Cantonese music is commonly found around the Guangdong (广东) and Zhujiang (珠江) region. This branch of music can be categorised under the yue hai (粤海支脉) branch of Chinese folk music. The bai yue (百越) people originated from this area and they later mixed with the people from Northern China who migrated south over the years. The yue (粤) dialect is the predominant branch of dialect found here.
Formed towards the end of the Qing dynasty, it was initially performed by instrumental performers from the operas, street artists, teahouse performers, and performers for rituals. They performed musical interludes of operas and popular folk tunes of the area and the locals call these guo chang pu (过场谱), pu zi (谱子), or xiao qu (小曲). At first, they were being used in weddings and funerals. By the beginning of the 20th century, they were also being used for the silent movies, in which this music would be performed before the start of a movie, and sometimes also in accompanying the movie. Recording companies also came into China and started making commercial records of Chinese music. Besides the highly popular Peking opera, Cantonese music was also being recorded. The rise of this commercial activity led to an increase in popularity of this music and new developments rapidly arose as well. New instruments were experimented with, this included a mixing of Western instruments and jazz elements into the traditional ensemble. New music was also written, many of them specially for the albums being recorded. Because of the limitations of recording techniques of that time, the music that was being recorded had to be short – not more than four minutes. The new music that came up was hence influenced by this and many pieces are complete works that are short and concise. With the popularising of Cantonese music, many amateur groups playing Cantonese music for self-entertainment were soon formed. From the 1930s, Cantonese music became more commercialised and can often be found in places like teahouses, dance halls, night clubs and other popular entertainment spots.
In the early days of Cantonese music, the instruments used were the erxian (二弦), tiqin (提琴), yueqin (月琴), dizi (笛子), sanxian (三弦), and percussion instruments – these five instruments were called the wu jia tou (五架头) or the “hard-bow” group (硬弓组合). The traditional scores are notated with the gong chi (工尺谱) or cipher notation.
In the 1920s, an important figure also appeared in the development of Cantonese music. Lü Wen Cheng (吕文成) made changes to the erhu and developed the Guangdong gaohu into the lead instrument of the ensemble and replaced the erxian with it. He also borrowed the qin qin (秦琴) that is frequently found in the Teochew area and together with the yang qin (扬琴), formed the san jian tou (三件头). Later, the dong xiao (洞箫) and the ye hu (椰胡) were added and these became the wu jian tou (五件头). The san jian tou and the wu jian tou were also known as the “soft-bow” group (软弓组合) because of the bow used in the guangdong gaohu. From then on, the guangdong gaohu has became a representation of this genre of music and a large part of the characteristic sound of Cantonese music comes from the guangdong gaohu.
Like most forms of traditional folk instrumental ensemble music, each instrument within the ensemble has its characteristic ornamentation and they play the same heterophonic melody line, meaning that upon the same skeletal melodic line, each instrument adds its own ornamentation, unique to the playing technique of the instrument.
Scales, modes and pitch-centricities found in Cantonese music
Traditional Cantonese music used to be writting in gong chi (工尺谱) in which each note is being represented by a word and the accents or bars being notated with symbols.
The guangdong gaohu being the lead instrument of the ensemble, heavily influences the types of scales and style of the music. With the two strings tuned to G and D, the following pitch-centricities are often found.
Zheng xian (正线), otherwise known as he chi diao (合尺调), with a pitch-centricity of C. This is the most commonly used pitch-centricity. The open strings of the gaohu are zg and sand with these 2 notes as the main notes, the modes most often found is that of the zhi mode. Music in this mode are often lively and bright. Some pieces in this pitch-centricity are 旱天雷, 雨打芭蕉 etc.
Musical example: 雨打芭蕉
a programmatic description of raindrops on the banana leaves, depicting the beautiful scenary of the place. The melody of this piece has plenty of characteristics of plucked instruments especially the pipa. This is characteristic of the early Cantonese music.
Fan xian (反线), or shang liu diao (上六调), pitch-centricity G. The open strings of the gaohu being 1 and 5, and as the main notes, the gong mode is the most frequently used here. Music in this mode often appear strong and steady. Some pieces are 鸟投林, 平湖秋月 etc.
Musical example: 平湖秋月
in this piece, we can see plenty of the early gaohu characteristics, large slides and the usage of the tone colours of the instrument.
Yi fan (乙反), or tan ban (叹板) also with pitch-centricity of C, but instead of zgand s being the important notes, the lowered 7 and 4 are the main notes （which explains for the name yi fan) while zh and 3 are simply passing notes. Another interesting fact about this mode is that the h might appear if the melody extends to over an octave. The high 7 will also be a little bit higher than that of the 7 an octave lower. Some scholars have attributed this to the instrumental limitations and performance practice of old, slowly becoming the norm and influencing current practice. This mode is used to portray sad, painful emotions. The unstable 7 and 4 create the impression of more than a single mode and has special expressivity. Some pieces are 昭君怨, 双声恨 etc.
Musical example: 双声恨
story of herdsman and weaver
Shi gong (士工), another mode in Cantonese music but not so frequently used, traditionally referred to a mode in which the open strings are zh and 3. However, this was applied to the erxian which in this mode, would be tuned to A and E. Hence the pitch-centricity is in C. The music often sounds light and lively, yet intense and rousing. Some pieces are 小桃红, 三醉, etc
With the migration of Chinese from the Guangdong region, this form of music is also being brought to other parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of the world in which there is a substantial population of Cantonese.