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Did Confucianism limit the "potential" of Chinese music?

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flyingzone View Drop Down

Joined: 11-Dec-2005
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Did Confucianism limit the "potential" of Chinese music?
    Posted: 17-Mar-2006 at 12:24

Chinese music is beautiful. The variety of Chinese instruments is as rich and diverse as "Western" instruments. However, due to the "pentatonic" nature of Chinese music, it lacks the "harmonic density" of Western music. And of course, the idea of the pentatonic scale is closely related to the Confucian principle of how the universe works.

My question is: Did Confucianism (and other ancient Chinese philosophies such as Taoism) limit the "potential" of traditional Chinese music or is this "lack of harmonic density" claim a purely "Eurocentric" one?

Since traditional Chinese thinking considers the universe to be one living interactive system - this can apply to the music where the artificial abstract world of "notes" is interwoven with the natural world of "sound" and cosmic laws, with music being one of the "connecting links" between heaven and earth - as the origin of music, is too, divine.

The ancient sages always considered that the overall goal of human beings was to establish inner and outer harmony, and music, they believed, had the capacity to bring peace and harmony as it is inseparably linked to the lives of the people.


The 5 Developmental Phases ... constitute the whole of cosmic life - They create what we commonly know as the Five Agents:

1. Earth - corresponding western tone - 1st Tone - Do
2. Metal - " " 2nd Tone - Re
3. Wood - " " 3rd Tone - Me
4. Fire - " " 5th Tone - Sol
5. Water - " " 6th Tone LA

There is a cosmic unity which makes it impossible to separate church from state, spiritual from mundane as well as corresponding "values" such as the Four Directions - N, S, E, W plus Center (5), The five governmental functions, the five principal colors, the five key personal virtues, and what we are interested in, The Pentatonic Scale...Do, Re, Me, Sol and La are the Chinese characters; Gong, Shang, Jiao, Zhi, and Yu. Before Western society was introduced to China, the music was written out with these characters which stood for the "notes". This has "shaped" the music and gives it the unique sound and character that it has. Much of the traditional music, too, is unison and does not have the harmonic density of western music.


1. The heptatonic scale was actually also used in ancient Chinese music, often as an expansion of a basically pentatonic core. The heptatonic scale is often encountered in northern Chinese folk music.

2. During the Tang dynasty (618-906), Chinese secular music reached its peak. Emperor Tai Zong (597-649) had ten different orchestras, eight of which were made up of members of various foreign tribes; all the royal performers and dancers appeared in their native costumes. The imperial court also had a huge outdoor band of nearly 1400 performers. Portions of Tang music are preserved in Japanese court music, or gagaku.

3. It has to be noted that the development of Chinese music was strongly influenced by foreign music, especially that of Central Asia. Such influence was especially notable during the Tang Dynasty (as noted above).

4. Pentatonic scales are actually quite common and are found all over the world, including the tuning of the Ethiopian krar, the Indonesian gamelan, and the melodies of African-American spirituals, Celtic folk music, and the music of French composer Claude Debussy (one of my favorites). Traditional Chinese music, however, is based on the major pentatonic scale, while some others (e.g. Appalachian folk music) are based on the minor pentatonic scale.

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