Tonality and Scales in Chinese Music

Many who have read Chinese scores in the numerical notation may have at some time or other wondered if Chinese Music is all in the major key?

The numerical notation uses 7 different numbers to represent the 7 notes of the diatonic scale and in essence, these are the notes of the major scale in Western classical music. As a result, it is very common for many to have a misconception that there are only major keys in Chinese music. Keys in Chinese music however isn't as simple as that.

The Chinese is one of the most ancient cultures in the world and it has writings that date back thousands of years which are still accessible now. Over this vast range of time, there has been numerous theses, books and all sorts of writings on music and its keys and scales. Even though some are still being studied and attempting to make sense of by scholars, many have already been unravelled and understood. Although China is a huge country with varied cultures (including musical culture), there appeared to be a common theme in the way keys are used and scales are obtained.

The basic scale used in Chinese music is the pentatonic scale. The four main types of pentatonic scales commonly used in the world are the tonal pentatonic, the semi-tonal pentatonic, the neutral pentatonic and the pentaphonic scales. Among these, the first three forms of pentatonic scales can be found in Chinese music.

The tonal pentatonic scale is the most frequently used and it is the scale that most people mean when they refer to the pentatonic scale in Chinese music. The first three notes in this scale are a tone apart, followed by a note a minor third apart and another a tone apart as well. Put simply, these are the notes 1 2 3 5 and 6 in the diatonic scale.
Wuxijing (無錫景), an example of the tonal pentatonic scale.

The next type of pentatonic scale is the semi-tonal pentatonic which are made up of the notes 6 7 1 3 and 4 of the diatonic scale. Here, the presence of a minor second between the fourth and fifth notes changes the color of the scale. This type of scale is found in music of some of the minority tribes in Yunnan.
Mangmula (芒木拉) - instrumental piece from jinuo tribe in Yunnan.

The neutral pentatonic scale is made up of the notes 5 7 1 2 and 4 of the diatonic scale with the 7 a little lower and the 4 a little higher. There is now the presence of three intervals with are smaller than a major third but bigger than a minor third, giving this scale its particular flavor.
Jinmiaomen (進廟門) - a Gansu folksong.
Music utilizing this scale can be found in the northwestern parts of China as well as in some music of the Guangzhou Chaozhou area.

Contrary to popular belief, the seven-tone scale is frequently found in music of China as well. The three commonly used types of seven-tone scales in Chinese music are the zhengsheng (正聲) scale or the regular seven-tone scale, the xiazhi (下徵) scale or the lowered-fourth seven-tone scale and the qingyu (清羽) scale or the raised 6th seven-tone scale.

The regular seven-tone scale, the most traditional form of seven-tone scale in Chinese music and has the notes 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7, the only difference with the diatonic scale being the sharp on the fourth note.
Excerpt from Kongchengji (空城記), Peking opera.
Music from many areas throughout China use this scale - it can be found in Peking operas, Henan operatic forms, Nanyin music and many other storytelling musical forms.

Qingyu refers to the raised sixth and this scale is made up of the notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 and b7. This scale can be found in music from the northwestern areas, many folksongs, and operatic and instrumental pieces.
Aletai (阿勒泰) - a khazak folksong.

The xiazhi scale has the notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 and 7 which corresponds directly to the western major scale. This is a very commonly used scale and can be found in music from all around China.
Jiaochengshan (交城山) - Shanxi folksong.
However, there is still a marked difference between this and the Western major scale. When this scale is used in Chinese music, the skeletal basis for the melody is still the pentatonic scale. Hence in a tune, the lowered-fourth seven-tone scale will sound very different from a piece written with the western major scale as a basis.

Scales are the basis of a piece of music. With different types of scales, the music gets it's unique characteristic and flavor. Hence understanding the scales which form the basis of the music can bring us to a deeper level of understanding of the music.


Du Ya Xiong, Qin De Xiang. Zhong Guo Yue Li "中國樂理". Shanghai: Shanghai Yinyue Xueyuan Chu Ban She, 2007.


  1. Thanks for this clear and understandable explanation!

  2. Dear KaliDas, Thanks a million. Could add a comment about the scales Chiao or Chaio?
    Thanks again dear mentor
    Vagelis Kordompoulis from Greece

  3. Dear KaliDas, Thanks a million. Could add a comment about the scales Chiao or Chaio?
    Thanks again dear mentor
    Vagelis Kordompoulis from Greece