How Is Chinese Music Written Down?

Chinese music has a rich history and cultural significance that transcends borders and time. One of the fascinating aspects of Chinese music is the way it’s written down, specifically through a system known as Jianpu, or numbered musical notation. This method, which gained widespread acceptance by 1900, revolutionized how musicians and composers could notate and communicate their compositions. Jianpu utilizes a movable do system, where the scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 represent do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si. Moreover, dots placed above or below a numeral indicate the octave of the note it represents, providing added clarity and precision in the notation. This system not only allows for an easily understandable way to read and write music, but it also preserves and enhances the unique musical traditions and expressions of Chinese culture.

What Is the Chinese Music Tuning System?

Chinese music has a unique tuning system that differs from the diatonic scale used in Western music. Instead, it relies on a five-note (pentatonic) scale. This scale includes five pitch classes, which are commonly referred to as gong, shang, jue, zhi, and yu. These pitch classes serve as the basis for composing and performing traditional Chinese music.

One notable characteristic of Chinese music is it’s emphasis on melody rather than harmony. Unlike Western music, which often incorporates harmonies and chords, traditional Chinese music focuses on developing intricate and captivating melodies. This melodic approach can be observed in various forms of Chinese vocal music, which are typically sung solo rather than in choral arrangements.

Chinese vocal music, as a distinct genre, has it’s roots in sung poems and verses with music. It’s characterized by a thin and non-resonant vocal style or in falsetto. The lyrics often reflect themes of love, nature, and philosophical ideas, and the singers evoke emotions through their expressive interpretations.

In addition to vocal music, Chinese culture also celebrates instrumental music, which is often performed on traditional Chinese instruments such as the guzheng, erhu, and pipa. These instruments are known for their rich tonal qualities and ability to create complex melodic patterns.

Traditional Chinese Instruments and Their Unique Characteristics

  • Erhu – A two-stringed bowed instrument known for it’s melancholic and expressive tones.
  • Guqin – An ancient zither with seven strings, used for solo performances and esteemed for it’s delicate and meditative sounds.
  • Pipa – A pear-shaped lute with four strings, capable of producing both delicate and lively melodies.
  • Dizi – A bamboo flute with six finger holes, capable of producing a wide range of sounds and expressive techniques.
  • Sheng – A mouth-blown free-reed instrument, characterized by it’s harmonious and ethereal tones.
  • Yangqin – A hammered dulcimer played with bamboo mallets, known for it’s bright and resonant sound.
  • Guzheng – A plucked zither with 21 strings, renowned for it’s rich and versatile sound palette.
  • Suona – A double-reed brass instrument, often used in Chinese orchestras and festive occasions for it’s bright and powerful sound.
  • Guqin – A long zither with up to 16 strings, played with both hands to create an intricate and melodic sound.
  • Xiao – A vertical end-blown flute, capable of producing a gentle and expressive tone.

Chinese music is known for it’s diversity, as it’s classified into various styles based on it’s era, region, and purpose. Each style showcases the unique cultural elements and artistic expressions of China. The main categories of Chinese music include classical, folk, opera, and modern Chinese music, each with it’s own distinct characteristics and traditions. These styles not only reflect the rich history and heritage of Chinese music but also contribute to it’s vibrant and evolving contemporary scene.

How Is Chinese Music Classified?

Chinese music is classified into different styles based on various factors such as the era, region, and purpose for which it was created. One of the most prominent styles is classical Chinese music, which has a rich history dating back thousands of years. This style is characterized by it’s traditional instruments, such as the guqin and pipa, and it’s use of poetic lyrics. Classical Chinese music often reflects the values and culture of ancient China.

Different ethnic groups in China have their own unique folk music traditions, each with their own distinctive instruments and melodies. Folk music often expresses the daily lives, customs, and beliefs of these communities, and can be highly diverse and colorful.

Chinese opera is also a significant style of music, combining elements of music, dance, and theater. It encompasses a wide range of regional and local opera genres, each with it’s own distinct performance style, costumes, and musical accompaniment. Chinese opera has a long history and is known for it’s elaborate costumes, makeup, and stylized movements.

Whether it’s the classical melodies that have endured for centuries, the vibrant folk music traditions of various regions, the dramatic performances of Chinese opera, or the modern sounds of contemporary pop and rock, Chinese music continues to captivate audiences worldwide.

Modern Chinese Music: Explore the Evolution and Influence of Contemporary Pop and Rock Music in China, Including the Emergence of Chinese Pop Idols and the Rise of Indie Music Scenes.

  • Introduction to modern Chinese music
  • Evolution of contemporary pop and rock music in China
  • Influence of Chinese pop idols on the industry
  • The rise of indie music scenes in China

Source: Music of China

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Chinese music has a deep-rooted connection with the natural world, as it’s composition is intricately tied to the five elements of nature. Each tone in traditional Chinese music represents one of these elements, creating a harmonious interplay between musical notes and the environment. Classical Chinese music, in particular, follows a heterophonic structure, wherein a single melody is repeated in various forms, showcasing the diverse interpretations and variations within this rich musical tradition.

How Is Chinese Music Composed?

Chinese music has a rich history and unique approach to composition. In traditional Chinese music, each tone is associated with one of the five elements of nature: earth, wood, metal, fire, and water. This concept of connecting music to the natural world gives Chinese music a distinct character and cultural significance.

Classical Chinese music is primarily heterophonic, which means that the same melody is repeated in multiple variations. This allows for flexibility and improvisation within the structure of the piece. It also emphasizes the importance of individual interpretation and expression within a collective performance.

Chinese music notation differs from the Western staff notation. Instead of using a five-line staff, Chinese music uses a system called Jianpu, which is a numerical notation system. This system assigns numbers to represent different pitches, allowing musicians to read and play the music without relying on Western notation.

Traditional Chinese instruments such as the guzheng, pipa, and erhu are commonly used, each contributing their distinct timbres and tones to the composition. These instruments are often played with techniques such as sliding, bending, and plucking to add expressive nuances to the music.

Composers may incorporate elements of poetry, calligraphy, or storytelling into their compositions, creating a multi-layered and immersive musical experience.

The unique and captivating sound of traditional Chinese music can be attributed to it’s distinct scale system. Unlike the familiar diatonic scale used in Western music, ancient Chinese music relies on a pentatonic scale consisting of just five notes. This difference in musical structure gives Chinese melodies a recognizable and ethereal quality.

What Are the Notes in Ancient Chinese Music?

In ancient Chinese music, the notes used are part of a pentatonic scale. This scale consists of five notes, which are often referred to as Gong, Shang, Jiao, Zhi, and Yu. Each note in this scale has a distinct pitch and represents a different emotion or mood. These notes are traditionally written down using a numerical system called Gongche notation.

Gongche notation is a unique method of writing down music that originated in ancient China. Instead of using traditional staff notation like in Western music, Gongche notation uses numbers to represent the pitch of each note. Each number corresponds to a specific pitch within the pentatonic scale. The spacing between the numbers indicates the rhythm and duration of each note.

The use of a five-note scale in Chinese music is deeply rooted in the cultural and philosophical beliefs of ancient China. The pentatonic scale is thought to represent harmony and balance, as it contains a limited number of notes that complement each other. This scale is also believed to reflect the natural elements and the five cardinal directions present in Chinese cosmology.

Over time, Chinese composers and musicians have incorporated other scales and tonalities into their compositions, influenced by different regions and musical styles.

In addition to Gongche notation, Chinese music is also often notated using jianpu notation, which is a simplified system that uses numbers to represent the pitches of the pentatonic scale. Jianpu notation is more accessible to beginners and is commonly used in educational settings and popular music.

The Historical Development of Ancient Chinese Music

Ancient Chinese music has a rich historical development that spans thousands of years. The earliest known records of Chinese music date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), where oracle bone inscriptions have depicted musical instruments and notations. However, it was during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) that a more systematic approach to music notation emerged.

The most commonly used system for writing down Chinese music during this period was known as the gongche notation. Gongche, meaning “pitch pipes,” involved using a set of symbols to represent the pitch and rhythm of musical notes. These symbols were written on a grid-like system, with horizontal lines representing pitch and vertical lines representing time.

As Chinese music continued to evolve, new notational systems emerged. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the Jianpu system, also known as numbered musical notation, became popular. In this system, each note was assigned a number, and the rhythm was indicated by dots and other symbols. This simplified notation system allowed for easier learning and dissemination of music.

Throughout history, various regional styles of music notation also developed in different parts of China. For example, the Jiangnan sizhu music tradition in Southern China has it’s own unique system of notation.

In modern times, traditional Chinese music continues to be notated using a combination of different systems. Musicians often rely on gongche notation, numbered musical notation, and Western notation to capture the nuances of the music.

Overall, the historical development of ancient Chinese music notation reflects the rich and diverse musical heritage of China, showcasing the creativity and ingenuity of it’s musicians throughout the centuries.


This system, which gained popularity by 1900, utilizes a movable do system where the scale degrees 1-7 represent do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si respectively. Octaves are indicated by dots above or below the numerals.

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