Chinese Music Theory and Its Implications for Western Music

As an ethnomusicology major, I am fascinated by how global cultures view music. One culture in particular, the Chinese, view music in such a manner that I believe would change the minds of scholars here in the west if adopted.  First, for me to set up my argument, I must delve into the story of how it is believed that music came to be created in China.

Legend states that music in China developed when Huangdi (founder of the Chinese Empire) instructed a man by the name of Ling-lun to travel the Kwen-lun mountains. There he found bamboo shoots, and wishing to imitate the nearby birds in the forest of the mountains, he cut the bamboo into what would eventually create the chromatic scale (called Lü in Chinese) through blowing 12 different pitches. This legend is important to state as it gave birth to the belief that each tone in the Lü scale has specific ties to nature.

In the Lü scale, tones like the second tone Tai-tsoh represents rain and the awakening of insects and tones like the eighth tone Lin-tsong represents extreme heat and the beginning of autumn. The significance of this tie to nature is that every note in the Chinese Lü scale illustrates the great care Chinese theorists have approached music.

This is where I believe that the Chinese philosophy of music could help western scholars. Theorists in the west tend to have a scientific, mathematical approach to music theory, but there is little questioning why. They instruct music students to follow part-writing rules of harmony, the melodic rules of counterpoint, but the only explanation they have is “this is the way it is done, and we do not question that.”

I believe it is time to question that however, I believe western music theory needs to attach significance to every note played, every subtle nuance, in order to further open up the minds of composers, theorists, and musicians. Like the Chinese, us westerners need to see notes in poetic terms, not simply mathematical terms.

How we do this is complicated, as academia is quite stuck in their approach, but with enough evidence and research, I believe it can be proven that music theory’s approach is limited and impeding its own progress. Music is, after all, an art form, and while rules are important, they should not be the only focus of the scholars in that field. I believe that a more poetic, metaphysical view of the notes in the western system will aid every individual involved with music, either on the side of musical scholarship, the side of musical creation, or simply the side of musical enjoyment.

The possibilities that could open up are simply there for the taking. It will just require a few brave, experimental scholars who are willing to be subjected to ridicule by their peers in order to change the view of music. I can only hope this occurs one day.

(Source: “The Yellow Bell: A Brief Sketch of the History of Chinese Music” By Chao Mei Pa)


40 thoughts on “Chinese Music Theory and Its Implications for Western Music

  1. Wow, this is a very important theory useful in our approach to that life force that is music. I’ve always looked at the all too common formulaic approach to music with derision. I believe there should be placed much more significance to it, like the Chinese do. Your major sounds pretty interesting Derek.

  2. Good points. There have been several composers in the west that have tried this approach, or at least a similar one. Alexander Scriabin was convinced that notes, and keys in particular, represented colors, and thus emotions through metaphysical means. Other 20th century composers really took this a step further, Dane Rudyar used astrological signs. John Cage composed using the I-Ching. Lou Harrison used gamelan instruments, which gave him an entirely new scale system with which to work. I think that you will find quite a few composers do think about this. As someone in academia myself, I see and can support your point that a large number western composers can get too stodgy and mathematical, though. But I think there are composers who have branched out and expanded their horizons–and ours as well. And if you are really up for a wild ride, check out R.J. Stewart’s “The Spiritual Dimension of Music.” It’ll challenge everything you thought about music, even if you reject his premise!

  3. Yeah no doubt, but my point is that, in the mainstream conservatories like Julliard and others, the European ways are dominant, which I believe stunts the growth of both music and scholarship. There still is a prevailing western attitude, which I find concerning to say the least. I will check out the Stewart book for sure, I am always looking to be challenged! Thanks for writing.-Derek

    1. I’m confused. Are you talking about traditional functional western music theory as would be applied to classical music and, essentially, today’s pop, or are you talking about contemporary art music? Both?

      Part of the problem might be more cultural in that western logic is circular in nature, needing to end with the same premise that you start with. In eastern culture this circularity might be considered going nowhere. Since you end where you began, why did you simply not stay put?

  4. Thanks for your article. I appreciate your quest for poetry in music, but I must say I disagree in some respects. You mentioned that theorists in the west tend to have a scientific, mathematical approach to music theory. Well, mathematics is Nature, so I don’t see the contradiction. Also, you mention that when asked for an explanation to the rules of counterpoint and harmony, teachers tend to say: “this is the way it is done, and we do not question that”. Well, I was never taught that way. Most rules are derived from acoustic principles, some of which can be traced back to the harmonic series. They are also derived from common sense and taste, which obviously shifts throughout the ages. This is why we are asked taught to compose and orchestrate in the style of different composers, so that we can get acquainted with different ways of dealing with music materials. There is always room for poetry, but every composer must have a well-grounded theoretical basis as a starting point.

  5. I never at any point stated that theory should be done away with, I simply stated that there needs to be an expansion on it (which in a way comes down to interpretation as I don’t consider math to be a part of the metaphysical world in the manner that you seem to). While we are asked to compose in different styles of composition, I ask you this question, what culture(s) are these styles derived from? Romantic, Classical, Baroque etc. are all derivatives of European influence, not Near Eastern, not East, South, or Southeast Asian, not East, West, South, or North African, not Central American, and not South American. One of the big picture ideas of this article is that western music education should attempt to open their minds to other cultural perspectives of music (I would point you to my first blog post “A Proposal for Progress in Western Classical World for an expansion on this). I really do not know of many conservatories that are not euro-centric in nature, and that is what drives some of my opinions, as I believe that lack of knowledge regarding other musical cultures stifles creativity and enlightenment. Thanks for commenting and I hope to stimulate more conversations down the road-Derek

  6. Well I am not against an expansion on music theory that would allow us to embrace the theoretical principles that govern the music of other cultures. I am Peruvian and I have nothing against that. One of my former composition teachers is an expert in Indian music and he always pushed me to open my horizons. I have even written two works for koto, one of them a 25-minute-long concerto for koto and orchestra. I won’t deny there is a strong tendency to favor Western musical traditions, but it is also true that Western Classical music has put forth a very comprehensive theory of harmony and counterpoint, mainly due to the fact that it relies heavily on notation. As a composer of orchestra music I find these two practices fundamental. In any case, I do acknowledge the complexity of Indian classical music, for example, so I am not placing one above the other. In short, yes, the broader our understanding of the music of other cultures the better, and that has to go both ways.

    Finally, I do know that Nature and mathematics are intrinsically connected. Just think of how fractals reflect the way living organisms are structured. Think also of the way the golden ratio has informed the work of several composers, most notably Bartók, and how Iannis Xenakis used statistical mechanics as a basis for some of his works. I find the work of these two composers both poetic and spiritual. And although mathematics is not always present in my music, I have used the Fibonacci series as an inspiration for several of my works. Maybe some conservatories are reluctant to teach non-Western practices, but several composers are actively absorbing a great variety of foreign influences, especially beginning in the latter part of the 20th century.

    Thanks for your blog. I’m glad a friend of mine pointed me here. I’m looking forward to further posts of yours. Jimmy.

  7. Hey Diane,

    I appreciate the link, though my education has probably covered these topics more in depth. However I allowed the comment in case anyone who visits my blog may be interested in an introduction to ethnomusicology.

    Best Regards,

  8. There are some small corner’s of music theory which offer a different approach to the meaning of music. Oskar Adler–I have not read him myself but have learned some of his ideas from Heinrich Racker–theorized the origins of music as being based in the scream and the various meanings screaming can have from freight, to sexual, to joy. Such meanings are actually hard to deny considering the ways in which the voice is used in many styles of music.

  9. Are you arguing for more application of global musical structures throughout Western pedagogy, or suggesting that music theory itself should be revolutionised? Isn’t the Chinese connection of tone to nature reflective of their culture(s) in a way that could never be duplicated in the West?

    1. I am advocating for both in some measure I suppose. Ultimately I would like to see western schools push different ideas, or should I say more progressive ideas, than are being presented now. And on your second point, not necessarily. One could have said the same regarding numerous philosophies and ideas that originated in the Far East that westerners in some measure embrace now (such as Zen Buddhism, Taoism etc.), so why not music as well?

  10. I don’t believe that the Western system is ‘wrong’ but that it is too engrossed in tradition, rather than using the ‘universal’ (for lack of a better word) control and shaping of musical forces and resources for their own sake*. The versatility of the figure 12 is an interesting factor. The next highest number that has as many divisors is 60, which would be too high a limit for tonal subdivisions. *The works of Joseph Schillinger are well worth studying if people wish to ‘eject’ themselves out of the rut, if we can live with the naive positivism that was characteristic of that era.

  11. Yeah I never stated that I am against the western thought, I mean I am an avid student of western theory (harmony, counterpoint etc.), but you are right. It is the tight hold we have on traditions that prevents our progress.

  12. A couple points: one is that composers of western art music have gone through many cycles of assigning meaning to specific notes or keys, especially during the early baroque where many keys had different acoustic attributes due to types of tuning and temperament. By the beginning of the classical period, even with the move from well- to somewhat equal-temperament, there were still certain keys that were reflective of certain traits, e.g. F major was considered a martial key (perhaps due to horn tuning) while A major was considered pastoral, etc.
    Regardless, even given free (a)tonalism in the 20th century, i do believe that many if not all composers eventually come to do exactly what you propose: attach significance to each individual note. I know I do, when I compose music. I may write a Db instead of a C# for that very reason.
    Take a look also at Messaien’s writing. Or Harry Partch!

  13. Hey man thanks for commenting. I think the point of the article is summed up in the sentence “This is where I believe that the Chinese philosophy of music could help western scholars.” I really think, in many senses based on my experiences and research, that western theorists and historians of music are very stuck in their ways. I don’t deny the composers who attach significance to their notes, but the fact still remains that western music education at the collegiate level is very firm in not allowing additional theoretical viewpoints aside from solely western ones. I believe that there needs to be a synthesis of not only harmony and counterpoint, but other cultural theoretical perceptions not present in the west. This certainly is unorthodox, but I think of how my global theory studies as an ethnomusicology major have helped me as a composer, and I want everyone to experience that I guess.-Derek

  14. I agree that western music study is very scientifically approached.
    I try to look into the notes, the colors they represent to me and attach them when relevant to extramusical ideas…people or nature or ??? It is fun to combine colors, events and pictures as well as just notes…

    1. Yeah there’s always something going on lol. I just want to record my guitar playing, I’m finally figuring out how to do it. Shows I have other sides as a composer (plus no one outside of my high school or immediate friends/family have heard me play…)

  15. As a musician I have a lot of appreciation for the western classical approach to music theory, but It’s important not to contextualize any method as “the” method. There is poetry in all musical traditions. Also, could anyone point me to a source/list of each of the chromatic tones and it’s symbolic meaning for chinese music theory?

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