Chinese Music theory

Although it has been a common belief that music is a universal language, besides the fact that all music employs a system of sounds to expound certain ideas and emotions, music of different cultures in fact operates along several different rules and structures and in order to understand a type of music better, understanding the fundamental rules and structures of the musical culture (and in extension, the history, language, etc of the society) can not be overstated.

In order to appreciate and understand Chinese musical compositions better, a basic understanding of the fundamentals of Chinese music theory has to be in place.

Very often, musicians have fallen into the trap of looking at Chinese music through the glasses of Western Art-music theory and as a result, gotten the idea that Chinese music is so much more backward than Western music because there is no understanding of the workings of harmonies, or that the way the music is notated is far from strict and there is no standards of performance comparable to that of Western music. Looking at Chinese musical compositions, especially the traditional ones through Western musical theory-tinted glasses inevitably gives one such an impression. However, that would not be doing justice to what is actually present within Chinese music. What we need here, is a total paradigm shift from how we are used to looking at and analysing Western music.

Basics of Chinese Music Theory

Rhythm: The idea of “jiepai” [ and ] and rhythm and tempo in Chinese music changed over history.
During the pre-Han period, a “pai” [] was a big unit within which consists of a number of “jie” [] which may not be regular.
In the Tang Dynasty, there came the concept of a “jupai” [句拍], or a musical phrase. A “duanpai” [段拍] was a longer division which separates the different sections. Musical phrases and sectional divisions then were usually determined by the verses in the songs.
By the Song Dynasty, “yunpai” [韵拍] came into existence and this was the beat made by the wooden clappers or “paiban” [拍板] on the final accent or word of a sentence or phrase. Song Ci [宋詞] has verse structures that are not of equal lengths and hence the length of each “pai” [] was not regular. Within each “pai” [], there are a number of “zi” [] (used to represent notes or words), but although there is a subdivision of “zi” [] within a “pai” [], the length of each “zi” [] is not regular and hence there is as yet, no concept of a regular number of beats within a bar as we know of now.
In the Ming Dynasty, 1 “pai” [] started to come to represent 4 “zi” []. In performance, a clapper [拍板] use to beat each “pai” []. Hence it started to be also known as the “ban” []. The rest of the “zi” [] were known as the “yan” []. It was from this time that there was an emergence of the concept of regular bars and beats. However, such regularity does not equate to the regularity of beats and accents and bars in the Western music concept of rhythm. The regularity was more in terms of an adherence to the musical phrase, and rhythm as conceptualised by Western music was in fact elastic.

Accents and Dynamics: accents and dynamics of the music are also closely related to the language. The concept of regular accents in Indo-European language is absent in the Sino-Tibetan language family. The emphasis is more on the accents within a phrase (rather than regular accents in a word). Related to this concept, the idea of accents on regular beats of a bar is not as important as accents occurring on appropriate parts of the phrase. Accents are also influenced by note length.

Keys and Tonality: There is a concept, both of absolute pitch [律名] and relative pitch [階名].
Pentatonic scales are one of the most frequently occurring scale in Chinese music (but definitely not the only one). Within the pentatonic scale, the degrees of the scale are known as “gong, shang, jiao, zhi, yu” [宮商角徴羽] corresponding to 1,2,3,5,6 degrees of the scale. These 5 notes are also known as the “wusheng” [五聲] and four of the more important notes within this 5-note scale are “gong, shang, zhi and yu” [宮商徴羽] and these are known as the “si ji” [四基].
Three types of pentatonic scales are most frequently found in Chinese music: the tonal pentatonic [全音五聲音階] (( a s d g h) makes up the majority; the semi-tonal pentatonic [半音五聲音階] (zh zj a d f) can be found in the music of certain minority tribes in Yunnan; and the neutral pentatonic [中立五聲音階] (zg lzj a s rf) where l is lowered slightly but not yet a semitone and r is raised slightly, less than a semitone. This neutral pentatonic scale can be found in the music from the North-western parts of China, as well as the Guangdong, Chaoshan area.
Seven-tone scales are also frequently found in Chinese music, the most common being the “zheng sheng yin jie” [正聲音階] ( a s d qf g h j ra ). Other 7-tone scales include the “xia zhi yin jie” [下徴音階] which corresponds to the Western diatonic scale, and the “qing yu yin jie” [清羽音階] found in the music of the North-western areas of China ( a s d f g h wj ra ). However, there is a fundamental difference between the 7-tone scale of Chinese music as compared to that of the Western 7-tone scale in that the Chinese 7-tone scale has its roots among the pentatonic scale and its tonality is as such influenced.

Tonality: A “yun” [] is a scale and in the ancient times, the most common “yun” was the “zheng sheng” and hence all “yuns” are based upon the “zheng sheng”. The “yun zhu” [均主] is also known as “gong” []. “Huang Zhong Yun” [黃鐘均] for example, are made up of the notes C, D, E, F#, G, A, B.
However, these notes have distinct names only for the notes occurring in the pentatonic scale, hence, 宮,商,角,變徴, 徴, 羽,變宮 for the names of the “zheng sheng” scale wherein “qing” [] means to sharpen a note and “bian” [] means to flatten a note.
There are two ways of looking at the relationship between the keys of the music – from the “gong xi” [宮系] or from the “diao xi” [調系]. Here we will be talking about the keys with pentatonic scales as example, but the concept is similar for 7-tone scales.
Within the same 宮系, the scales can be thought of as similar to the concept of modal scales in Western music. For example, the “gong diao shi” [宮調式] would be asdgh; the “shang diao shi” [商調式] would be sdghra; and so on. And hence, within a single “gong xi” [宮系], there can be 12 different “diao” [調].
A “diao xi” [調系] on the other hand, is a different concept. Within a “diao xi” [調系], the scales share the same “diao tou” [調頭]. Hence “gong diao” [宮調] within the “huang zhong diao xi” [黃鐘調系] would have the notes C, D, E, G, A; the “shang diao” [商調] C, D, F, G, Bb; the “jiao diao” [角調] C, Eb, F, Ab, Bb; etc.
There are also different ways of describing the key of a music, by “wei diao” [為調] or “zhi diao” [之調].
F 為宮will have the notes F, G, A, C, D;
D 為羽 will have the notes D, F, G,A, C;
F之宮 is F, G, A, C, D;
D 之羽 is B, D, E, F#, A.

Modulation: Related to the idea of the “gong xi” [宮系] and the “diao xi” [調系], when there is a change of “gong xi', it is known as “xuan gong” [旋宮] and when there is a change of “diao xi”, it is known as “fan diao” [犯調].

Form and Structure:
One of the most important components of Chinese music is the melody or the “qu diao” [曲調]. The melody may be a vocal melody or an instrumental melody. There is a great emphasis on vocal music and techniques and characteristics of the vocal melodies influences the instrumental melody as well. “Qiang yin” [腔音] are an important aspect of the melody of Chinese music and the pitches of tones are closely related to the language and a deviation of pitch, timbre, tone colour, etc (“qiang yin” [腔音]) at different parts of the notes had strict rules which were guided by the area from which the music originated from.
A melody may be developed in several ways, through
  • repetition
    • the repetition of a melodic phrase or
    • of a rhythmic pattern
  • changing the beginning of the phrase
  • changing the ending of a phrase
  • repeating a snatch of a motif
  • ornamentation
  • piling on “jia duo” [加垛]
  • jia sui” [加穗]
  • continuation/passing on
    • jie zi” [接字] beginning of second phrase uses the ending note of the first phrase
    • jie yin” [接音] using material from first phrase to develop second phrase
  • having certain motif that repeats throughout “guan chuan” [貫穿]
  • sequence
  • others
The pentatonic scale is frequently the most important scale within a melody and as a result of the scale structure, there is not much of a convention of using the harmonic forces of dissonance versus consonance to move a musical phrase to the end.

A “qu pai” [曲牌] is a melody that can stand on its own.
A “dan qu” [單曲] uses only a single “qu pai” and it can be
  • structured by a regular number of phrases, most commonly 4 phrases.
  • Having no regular phrases
    • of a “zhan kai shi” [展開式] with short main motifs within the development
    • yin shen shi” [引申式] a development of the main motif from beginning to the end
A “ji qu” [集曲] uses 2 or more distinct melodies and it can be
  • jia ji” [夾集] with 1 main melody and others embedded within
  • jie ji” [接集] the joining of a few melodies together (not whole)

Ban Shi” [板式] Structure:
The “ban yan” [板眼] reflects how the rhythm is notated.
Ancient scores have different writing conventions but basically the “ban yan” reflect the position where the clapper [] has to beat and where the “yan” [] are.
The “ban shi” can be divided into
  • regular “ban” [有板]
    • fastest - “liu shui ban” [流水板,快板,有板無眼,只板]
    • Duple time – 一板一眼,中板
    • quadruple time – 一板三眼, 慢板
    • octuple time – 贈板,慢板變體
  • no fixed “ban” [無板]
    • 緊打慢唱,搖板
    • 慢打慢唱
Accents do not occur on regular positions of a bar but rather, they more often depend on the pitch and the duration of the note.

The “ban shi” can be modulated in several ways
  • addition of “yan” [添眼] eg from 老六板 to 花六板 to 中花六板 to 慢六板
  • decreasing “yan” [抽眼]
  • changing from regular to irregular “ban” [叫散]
All these involving only a change in “ban shi” but retains the same basic melodic structure.

Formal Organisation: There are a few different commonly used forms
  • 單牌體 which can either be a
    • 單曲 or a
    • 集曲
  • 多牌體 which is the joining together of several entire曲牌, note the difference from 接曲.
  • 板腔體 also known as the 板式唱腔變化體 whereby a single melody is varied with various 板式. In operas, the music frequently moves from 散 - 慢 - 中 - 快 - 散. Instrumental pieces inherit this basic structure as well.
  • 變奏體 which is the variation based upon a single melody and this can be
    • 原板變奏a varying of the melody with the same and it can be strict whereby the variations are built on the main melody without any additions or not strict whereby additions are allowed
    • 板式變換where there is a change of 板式
板腔體 can actually be considered 板式變換的變奏體. Very often for these variations, the
main melody comes at the end, rather than at the beginning like in Western music.
  • 循環體 is made up of many 曲牌 joined together by a single 曲牌. Eg A B C B D B E B etc and here A, C, D, E etc are known as the main melodies [主曲] and B is the passing melody [過曲]. There are 2 types
    • 串連式 where each melody can stand alone
    • 合頭式 where the melodies are all merged together
Note difference from rondo form
  • 套曲體 big scale structure eg 南音指
  • 分段體 which is made up of small distinct sections and may be the same motif development, or a contrast of different motifs. Eg 春江花月夜 made up of 10 sections
  • 綜合體 which is a combination of different types of structural development.

Structure of percussion elements [鑼鼓樂]: 3 types of percussion instruments are commonly used, the metal, skin and wood [金,革,木].
There are two ways of using the percussion element in Chinese music, as
  • 合奏鑼鼓 which can be divided into
    • 清鑼鼓
    • 鬧鑼鼓 which can further be divided into
      • 板頭鑼鼓 and
      • 舞蹈鑼鼓
  • 伴奏鑼鼓
The structure of percussion elements is different from that of instrumental music. Folk percussion has 4 main components, the 大鑼,鼓,鈸,小鑼
The main motif is the 點子 and the most basic 點子 is 齊擊 and further variations are known as 花打. The 鑼鼓牌子 is a grouping of a few 點子, and can be thought of as the equivalent of the melodic 曲牌.
A few different ways in which these 點子 can be combined are
  • 反覆法 where a single 點子 is repeated
  • 綜合法 where a few 點子 are repeated

Harmonic Structures: Two different types of harmonic structures are
  • Single melodic line
  • Multiple lines which can be made up of
    • 接應型 two types,
      • 樂句重疊式overlapping of lines
      • 樂逗重疊式no overlap of lines
    • 支聲型
      • 分聲部式harmonic with slightly different lines
      • 加花式ornamentation in different lines
    • 主調型
      • 和聲式homophonic
      • 平行式2 or more lines simultaneously either parallel or non parallel
      • 持續音符襯托式ostinato note
      • 固定音型襯托式ostinato motif
    • counter-melody
      • imitative
      • different but musically related eg vocal and instrumental lines playing similar but related things

Harmony: The harmony is built mainly upon the pentatonic scale.
Frequently, the distance between 2 notes is not more than a 5th apart.
Major 2nd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 3rd, perfect octaves and unisons are common.
Due to the basis being a pentatonic and not a diatonic scale, harmonies are different and same chord may serve different functions.
In Tonal pentatonic scale, the intervals present are the perfect unison, major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, major 6th, minor 7th, and the perfect octave whereas in the 7-tone diatonic scale, there is also the minor 2nd, major 7th, augmented 4th, diminished 5th etc.
Similarly, there are different intervals within the neutral pentatonic scale.
Parallel movements in these different scales are also different, for example
asdgh asdfghj
dghrars dfghjrars
Because of these differences in scales, the harmonic functions of the same intervals become different.

In vocal, especially folk singing, there is movement of close intervals. Even with male and female singers together, one group will frequently alter their pitch higher or lower to match with the other group so that the range is not too big.
In instrumental music, many instruments do not have a very wide range. When playing together, there is also this desire of grouping instruments that are closer together in their pitch range together and hence the entire range ends up being quite narrow still.
In folk and more traditional music, the most common type of harmonic structure is the 支聲型 and hence the range cannot be too big or the ornamented melodies will sound apart. Music with other types of harmonic structure could still work with a wider range.

The vertical movement of the music is influenced by the horizontal movement, for example if the melodic line has plenty of thirds, vertical harmonic lines frequently do too.

The harmonies of a piece of music also depends on the musical habits and culture of an area for example that of the “Zhuang” tribe [壯族] has a lot of major 2nd.

When there is multiple harmonic lines, 相生性多音和聲 is frequently see. This involves chords with a major 2nd, a perfect 4th and a perfect 5th. Sometimes the 泛音性多音和聲 can also be found where there is a combination of major and minor 3rd.
The harmonic progression can move in similar motion either parallel or non-parallel, or in contrary motion, 斜向 and 反向.

Harmonies are also based upon the types of scales, for example the notes 5, 1 and 2 in the 徴調式 are considered stable and 3, 6 are unstable. In the 羽調式, 6, 3 and 2 are stable and 1 ,5 are not.
The resolution of harmonies also vary with music of different areas, for example the Miao tribe uses the g ra and d h movements whereas the Dong tribe uses a falling minor 3rd, ra h frequently.


  1. Hello and thank you for perfetct blog. I like to learn something about traditional music and your information helps me a lot.

    Can you please add 2more examples of "zhi diao" and "yu diao" by “diao xi” concept in chapter "Keys and Tonality"?

    I guess "zhi diao" is pentatonic scale (from C): C D F G A
    and "yu diao" : C D# F G A# . Is it correct?

    1. Sorry for this very late reply!
      Thank you for your question.
      I just did a new post, and I hope that it will clarify matters.