In Chinese music, the single tone is of greater significance than melody; the tone is an important attribute of the substance that produces it. Hence musical instruments are separated into eight classes according to the materials from which they are made—gourd (sheng); bamboo (panpipes); wood ( chu, a trough-shaped percussion instrument); silk (various types of zither, with silk strings); clay (globular flute); metal (bell); stone (sonorous stone); and skin (drum). Music was believed to have cosmological and ethical connotations comparable to those of Greek music. The failure of a dynasty was ascribed to its inability to find the proper huang chung, or tone of absolute pitch.
The huang chung was produced by a bamboo pipe that roughly approximated the normal pitch of a man's voice. Other pipes were cut, their length bearing a definite mathematical ratio to it. Their tones were divided into two groups—six male tones and six female. These were the lüs, and their relationship approximated the Pythagorean cycle of fifths. Legend ascribes their origin to birdsong, six from that of the male bird and six from that of the female, and the tones of the two sets were always kept separate.
The lüs did not constitute a scale, however. The scale of Chinese music is pentatonic, roughly represented by the black keys on a piano. From it, by starting on different notes, several modes may be derived. The melody of vocal music is limited by the fact that melodic inflection influences the meaning of a word. Likewise, quantitative rhythms are not easily adaptable to the Chinese language.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.