Appreciation of Chinese Traditional Music from a Western Perspective
In these days of increasing communication between our two perspectives, and the enormous social implications of these exchanges, music has become the most important ambassador between our cultures. Music holds the keys to the most effective cultural exchange and mutual understanding, since it truly is the universal language. It can help us to overcome our bias and dislike for one another, and replace them with feelings of beauty and appreciation readily available through the experience of listening. Understanding music’s functions within both cultures, its background philosophy, its theory, and its meaning as a representative outside of its native culture, has become an essential area of cross-cultural study for musicians and language learners on both sides of the Pacific.
Moving on to the subject material, I would first like to ask you all a few questions. What do you think is the biggest difference between Chinese and Western culture? What are the similarities between the history and philosophy of our respective cultures? Although it is not a commonly touted point, I believe that there are far more similarities between East and West than there are difference. And, while you may find it easier to point out the difference between the two traditions, my thesis is that the essence between the two streams of art and culture does not rely on their views of idealism or perfection, but on their views of the practice and institutionalization of imperfection.
Perfection and Imperfection
The mystery begins with the overtone series, and the reason why each scale has five whole steps and two half steps. There is not a good explanation for this fundamental, mathematical equation, but every thinking culture has had to grapple with the question and ask why this is so. Every culture has also had to cope with the fact that music exhibits an incredible ability to control man’s mind, his emotions, and exert a force of expression and awe upon the listener. How cultures have dealt with this point, and justified their philosophy within music theory and science, molded them into the particular artistic traditions that they have become.
To take a piece of string and tie it tightly between two points is to construct the foundational piece of equipment from which the mathematical theory of music was devised. If you divide the string in two pieces, the same length, each half will vibrate an octave above the original note, if the same amount of tension is procured as on the first string. So on and so forth, as you ascend octave after octave. The overtones of any given note provide a forth and a fifth above the fundamental tone that are easily distinguished. When these notes are established and another set of strings are tuned to them, they ring out another set of notes in their overtones, which continues the process, until you have a full scale, albeit divided by numerous octaves. Once all of the notes are tuned to this scale, above and below the original notes heard in the overtone series, a problem arises that takes its name from the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras. This problem is that the whole scale will not match up perfectly as it continues up the octave, reaching a point where it is no longer in tune. This effect is called the Pythagorean Coma. Thus, the scale must be tuned to itself, instead of tuned mathematically, resulting in a temperament system. All modes of music have their basis in this process.
Ancient music theory realized that the half tones of “Fa” and “Ti” (4th and 5th scale degrees) unbalanced the natural prevalent pattern of whole steps that occurred in their scale. We find that in all the oldest examples of music, this question was addressed through the elimination of these scale positions, resulting in a pentatonic (five-note) theory and scale. Extant illustrations of Chinese, Egyptian, and Irish music, for example, are all reliant entirely upon a five note scale and a perception of unison harmony.
The Western View
Doctrine of Affections
“There’s sure no passion in the human soul, but finds its food in music”
– Geo. Lillo (1693-1739)
The belief that a composition needed to establish and maintain a singular emotion (affection) was the teaching that received the greatest credence during the Baroque period. There was another aspect of this teaching, which was based on elaborate systems in which to determine the mood of the composition based on its marriage to a work of literature or poetry. This Doctrine of Affection (joy, anger, love, hate, fear, exaltation – all thought to fall under the heading of “affections”, categorized by ethos or pathos) was an idea birthed in the Greek Golden Age and brought back by the Renaissance.
The repetitious nature of the Renaissance and Baroque period music was mostly due to this doctrine, which insisted that the feeling of an emotion was stated in the first melodic motif of a composition, and then constantly restated to retain the specific mood. This practice ensured that one emotion was present throughout the duration of the piece, and that it functioned as an objective observer of the emotion, rather than confusing many different emotions in the context of a single work. Through this idea, it became the standard form to repeat the same idea over and over with slight variations for interest, and the development of modulation to give it added texture and flavor.
Although a simple teaching, this idea gave so much of the characteristic form to Baroque music that, without out it, a remotely similar sound would have not been achieved. The big difference between Baroque and Classical was that the former applied the doctrine strictly (as a formative concept) along with counterpoint, while the latter only kept the principles, without any real concern for adherence to the “one emotion per” idea. The Romantic period totally broke with this concept, by creating music of mixed emotions, which they believed communicates the human condition more effectively.
Instead of focusing on expression, music focused on depiction. The doctrine was contingent on the fact that a “pure emotion” (Ethos) was to be portrayed through music, not the emotional state of the man composing (or Pathos). Thus, the effect of the emotion presented could work in each man differently, rather than representing a prepackaged emotional state. Abstract as it may sound, the difference lies within the intent. The composers of this time were concerned in communicating the principles of reality, rather than communicating their own views of reality. Although this may sound elementary, the difference between the concept of music now compared to then is staggering. Music’s primary goal today is to communicate individualism, which makes it impossible to paint an objective picture of an emotion. The way in which the Baroque composers used the Doctrine of Affections was through carefully balanced ratios in the form of their music. They also succeeded in creating the desired effects through formulas of major and minor tonality, modulation, dissonance, and rhythm. Although not much was written about these principles at that time, they were the major tenants of composers of this period. They were taught through apprenticeship and word of mouth, and this became the basis for understanding their music as a whole.
A discernable pulsation created a feeling of life that music had lacked before. Since life in the literal sense is discerned through pulsation, music was given an artificial form of life by generating pulses in its tone, more than ever before. Throughout every period you see the development and expansion of rhythm. At first music focused on the tone alone, without any real feeling of pulse. Because pulse in so typical of the human body, each successive generation superimposed more aspects of humanity on their music, dividing tone up into pulses that imitated the physical reaction that took place in the body in different situations. Because emotion and physical condition are so closely linked, styles quickly arose from the rhythmic patterns that imitated the physical conditions certain cultures were built around (such as dances and tender love songs). Each rhythm generally suggests one response to a listener. A response that is not appropriate to a culture’s sense of identity will be excluded, and this keeps certain rhythms from entering the music scene until the culture’s philosophy had changed enough to be compatible. The Baroque feel was quite different from the renaissance for the mere fact that philosophy had changed enough to allow fast rhythms to be used.
“… But music for a time doth change his nature. The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treason, stratagems, and spoils; the motions of his spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus; Let no such man be trusted….” (William Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice)
“Music alone with sudden charms can bind the wandering sense, and calm the troubled mind” – Hymn to Harmony, William Congreve (1670-1729)
“Music hath the power to sooth the savage breast, To soften rock, or bend the knotted Oak.” – The Mourning Bride, William Congreve (1670-1729)
Summary of the Western Philosophy of Music
The Chinese View
The Chinese Doctrine of Appropriate Music
“Confucius Said: ‘Virtue is the strong stem of man’s nature, and music is the blossoming of virtue.’” – The Analects
In ancient China, music was an obsession for Emperor and his imperial court, wishing to secure the dynastic power with the Mandate of Heaven. With each new dynasty, colleges of scholars were employed to find the right tone on which to build the scale for all of the musical instruments of the dynasty. Once the proper beginning note was found, a piece of jade was carved to the proper dimension to vibrate at this tone, becoming a national standard. This process was as important as establishing a uniform weight for the dynasty, although much more important because of its universal implications. Weight was thought to be subjective and confined to the world, but the Chinese believed that the musical tones played on the earth must harmonize with the tones of all the celestial bodies, or else life on earth would become difficult. The fall of a dynasty, outside of an unrighteous Emperor, was attributed to a wrong tone on which the dynasty based its scales. In the interconnected manner in which the Chinese saw the universe, this idea was a simple cause and effect. Perhaps they were wiser than we think.
“Confucius was once learning to play on the Qin (a stringed instrument) from the music master Xiangzi, and did not seem to make much progress for ten days. The music master said to him, ‘You may well learn something else now,’ and Confucius replied, ‘I have already learned the melody, but have not learned the beat and rhythm yet.’ After some time, the music master said, ‘You have now learned the beat and rhythm, you must take the next step.’ ‘I have not learned the expression,’ said Confucius. After a while, the music master again said, ‘Now you have learned the expression, you must take the next step.’ And Confucius replied, ‘I have not yet got an image in my mind of the personality of the composer.’ After some time the music master said, ‘There’s a man behind this music, who is occupied in deep reflection and who sometimes happily lifts his head and looks far away, fixing his mind upon the eternal.’ ‘I’ve got it now’, said Confucius. ‘He is a tall, dark man and his mind seems to be that of an empire builder. Can it be any other person than King Wen himself?’ The music master rose from his seat and bowed twice to Confucius and said, ‘It is the composition of King Wen.’”
With the stoic and highly disciplined nature of Confucianism, playing musical instruments became a method in which a player could express and mold his own emotions, as well as the emotions of the listener. Music had attained a high social level by the time of Confucius, since all noblemen’s children were expected to study this discipline. This music grew simultaneously with Confucianism, and became an art linked with the depth of prose, philosophy, and calligraphy. Centuries of development and discipline eventually produced music that rivals the well-known Chinese martial arts in practice and philosophy. It is still believed that a skilful player of Classical Chinese music is more a philosopher and scholar than a performer. Since the universe is believed to be musical, and China is the center of the universe, the musicians’ urgency for correct and balanced music is even greater than in other geographical areas that shared similar beliefs.
The Gu Qin, a long, lacquered, silk stringed zither, is one of the best instruments from which to trace along the family tree of Asian musical practices and philosophy. To understand how intimately the Confucian ideology is linked to musical discipline is to understand a principle that reoccurs in every society that tries to understand the importance of the natural world. Music and the Gu Qin accompanied the Chinese scholars to Japan, where it was adopted and modified as the discipline of the Koto. Ironically, the same thing happened to the philosophy that the scholars brought with them, as Japan quickly learned to love the thoughts of Confucius.
“Confucius said of the Master of Music in Lu, “You must know a piece of orchestral music is correctly interpreted. It ought to begin in unison, all the instruments tuned together. As you proceed through the piece, it should be played with brilliance and purity, not stopping until the end.” – Analects 5:16
The Philosophy of Chinese Theory
The philosophically minded Chinese could not use the half steps in the scale (illustrated between the E and the F, and the B and the C, in C major), because of the problems that they caused mathematically, and because they did not seem to conform to the majority pattern. These steps also came into the scale further down the overtone series. Instead, they contented themselves with the five perfect and mathematically explainable tones of the scale, creating the pentatonic form that is still used today. This had major implications, which most westerners are familiar with already; Chinese music had fewer notes in their scale, so there were fewer possibilities in the melody, and hence melodies sound more like each other. This means that musical expression was secondary to balance. With balance being a primary concern of Confucian philosophy, and with music playing such an astronomical role in the function of the universe, the common thought was that one could not take the risk of disturbing interplanetary harmony by playing imbalanced music.
Five is a mystical number for the Chinese. There were five recognized primary colors, five directions (South, West, East, North, and Center), five elements in nature, five classic Chinese books for right conduct, and five tones seemed perfectly logical and balanced. In the Art of War, Sunzi, military strategist under King Molu of Wu around 500BC wrote in regards to limited resources in times of war, “The Musical notes are only five in number: their melodies are so numerous that one can not hear them all.” (The Art of War 5:8) The admiration for music was such that even a military strategist used it to illustrate his points on the innumerable uses of ground as a military asset. Colors and tones would be associated throughout history, and science is just beginning to comprehend the actual relationships that they play. In a very real sense they are related to the function of vibration, and the natural divisions that occur within nature. If a prism were developed for music, the outcome would be a Chinese scale.
Chinese music was traditionally thought to be spiritually cleansing and mentally refreshing. The topics covered by such music were always related to the four seasons, the elements, or imitations of natural sound, such as birds, frogs, and rushing water. An accomplished musician was expected to understand the sister art of philosophy, which also implied skill in writing. It was said, “A musician who dwells in halls and houses, his heart will dwell among trees and rivers.” The cultivation of a balanced mind, body, and spirit were practiced in the Chinese culture through studies in areas such as music. Those who have thought beyond the trends and fads of their day have always agreed with this worldview concerning music, since it is self-evident in the nature of how things work, and how students learn. Auditory learners thrive in a surrounding that provides music for intellectual stimulation. It is also interesting to note that studies within the United States have shown that students who study music are prone to be bright in other academic areas. Is this just a coincidence, based on the fact that smart people play instruments? No, instead the characters of those who play instruments seem to make for a greater performance in all other areas of life, manifesting the inward virtue of diligence and self-control. The Chinese were right in their observations, and the world is still finding this out through modern research.
Summary of the Chinese Philosophy of Music
The Contemporary Attitudes Regarding Music in the East and West
“I don’t know and I don’t care, as long as it makes me feel good!”
– American Saying
The great difference between Eastern and Western music styles occurred relatively late, sixteen hundred years A.D., when the West developed an attitude of “useful imperfection”, using these half-tones to add interest and color, but carefully stepped to and away these scale degrees to maintain balance. The music styles in the West are characterized by this attitude towards these imperfections. In contrast, Chinese music, steadied by its commitment to a Confucian tradition of perfectionism, did not take this same artistic path, but maintained its musical form to reflect its philosophy of perfection and balance. It accepted the responsibility of exerting a positive moral force on the people, and kept this position until the fall of the Qing.
While there are marked differences between Eastern and Western dichotomy, particularly on the West’s focus on the state of man and the East’s focus on the forces of the universe; the similarities between Pathos/Ethos and Yin/Yang are important. These similarities translate between the two worldviews are found in their observation, acquisition, and desire to maintain perfection. Their differences are found in the way they handle and explain the imperfection. While the West used imperfection to communicate motion, change, and ultimate resolution, Chinese music used repetition of perfect intervals and scale degrees as the connotative marker for a potentially endless series of cycles; thus illuminating the real difference between the two worldviews – the West’s view of time as lineal, culminating in a final judgment in which all imperfections are made right, and the East’s view of time as cyclical, perfect, and utterly without need of resolution.
Modern culture, as a combination of both East and West, is unique in the way in which is attempts to turn music into a consumer item, esteemed more for its flash of popularity than the moral implications of its socially strengthening and tempering affect. Chinese popular music has revolutionized the modern use of music: from its ancient associations as a moral medicine of balance, to a tool to pry open a market driven by “cool” and images of dancing performers. Chinese youth recently have chosen a shallow form of self-expression over the perfection and restraint of the past, and while this is seen as a step into the future, bridging the gap that used to gape between East and West, it has also brought about the sudden peril of one of the most ancient and important of the world’s music. While contemporary China is seemingly eager to follow the pattern of the West, allowing self-expression to become the only prerogative of the musician, a new generation of young people has begun to question this process, to treasure the traditional musical arts of China, and rediscover the power that is locked within its mysteries.
Summary of the Modern Attitude towards Music
© 2013 Guanxi Master