Origins of the names of the degrees of the scale, "gong, shang, jue, zhi, yu"

The degrees of the scale "gong [宮], shang [商], jue [角], zhi [徵], yu [羽]" are terms which have been in use in Chinese music since the ancient times. The "Commentary of Zuo [左傳]" mentioned the fact that regardless of what type of songs it was, regardless of the area it originated, regardless of the type of scale used, the five tones (of the anhemitonic, tonal pentatonic scale) was the basis of the notes. In the chapter "Discourses of Zhou [周語]" within the book "Discourses of the State [國語]", it was mentioned that "gong" was the starting point in the creation of the modes.

The next question was how these names came about. The musicologist Feng Wen Ci [馮文慈] believed that "gong, shang, jue, zhi, yu" arose from astrology. "Gong" represented the centre of things, and that was the Big Dipper. "Shang, jue, zhi" were three stars within the Azure Dragon of the East, one of the four symbols of the Chinese constellations. "Shang" was Sigma Scorpii, "jue" was Spica, and "zhi" was Alpha Librae. Finally, "yu" was Alpha Crateris, a star within the Vermilion Bird, another symbol of the Chinese constellations. Feng believed that astrology played a huge part in the lives of the ancient Chinese and hence the reflection in the music of the people.

There is also Xi Jie Guan who believes that these names came about when the notes are being sung. In the text "Guanzi [管子], the notes "zhi, yu, gong, shang, jue" were likened to the sounds of the animals on the farm, from the lowest to the highest. "Zhi" was described as the grunts of the boar, "yu" as the neighing of the horse, "gong" as the calling of the cow, "shang" as the baa-ing of the sheep, and "jue" as the cries of the pheasant. Because the names of the animals sounded similar to the words "gong, shang, jue, zhi, yu" in the pronunciation of ancient Chinese, these words could have been derived from that.

As could be seen, these names of the degrees of the scale were already in place by the Spring as Autumn era, but musicologist Feng Wen Ci proposed that they could have arisen even as far back as Western Zhou, or the Shang dynasty.

Music was a mysterious phenomenon to the ancient Chinese and hence the common 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 that we take for granted now was associated with something as far reaching as the skies, or as important to life as the livestock on the farm.

Liu, ZS. (1989). Zhong Guo Gu Dai Yin Yue Shi Jian Shu [中國古代音樂史簡述]. Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She.


Chinese Music briefly

Chinese music encompasses several different genres, the more prominent ones being: folk music; traditional music; and art music. These various forms of music represent not only the traditions of a single ethnic group, but of various ethnic populations that make up China. At the same time, they also include not only music that has been handed down through the generations, but also contemporary, living music.

Art music is a very big area to define, including not only pieces of music composed by past and present composers in China, but also compositions by composers who may be ethnic Chinese but do not reside in China, and who may or may not write for traditional Chinese instruments and/or based upon Chinese themes.

contemporary Chinese art music

Traditional music in China includes music that dates back more than 5000 years in China's history. In modern classification, scholars tend to categorise music that predates the Qing dynasty as traditional Chinese music. Traditional Chinese music can include court music [宫廷音乐], scholarly music [文人音乐], religious music [宗教音乐], and folk music [民间音乐]. Court music includes ritual music [雅乐] and music for entertainment [燕乐]. Ritual music is meant for religious activities in the courts and to signify the ultimate power and position of the emperor and is hence sombre and never light and lively. Court music for entertainment on the other hand usually derives from folk music or music brought in from other areas by foreign musicians. It is usually modified somewhat to suit the courts but usually retains the unique characteristics of the music it was derived from. Scholarly music includes guqin music or poetry set to music. The characteristics of scholarly music, especially that of guqin music has been exemplified in the writings and philosophies of several important thinkers in Chinese history and aesthetic values of ancient Chinese music has been based on these ideas.

traditional scholarly music

Religious music in China is mostly comprised of music for Buddhism and Taoism. These religious music however could vary quite widely in the different areas of China, as each derives influences from different cultural, historical, and geographical factors.

Folk music refers to music that is being performed and enjoyed by the common people and they include folk songs [民歌], music of folk dances [民间舞蹈音乐], folk instrumental music [民间器乐], operas [戏曲], and music for narrative-singing [说唱]. The folk music of China has a long history and at the same time, it is still very alive and constantly evolving even at the present moment. In the feudalistic society of the past, the literati thought of folk music as a base form of music and bad for the cultural development of the people. Yet, folk music continues to development and remain a very important part of people's lives. The folk music of China has became such a big part of the Chinese musical culture and presently, could be one of the most important forms of traditional music that influences the development of contemporary art music in China. The forms and types of folk music are so widely varied and the contents so rich that the influence to modern development is almost infinite. Even though the view towards folk music during the feudalistic past was far from complimentary, there are various eras in which the department in charge of music within the courts took an effort at collecting and classifying the folk music of their common people. These provide us with an idea of the types of folk music that were present during those periods of time and are a very important source of information. At the same time, the educated literati, besides collecting and classifying folk music, might do certain modifications or change the folk music in certain ways, slowly also infusing the folk music of the common people with characteristics of the music of the courts of scholarly music. Hence besides the common folks' practice of folk music and gradual change over time, these forms of interactions and influences by the literati and court officials are also part of the slow process in which folk music evolve through the ages. The folk music of China has been created and evolved through people's ideas and lives over the ages and in them, we can find very rich sources of artistic creativity, as well as the emotions, dreams, ideas, and passions of the people throughout the long history of China.

Types of folk music
The folk music of China could be divided into 5 categories: folk songs, music of folk dances, music for narrative-singing, operatic music, and folk instrumental music.

Folk songs could be classified in various ways. They could be grouped according to the contents of the lyrics; or they could be grouped based on their utilitarian purposes; they could also be classified by the period of time of their origin; or they could be divided into the various regions from which they come from.

Chinese folk song

Music of folk dances do not have as long a period of scholarly research as the folk songs of China and hence their understanding and classification are still in the stages of infancy. The music of the folk dances is often closely related to the folk songs of the area and hence one can usually see similar characteristics within the music.

folk dance

In narrative-singing, the classification is usually made up of pinghua [评话], guqu [鼓曲], kuaiban [快板], and xiangsheng [相声]. Amongst them, only guqu involves music and this group of genre could be further classified according to the instruments that are used, the area of origin, or the musical characteristics such as guci [鼓词], tanci [弹词], daoqing [道情], paiziqu [牌子曲], and qinshu [琴书]. Another way of classification is based on the musical structure and this includes danquti [单曲体], qupailiantaoti [曲牌联套体], banqiangti [板腔体], and zhuchati [主插体].

narrative singing

Operatic music has 2 different modes of classification - the first is based on the singing style and the second based on the musical structure. Based on the singing styles there are 6 different categories: kunqiang [昆腔], gaoqiang [高腔], bangziqiang [梆子腔], pihuangqiang [皮簧腔], folk singing and dance style [民间歌舞类型], and narrative-singing style [民间说唱类型]. Based upon the musical structure, there is qupaiti [曲牌体] and banqiangti [板腔体].


Folk instrumental music consists of solo instrumental music and ensemble music. Solo instrumental music can be divided into wind instruments, bowed string instruments, and plucked string instruments. Ensemble music can be categorised into string ensemble [弦索乐], silk and bamboo ensemble [丝竹乐], wind and percussion ensemble [吹打乐], and percussion ensemble [清锣鼓].

traditional folk instrumental ensemble

Characteristics of folk music
Oral traditions, improvisation and group composition:
Folk music cannot trace their origin to a single composer, they are created through the long process of singing and passing on, and they are the result of the ideas of generations of people throughout history. Folk music is historically passed down through oral traditions and through this process, gets slowly changed. There is plenty of improvisation within folk music as well and because of the absence of strict adherence to notations, there is a continuous fluid change in every piece of folk music.

Folk music has very unique regional characteristics. Various regions in China have developed very different cultures and ways of life through the years due to various geographical, historical, sociopolitical factors, and all these influenced the development of the music in that region. Different dialects result in regional differences in the ways a melody might be ornamented or sung. Differences in ways of life also creates different emotional loading of the music, as well as differences in the lyrics of folk songs. Different geographical and physical attributes also lead to differences in the ways a melody or rhythmic features develop, as well as differences in musical instrumentation.

Folk music serves various purposes and these could be: educational; to aid in labour; for entertainment; for festivities and rituals; etc.


Percussion instruments in Nanyin

Nanyin is a form of Chinese traditional folk music that has an extremely long history. Elements of its origins could be traced to as far back as the Tang dynasty.

The instruments in Nanyin can be divided into the melodic (上四管) and the percussion (下四管) instruments. This other post touch a little on the melodic instruments of Nanyin. There are 4 instruments in the percussion or "xia si guan" section. A side note, the clapper (拍板), although a percussion instrument, does not fall within the percussion "xia si guan" section but within the melodic or "shang si guan" section. This is because the musician playing the clapper is also the singer, and even in cases of purely instrumental pieces, the clapper also falls under the category of melodic instruments.

In Nanyin music, rhythm is notated according to pai [拍] and liao [撩]. In Western classical music terms, we can think of the pai as the first beat in the bar and the liao as the rest of the beats. So a piece with 1 pai 3 liao can be thought of as corresponding to a 4/4 time.

In a piece of Nanyin music, the clapper always hits on the pai, or the main beat of the bar. The performance of the four percussion instruments: the xiangzhan [响盏], sibao [四宝], shuangyin [双音], and jiaoluo [叫锣] follows a strict set of rules.

The xiangzhan follows the rhythm of the pipa but never on the pai or the main beat. This means the xiangzhan will play exactly the same as the main melody, but omitting every time the note is on the main beat.

The sibao consists of 4 pieces of bamboo, the player holding 2 pieces in each hand. It also plays according to the rhythm of the pipa, including the pai or the main beat. When the pipa is playing nianzhi [捻指] (the closest English equivalent should be a tremolo), the sibao will do a tremolo as well, with the hands vibrating the pieces of bamboo. On the pai or main beats, the player will clap the pieces of bamboo together on separate hands, and on the rest of the notes, the player can play in a variety of ways, but always with the pieces of sibao from one hand hitting the other hand's.

The shuangyin is played on all the liao or all the beats of the bar except the first.

Finally, the jiaoluo which consists of a little gong and a temple block held in one hand, also has to follow a strict set of rules. The temple block is hit on every pai or main beat and the little gong is hit on the off beat of the liao, forming an interlocking rhythmical pattern with the shuangyin.