Today, if you were to look at a musical score for classical Chinese music, you’ll either see the Western 5-line notation, or numeric notation (1 is do, 2 is re, 3 is mi). I’ve always wondered how the Chinese wrote out their musical pieces before such Western influences came in.
Well, today I opened up a book and found the answer!
Here’s a picture of an ancient Chinese music score.
This music score is specifically for the ancient Chinese 7-stringed zither known as the guqin (古琴). Here’s a picture of how it looks:
At a glance, it looks like an ordinary ancient manuscript filled with nothing but words. But as it turns out, that’s not the case! Except for a few columns on the right and in the middle (those are titles and section headings), every large character is actually a composite of several other characters or symbols used to indicate how one should play the instrument with your left and right hand. Smaller characters are still instructions for the left and right hands on what to do next (e.g. move your finger to another spot so that you can create a certain effect).
Here’s a picture explaining how to read each character:
If you noticed, there isn’t any indicated of a note’s duration. That’s the flexibility of classical Chinese music. It is up to the performer to determine the lengths of each note. The musical performance is thus, also an expression of the musician’s creativity who interprets the performance according to what he deems best.
So cool, right?