Pitch Names

The Chinese have been keeping records for more than 4000 years and in one of the earliest annals, the Shang Shu (尚書), there are records on music about the pitching of musical notes.  This gives an idea about how far back in history Chinese music has evolved.  Music was one of the philosophies scholars studied and wrote on.  It was important not only for the sake of music alone; scholars believed that music affects and is part of the world, the celestial movements, the seasons, art, and mathematics.  Thus dating way back into history, the Chinese have been studying music as a science, long before any scientists or mathematicians in the West started doing so.

In categorizing the musical pitches, each octave is being divided into 12 equal parts, and among these 12 parts, 6 are designated to be yang (陽) or positive, and 6 as yin (陰) or negative. The 6 positive ones are also known as lu (律) and the 6 negative ones are lu (呂) - the difference in the inflection of the pronunciation.  Aeons before the birth of letter names for the different pitches in the West, the Chinese have already came up with 12 different pitches within an octave based upon scientific and mathematical reasoning.

The names of the pitches are huang zhong (黃鐘), da lu (大呂), tai cu (太簇), jia zhong (夾鐘), gu xi (姑洗), zhong lu (仲呂), rui bin (蕤賓), lin zhong (林鐘), yi ze (夷則), nan lu (南呂), wu she (無射) and ying zhong (應鐘).

Unlike the pitch names in Western music however, the pitch names in Chinese music do not correspond to a fixed frequency.  Each dynasty decides upon an auspicious frequency to set for the huang zhong, and from there, the other pitches are set, relative to the huang zhong.  Over the different eras, huang zhong have fluctuated between C# to A, but nowadays when we speak of huang zhong, we often use middle C as the arbitrary pitch.  Hence for academic purposes, we can also denote huang zhong to be C, da lu to be C# and so on.

Note name
Huang Zhong
Da Lu
Tai Cu
Jia Zhong
Gu Xi
Zhong Lu
Rui Bin
Lin Zhong
Yi Ze
Nan Lu
Wu She
Ying Zhong
letter name of pitch

To the ancient scholars, these musical pitches do not stand alone.  They are related to every aspect of the world, and like many natural phenomena, are cyclical in nature. As a result these pitches have found their correspondence in the seasons and in the time of the day.

Before the Han Dynasty, pitches an octave lower had the word bei (倍) in front, probably denoting a doubling of the pipe length for lower notes and pitches an octave higher had the word ban (半) in front of the pitch name, probably to denote halving the pipe length. After the Han Dynasty, the words chong (沖) and qing (清) to denote an octave lower and an octave higher respectively.

Having a system of classification and naming is an indication of how advanced the Chinese have been at studying the phenomenon of sounds and pitches.  Music was not only valued for its artistic merit, but since the dawn of Chinese civilization, it has also been an important topic for scientific study.


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


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  2. The reference has been stated above.

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