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For many of us Chinese music is a bit of a mystery. It is either seen as “new age” and for relaxing or as a bit random with lots of seemingly out of tune bells and gongs that don’t necessarily sit to well on the western musical palette. This is often because of the radical difference between the “Western” scales and those of traditional “Eastern” music. It is perhaps unfair or over simplistic to define music along lines of simply East and West, with there being for example, such a great difference between Chinese and Indian music. It is perhaps easier to say that the western scale is based around 12 notes with every increment being 1 semitone above the last. We then choose which of those notes to use in various combinations in order to express different situations. These 12 notes are simply a product of us deciding that we wanted to work with those notes but in fact every one of those increments could be split in half again to produce further notes. The Chinese system allows for more flexibility between note distances creating different scales. Neither system is more “correct” than the other, it’s more a case of what we’ve become used to over generations. The notes in Western music are of an exact pitch and harmony but in Eastern music you may not even been told which pitch to play rather how to play each pitch. This can often lead to western ears finding it painful and out of tune when in reality it is anything but.
The Pentatonic Scale in Chinese music
Chinese music will usually use the Pentatonic scale, which can be heard on a piano through the black keys in a very basic form, this works on a ratio of fifths which is believed to be linked directly to the 5 elements of water, wood, fire, earth, metal. This is a concept found throughout Chinese culture in everything from feng shui to astrology. To just think of this scale as the black keys however is to do it a great disservice. You could write the western notation of a pentatonic scale from Beijing and another from Hangzhou and another from Guangzhou and they would all look the same, but listen to them being performed by local musicians and they would sound distinctly different. This is added to by the lack of equal temperament in Eastern music.
Chinese opera is part of the long history of Chinese music
The Chinese have had a long history of music with evidence of this culture dating back over 3000 years to the Zhou dynasty. Along with all the styles and folk music of China’s ethnic minorities, perhaps the most famous is the Opera. There are many styles of Opera from Cantonese to sichuan but undoubtedly the most famous is that of the capital city of Beijing. It is something that many tourists will take in on a China tour.
The modern music from Cui Jian to Canto Pop
In the modern era rock became famous under China’s godfather of rock, Cui Jian. He continues to inspire audiences around the country and sell out tours. Hip Hop and the sickly sweet Canto Pop or C-Pop have also broken through in the modern age but all of these styles are very much routed in Western rather than Eastern thought. New scenes continue to pop up all around the country but particularly in the major cities and especially in Beijing and Shanghai. Next time you are on a holiday in China, why not try and take in some of this new wave of talent.
Article posted by Phil Stanley & Headseast: 19th January 2015
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