Music in Ancient China

In ancient times, the Chinese regarded music as an image of the universe. As the 3rdC B.C writer Lu Pu-We said “Music expresses the accord of Heaven and Earth and produces the harmony between men and spirits”.  The objective of music was not to please the senses but to convey eternal truths and help to prepare man to receive those truths. This concept of balance between heaven and earth could be expressed musically, since 3 is the symbolic numeral of heaven, and 2 of earth. Therefore sounds in the ratio 3:2 will harmonize as heaven and earth, and hence the dominance of the harmonies of the 5th and 4th (which is an inverted 5th), are inherent in Chinese music. You might notice that Chinese musical tradition reflected many views that were once widely held in the ancient classical world.

China had developed sophisticated musical theories by 3000 B.C. With the exception of Greece, Western music is a far more recent accomplishment. China and Greece both equated music with morality; music stood as a symbol of the good in man. Confucius (b 554 B.C) said “Character is the backbone of our human culture. Music is the flowering of character.” Earlier, the Chinese poet Le Ly Kim, in the 7th C B.C wrote: “Virtue is our favourite flower. Music is the perfume of that flower.” Legend has it that the origin of musical scale was found when Emperor Huang Ti ordered his minister Ling Lun to make pitch pipes. It is said that when at the Yuan Yu Mountains he heard the (mythological) male and female ‘Phoenix’ bird sing and could distinguish 12 tones, 6 from the male and 6 from the female. Hence he took bamboo and made the pitch pipes.

The Chinese were the first to examine the relationships between fifths. In the period of Huang Ti (2700B.C) music consisted of a foundation tone and pitches derived from the cycle of 5ths in much the same way as the later Pythagorean cycle of 5ths. They found that a series of P 5ths would produce 12 separate notes at the conclusion of the cycle, before repeating. This was a significant discovery for the Chinese; they honour the number 5 as sacred. Since Chinese philosophy required that music should be an image of natural order, the 12-notes needed to be based on a transposing system. Hence the Chinese instituted a system of 12 related notes that correlated with the 12 moons and 12 hours, 12 signs of the zodiac and so on.

Like Pythagoras the Chinese realised the mathematical and musical imperfection of this system of tonality as when – after working through the cycle of 5ths -you return to the fundamental note several octaves higher, you find it has gone a little sharp. They had discovered what was known to the Greeks as Pythagoras’ comma, and so the 12 notes of the scale could not be fully transposed in all 12 keys. Throughout the ages –like in the western world, the Chinese carried out numerous experiments in an effort to solve the problem and dispense with this ‘Pythagorean comma’, starting with Emperor Wu in about 100 B.C who founded the Imperial Office of Music to establish and preserve correct pitch. Finally, in 1584 Prince Tsai-Yu found the exact formula for equal tempered tuning. This was 50 years before the first writings on the subject in Europe. Together with the Pythagorean system, the Chinese remains one of the root musical systems of the world.

As in ancient Greek thought, the Chinese believe that good music creates good morals. Music education ‘harmonises’ human beings into the well-ordered Chinese society. Confucius believed that music education addressed social and political issues, and promoted peace. Hence, music should be integrated in the school curriculum to develop students’ ethical and emotional development. Clearly, the Chinese believed in the moral virtue of music: “He who sings becomes straight and displays his moral influence”. As Pythagoras did, Confucius prescribed music to regulate and correct the inner spirit. In Chinese thought the moral effect of music  was its most significant aspect.

Chinese legends are full of descriptions of music which has magical effects on nature and man. Musical mode are considered images of various aspects of nature. Confucius himself was thought to be a skilful musician -he sang and played the qin, a kind of zither. In his time, music was considered of great social significance, linking rulers to subjects, parents to children. “It is by poetry that one’s mind is aroused; it is by ceremony that one’s character is regulated; it is by music that one becomes accomplished,” he said.

The time of Confucius within the Chou Dynasty had been a great period in Chinese history. Ancient music from as early as 3000 B.C could still be heard, but this all changed in the dark age of the Chin Dynasty (c 200 B.C). Music had come to occupy so important a place in life that it led, so it was said, to the neglect of practical affairs. Now known as the ‘Burning of the Books’ The fanatical Emperor Shi Huang Ti ordered the destruction of all books, music and instruments in order to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and start culture anew. Forward towards the middle of the 19th century the classical arts reached a very low ebb. Chinese music was in a serious decline and fell away from its position as a great spiritual and political force. Musicians consequently lost their former status.

In the next post I’ll discuss Music in Modern China.

Latest book: Learning Strategies for Musical Success

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Also by Michael Griffin


Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Fundamentals of Notation is a unit of work for general music middle school classes. Designed around the mastering of practical skills, it integrates theory, aural and history, and allows students to progress at their own rate. View Table of Contents. “This has been a great buy; the books are just superb! Interesting topics with a wide range of pieces. Great content with clear progression of learning. Fascinating teaching philosophy! BRAVO!” -The Grieg Academy, London. Available at

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Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Let’s Get Creative! is the fun and creative extension to ‘Fundamentals of Notation’.

View Table of Contents. “We have been using your keyboard course and the results have been amazing!” – St George College, Australia

Available at

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‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’

Second edition. Bumblebee! is more than just a collection of 123 choir exercises and rounds. The author shares timeless wisdom to help you get your choir – primary or secondary – into shape.
View Table of Contents.

“This is really good for all kinds of vocal groups, choirs, conductors. Bravo!!”

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“It’s great to have some fresh warm-ups to add to the repertory. The tips for actions and techniques are really useful, and the advice at the back of the book has made me review some of my strategies.”

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Modern Harmony Method: Fundamentals of Jazz and Popular Harmony (Third Edition, 2013) is a clear and well organised text suitable for students of arranging and composition, and for classically trained musicians wishing to grasp the beautiful logic of jazz harmony. Essential understandings include chord selection, voicing, symbols, circle of 4th progressions, extensions, suspensions and alterations. Included in the 107 pages are explanations, examples, exercises and solutions. The course can be started with students in year 9 and worked through to year 12 musicianship, composing and arranging. Available at


Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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