Why is traditional Chinese music pentatonic


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The traditional music of China
ofIngo Stoevesandt

How do you manage to characterize 3,500 years of music history of a great empire like China in a few words?
The answer must be: not at all. And since such a project is just as unrealistic as the treatise on Western music culture in two sentences, I would rather write briefly about the basic requirements that a European music lover may encounter when listening to this music: Why does this music sound so different, so "strange" ? Or are there perhaps equivalents to our music? And can this knowledge of Chinese music also be transferred to other Asian music?

Basics  
For a European listener, Chinese (and other traditional Asian) music sounds rather "foreign" at first.
This is of course primarily due to the sounds of foreign instruments, some of which make use of a sound generation that is not very common in Europe, as can also be seen from the classification of Chinese instruments:

Similar to the division into four different sound generators common in Europe (according to Hornbostel), instruments in China are classified according to the material from which they are mostly made. The Chinese classification knows eight such categories:
Metal, stone, earth, leather, silk, pumpkin, bamboo and wood.

The list of materials already makes a difference to European instruments clear:
Instruments made of stone, earth (meaning clay), silk or bamboo do not exist in Europe.

The notes played appear just as strange to us as the instruments. In Europe, our listening habits are shaped by cadences
and the major-minor harmony. However, Chinese music does not have any of these harmonies.

The basis of Chinese music is the (semitone-free) pentatonic scale, in which every note can be the root of a key and a scale linked to it. In the European sense of music, the major chord stands for joy, the minor for sorrow. Due to the lack of these chords in Chinese music, we have difficulty associating an emotion with what we are hearing. Because we don't understand their emotions, Chinese music doesn't “speak” to us. Yet the same emotions are present in Chinese music, they are just “coded” differently. If one now takes into account that in the Chinese pentatonic each of the five tones has a proper name with specially assigned properties, it quickly becomes clear that music has a far greater significance and function in Chinese culture than in Europe.

There is no single word for music in the Chinese language, the word “music” is already an inseparable unit of music, language and dance and by the way, the Chinese character for “music” also describes the term “joy” at the same time (better: " A sound that makes you happy "!). And since ancient times, music has also been understood as a lyrical and scientific discipline of the Chinese elite -
so the great scholar Confucius was himself a gifted one Qin Player and composer.

Accesses
These fundamental differences in the understanding of music seem to close the way to a better reception of Chinese music. However, access to Chinese music is not as difficult as it seems, especially when you compare the apparently “foreign” with the familiar:

Outside of the pentatonic, Chinese music has known the division of the octave into 12 almost equal semitones for almost 3000 years, but these were determined by so-called pitch whistles and deviated from the tempered tuning established in Europe.
Since there is also no microtonality as in classical Indian music, the smallest pitch steps are familiar.
The pentatonic has also been widespread in Europe for a long time, but it is not as firmly anchored in the European hearing consciousness as the minor-major harmony. If you are musically active yourself, you can approach the pentatonic scale by experimenting with pentatonic melodies on your instrument, improvising or trying to sing them.

In addition to ensemble and vocal music, the diversity of Chinese music also includes pronounced solo music. These purely instrumental pieces were notated in their own tablatures early on, which can now also be found as transcriptions in “western” notes.
Instrumental music is easier to understand for Europeans, some compositions for PiPa are reminiscent of a baroque prelude.
A visit to a Chinese opera or a play is certainly a particularly impressive experience
the musical elements are clearly linked to the emotions of the singers and performers. It is also worthwhile to study traditional and modern nursery rhymes, their memorable formulas are often kept simple and are very helpful for a first access to the pentatonic scale. Another approach to Chinese music lies in dealing with the Chinese language and writing, since in Chinese culture (and thus also in music) all elements are inextricably linked. Language and music are strictly linked. The Chinese syllable language knows six intonations for one syllable, so that the language itself sounds extremely melodic and shapes the narrative character of the melody.

Basically, Asian music forces us to have an unfamiliar music reception: we cannot simply “consume” it, it is not music for “listening on the side” but demands our full attention. It is not always easy to hear, but it rewards the listener with a wealth of details and impresses with its expressiveness.