Musical Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China

Music in ancient pre-Qin China is radically different from the music that we are familiar with today.

Music, in ancient China, held both a moral and political dimension. The ancient Chinese believed that the type of music a person produces is a reflection of his own morality (and psychology). A chaotic person produces chaotic music, while a person of order produces harmonious music. The music produced, in turn, has the power to effect change in the listener’s morality and psychology. This feedback loop between the producer and consumer of music has the power to quickly propagate harmony or disorder within a state. [On a side note, I’m guessing this is why the Book of Poetry (詩經 Shijing) refers to music as Wind (風 feng). Music moves and spreads its moral effects as swiftly as the wind blows.]

Because of music’s tremendous power to achieve harmony or disorder within a state, music was a very essential moral and political instrument for governance. Music was an essential part of state rituals (禮 li) for the worship of ancestors/spirits and the regulation of society, that the two are almost synonymous with one another. Every aspect of music had to be regulated. The ruler had to regulate both the melodies and the notes. He had to ensure that only orthodox, morally-conducive music was performed (especially in state rituals), and he also had to regulate the five tones (ancient Chinese music was pentatonic: do re mi so la). In the Book of History (書經 Shujing), Emperor Shun, the exemplary sage emperor, was said to have regulated his kingdom by regulating the various weights, measures, and more importantly for our purposes here, the pitch-pipes (律 ), which were the ancient Chinese equivalent of a pitch tuner. For even if orthodox music were performed, if the tones were out of pitch, the discordance that one hears in the melodies will have a moral/psychological effect on its listeners, and can thus effect discord in society. By regulating music, the ruler was able to moderate people’s desires, and so keep them in harmony just as how the various instruments, pitches, and playing styles are in harmony.

In most ancient Chinese texts, music refers primarily to the state rituals and music. Such music was often performed as an ensemble that comprised of bells, drums, chimes, stringed instruments and wind instruments. Often, such music was accompanied by song and dance. The bells played a significant role in music firstly because they marked the start and end of a piece, as well as the start and end of each section within a piece. Prior to the invention of the pitch-pipes (律 ), these bells were essential in regulating the pitches of the five tones (do re mi so la). This was necessary because the bells had a limited set of notes/pitches, whereas stringed and wind instruments were already capable of producing a multiplicity of notes. It was thus the function of the bells (and later on, the pitch-pipes) to set the scale and mode for all the other instruments to follow. Once a scale and mode were chosen, notes outside the chosen pentatonic scale would have been regarded as discordant and thus not harmonious.

A feature of the pentatonic scale is that the notes are related as fifths of each other. This means that any set of notes in the scale played simultaneously will sound harmonious. Chinese culture has long considered the fifth as a natural harmony. The fifth of a ‘do’ is ‘so’. The fifth of a ‘so’ is ‘re’. The fifth of a ‘re’ is ‘la’. The fifth of a ‘la’ is ‘mi’. When we arrange these notes in order, we get the pentatonic scale: do re mi so la. While it is possible to derive every note from ‘do’ to ‘ti’ (including its sharps/flats), ancient Chinese music did not go beyond those five notes. (It was only later that they added two more notes to form the heptatonic scale, which included ‘ti’, the fifth of ‘mi’, and ‘fa’, the fifth of ‘ti’. And it was only much much later that their scales were expanded to include more notes)

Another category of music is that of an individual performance. Confucius is described, in the Analects, as playing his ancient 7-string zither (古琴 guqin) several times in the text. The guqin is often the instrument of choice for such individual performances. Unlike state music/rituals, the guqin is played solo, rarely accompanied by other instruments. Sometimes, it is played in front of a large audience, sometimes to a small crowd, or sometimes, to no one at all. The emphasis in guqin performance is in the intimacy of the performer and his instrument – the way he positions his hands, the strumming/plucking techniques used, and even the setting where the instrument is performed in. Moreover, guqin music placed very little importance on the meter and rhythm of a piece. It was thus up to the performer to vary the meter/rhythm of a musical piece according to his own interpretation. Such solo performances were often a means for an individual to express the unspoken feelings/thoughts of one’s heart. The good listener is one who listens and is able to understand what the performer is communicating through his music. Bearing the moral dimension of music in mind, there are several passages that tell of rulers/dukes who comment on the musical qualities of a performance, and by extension, are able to acquire knowledge of the moral situation of the state.

Having discussed the historical context of ancient Chinese music, the question that now remains is this: what counts as harmony in ancient Chinese music?

Yan Ying (晏嬰), an ancient scholar-minister, wrote:

Sounds are like flavours. Different elements complete each other: one breath, two styles, three types, four instruments, five sounds, six measures, seven notes, eight winds, and nine songs. Different sounds complement each other: the pure and the impure, the big and the small, the short and the long, the fast and the slow, the sorrowful and the joyful, the strong and the tender, the late and the quick, the high and the low, the in and the out, and the inclusive and the non-inclusive. The good person listens to this kind of music in order to balance his mind.


(Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan 春秋左傳, “Shaogong 昭公”, Year 20)

Musical harmony thus requires the following: (1) That the five tones (do re mi so la) are correctly pitched; (2) that only notes within the selected pentatonic scale are played; (3) that there is a balanced mix of melodies that go up and down, and notes that remain at a constant pitch; (4) a balanced mix of volume levels both loud and soft; (5) a balanced mix of playing techniques (Chinese musicians can produce different sounds of the same pitch using the same instruments); (6) a balanced distribution of fast and slow note durations, meter, and rhythm (unlike Western music, ancient Chinese music has no fixed tempo).

As I have mentioned in my earlier post [See The Pre-Beginnings of the Philosophical Concept of Harmony (和 he)], harmony is primarily articulated through the word, 和 he. This word was derived from the word, 龢 he, which referred to a musical instrument that functioned as an accompaniment to the main melody, i.e. mixing sounds. In particular, it referred to a bamboo piped reed instrument meant to accompany/harmonise the melody of another reed instrument. The same word,  龢 he, can also be used to refer to any other instrument that fulfils the function of harmonising the sounds of other instruments according to the requirements of musical harmony (in the previous paragraph).

When these conditions are fulfilled, it can therefore be said that the musicians have achieved harmony in their performance.