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The Purpose of Music in China

J.S.Bach – widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of music in the history of the world. I myself am very partial to his Brandenburg Concertos. For most people in the world today, music is… well its music. Something to listen to at any time, to suit your mood or to relax or to dance. Music, the notes, the instruments aren’t about anything in particular – and I mean this quite seriously.

Music today is just sounds, sometimes pleasing, sometimes odd, and in conjunction with the human voice, music can convey many emotions. But the music itself? It is what it is. Bach helped create this way of looking at music, though he was a composer for a major church for most of his life, his music was less about the re-creation of the sacred and more about composing for the sake of composing music (though there was a relationship between the idea of math and the perfection of God in Bach’s time).

This is not the way music was in the past. Music used to be something else. Music used to represent something or be an active force in the world. For the Indians, music’s purpose was to activate specific chakras within the listener, for purposes of health or spiritual well-being. Thus, for the Indian musicians, music was not about creating a pleasing melody, or sheer enjoyment. Instead, music had a purpose, and listening to music was an activity which was done at specific times of day for specific reasons.

In China, music was only rarely about listening for enjoyment. Music had a purpose. Here is what was written in one of the oldest Chinese books, The Book of Rites.

  • The bells (bianzhong) give out a clang, like a signal. Everyone recognizes this as a call to arms, to fight. And so, when a ruler hears the sound of the bell, he should think of his officers of war.
  • The sounding-stones give out a sound like a summons to the exorcise of thinking. This may lead to the contemplation of mortality and death. So, when a ruler hears the sound of stones, he should think of his soldiers and officers who die in the defense of his frontiers.
  • The stringed instruments produce a melancholy sound which in turn generates thoughts of purity and fidelity, and awakens determination in one’s mind. Thus, when a ruler hears the sound of the guqin or the guzheng, he should think of his subordinates who are bent of righteous behavior.
  • The bamboo flutes make a sound like that of overflowing water, which suggests in everyone’s mind the idea of an assembly, the collecting of the people together. So, when a ruler hears the sound of the pipes or guan or the sheng, he should think of the people gathered together and the men who organize them.
  • The drums give out a great deal of sound, which excites people to move and causes the host to advance. When the ruler hears the sound of the drums, he should think of his generals.
  • So, when a superior man hears musical instruments, he does not hear only the sounds which they produce. Instead, a superior man recognizes the ideas which accompany the sounds.

(Book of Rites, Vol 17, Section 3, adapted Legge’s translation).

This helps to explain why traditional Chinese music is largely devoid of melody, or really all of what we think of constitutes “pleasing” music. It is because: this was not the purpose of music in China. This also explains why traditional (or classical) Indian music goes on for hours, with little variation. The purpose of the classical Indian music was not for listening pleasure.

Many of what are now considered to be traditional Chinese instruments and melodies came from outside China (from Mongolia, or along the Silk Road from central Asia). However, there was a long tradition of improvised music creation on the guqin. It was said that a true friend could listen to a companion play the guqin and know what his friend was thinking. (See “Yu Boya Smashes his Zither” from Feng Menglong – Stories to Caution the World). The astute observer will note my character (Miri) says exactly the same thing. 🙂

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