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)