese Music

Chinese music is as old as Chinese civilization. Instruments excavated from sites of the Shang Dynasty (circa 1766-1027 BC) include stone chimes, bronze bells, panpipes, and the sheng. When European music was just experiencing its first breath of life, a complete musical theory and sophisticated musical instruments were already appearing in China. The orthodox ritual music was advocated by Confucius, who conceived of music in the highest sense as a means of calming the passions and of dispelling unrest and lust. By the Han Dynasty, the imperial court set up a Music Bureau, which was in charge of collecting and editing ancient melodies and folk songs. Because of commercial contacts with Central Asia, foreign music was introduced in China and incorporated change and improvement in Chinese music. By the time of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, the court organized the Pear Garden Academy song and dance troupe which cultivated a large number of musicians and laid a firm foundation for Chinese music.

Melody and tone quality are prominent expressive features of Chinese music, and great emphasis is given to the proper articulation and inflection of each musical tone. Most Chinese music is based on the five-tone, or pentatonic, scale, but the seven-tone, or heptatonic scale, is also used, often as an expansion of a basically pentatonic core. The pentatonic scale was much used in older music. The heptatonic scale is often encountered in northern Chinese folk music.

The variations of rhythm, beat, tone quality, and embellishments in traditional Chinese music are highly distinctive and unlike their Western counterparts. This is mainly due to the unique sounds and playing styles of traditional Chinese musical instruments. Chinese musical instruments can be divided into four basic categories based on the method by which they are played. The first category includes the bowed-strings, or Hu Qin, which are made of wood with a piece of snakeskin stretched over the sound box. They have two strings, and the bow is permanently caught in between the two strings. The second category includes the plucked-strings, of which there are three types: dulcimers, lutes, and harps. The harp is made of either wood or bamboo with steel strings. In the past, the strings were made of silk. The third category encompasses the woodwind section. There are flutes, pipes, and Chinese trumpets which use double reeds like the oboe but sound like a trumpet. The final category encompasses the percussion section. The main instruments include drums, timpani, gongs, and cymbals. For some songs, bells, xylophones, tuned gongs, and the triangle are used. The percussion section is called the wu-ch’ang, or martial scene, in traditional Chinese opera.

In traditional Chinese orchestras, the combination of all the different instruments served to create a harmonious and beautiful auditory atmosphere. Unbelievingly beautiful music was made and is still made. Many Chinese instruments can produce purely unique and amazing sounds. Some famous traditional pieces have been amassed below for your listening pleasure.

Modern Chinese Music

Today’s Chinese music is quite similar to modern Western music. Just like young Westerners, now young Chinese attend the concerts of famous Chinese pop stars. Modern Chinese orchestras play both adapted versions of traditional pieces and classical and modern symphonic compositions. Popular modern music incorporates many aspects of Western music from electric keyboards to guitars. Much of today’s popular music can be classified as R&B, rock, blues, or dance music.

In modern Chinese music, many traditional facets still remain. Many traditional Chinese instruments are used in conjunction with popular instruments of Western cultures. The mixing of traditional instruments with western instruments creates a wide variety of euphonious sounds and rhythms, and the mixing with western styles of singing creates unique Chinese sounds. Many modern artists also incorporate traditional Chinese melodies into their songs, so even music using only popular Western instruments sounds different. The mixing of Western styles and Chinese styles with traditional Chinese instruments and other instruments allows for the creation of an endless scope of expression with modern Chinese music.

Many modern instrumental music pieces incorporate traditional instruments while adapting a more modern style. However, instrumental music is still very traditional. Many works of traditional music are still played by small quartets and large orchestras. Chinese melodies are quite unique and incorporate into many modern compositions. Chinese instrumental music has changed because it is no longer restricted to the traditional format. Even non-traditional instruments such as the piano are used in creating modern works.