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Learn Classical Chinese Music | Traditional Instruments | Audio Clips

Chinese music is basically pentatonic-diatonic, meaning that the basic pentatonic scale can be modulated within a diatonic context. The theory talks of 12-notes to an octave, but most of the compositions are overwhelmingly pentatonic with diatonic/chromatic passing tones.

The music is somehow related to the Chinese language. Unlike the western languages, Chinese language has tonality: the same pronunciation with different tones represents different meaning, depending on whether it is a flat tone, or sliding from a lower to higher pitch or from the higher to the lower, or a combination. The same thing for music, except that there are more possibilities in tonality which is more sensitive and subtle. Therefore, one phrase in Chinese classical music is not simply a string of notes; but each note has its own life and meaning, depending on how you play it in the context.

Classical Chinese music is closely related with Chinese poetry. Therefore, it is not surprising that most of the classical pieces have very poetic and sometimes philosophical titles. Traditional classical music in this sense is intimately linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama and is more or less poetry without words. In the same manner as poetry, music sets out to express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation. Therefore, it is very important to understand the meaning and set the mind and the heart "in tune" with the music. The best performances should bring out harmony with one's surroundings, although at times a more aggressive tone is used. The intonation is very subtle, and generally similar to poetic recitation. The music itself is clearly designed to be an abstract complement to the highly-developed poetic genres, and bears similar titles. The prominence of poetry & the aphorism might help explain the restricted impact of vocal art music.

Solo instrumental performance is the most serious musical genre. There are rather few classical compositions, although each instrument has its own repertory. Some of these repertories are several centuries old, and musicians add to them only slowly, especially in some areas. Therefore many compositions will be repeated from CD to CD, mostly for the same instrument, but sometimes versions exist for more than one instrument. Also, a performance by a musician from a different lineage will often bring out different facets of the same piece.

Appreciating classical Chinese music can be likened to appreciating traditional Chinese painting. Take, for instance, the traditional painting for landscapes: there is no obvious focus in the picture, but each part seems to have its own focus in such a manner that the variety of local character is in harmony with the whole picture, including the empty parts. In traditional Chinese painting, the empty parts are very important too in order to give the whole painting life. The same is true with classical Chinese music. Each phrase is one sentence followed by a certain silence in such a way that the variety of sounds and the silences (and sometimes noise) are combined harmoniously in forming the sound poetry, creating a kind of dynamic link between the performer and the audience. A good performer can create such a link so that the listeners can experience the power and the beauty of the music in a way like enjoying a beautiful poem and painting. To achieve this, only technique is not enough. It is a heart-to-heart process.

~ Yiguang Zhang, Founder

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