Dissolving boundaries

Folk and art music in China: qin and shawm music

Guan Pinghu

Guan Pinghu.

Hua band 2001 edited

The Hua family band: Recording session in Hua Yinshan’s courtyard, 2001.

Far away from the pop music and cutesy erhu solos that dominate the Chinese media, I’d like to compare two melodies with the common theme of “Geese landing”: the intimate meditative solo Pingsha luoyan 平沙落雁 for the elite qin zither, and the searing folk suite Da Yanluo 大雁落 for two shawms [1] and percussion.

Such utterly contrasting styles may seem to make an absurd comparison, and we shouldn’t suppose that any two pieces with a similar title will have anything in common. In this case it’s more of a convenient pretext to reflect on disparate genres.

One tradition is highly literate, the other non-literate. Yet the incongruous juxtaposition, however polemical, turns out to be illuminating—correcting the widely-held myth that qin music, as “art music”, will be more sophisticated and complex than “folk” shawm pieces.

The comparison also shows how little we know about “Chinese music”. It’s rather like comparing a Bach keyboard piece with a wedding suite played by a Romanian gypsy band—which might also be interesting. In most respects, perhaps surprisingly, the shawm suite turns out to be more complex than the qin piece—for what that’s worth. Of course, neither is superior: both have their functions (see also here).

I began to ponder this issue in my very first book (Folk music of China, pp.75–6):

Inherited concepts like “classical music” and “art music” may mislead. Let us list various criteria for classicism which may apply to the Chinese context:

  • old
  • prestigious (music, musicians, contexts)
  • documented (in notation, and so on)
  • strictly transmitted by specialist musicians
  • equipped with music theory (e.g. terminology for key, metre, instrumentation, structure, and so on)
  • widely distributed
  • musically complex

All that I have learned since suggests we should avoid a term like “classical”.

Since one sinologist has even queried the value of studying shawm bands at all, it’s worth citing my article

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian Music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), 25–112


So why analyse such rural Chinese shawm melodies? Well, we need to analyse all kinds of Chinese melodies, not least those going back to imperial times, at least to the late 19th century, and maybe to the 16th century. Yet, by contrast with so-called “refined” literati music like qin, sizhu, or even shengguan, it is as if this supposedly “folk” music sounds too coarse or random to be old or worthy of study.

But this too is the music of the imperial elite. Of course, we don’t want to limit our studies to the music of elites, but if Chinese folk music still performed were to be deemed unworthy of study, as opposed to the more refined “classical” or “art” music of the imperial courts, this would be a basic misapprehension: this was the music played always for the life-cycle celebrations of the imperial elite since the 16th century, and for the official ceremonies of the local elite. It may have been changed gradually over centuries, indeed honed, modified, even “improved”. But it was required for all kinds of events, even if the elite didn’t play it themselves. It is by far the most common form of instrumental music in China, with the most voluminous repertory inviting analysis.
On the other hand, it has never been analysed like this by its audiences; it is a necessary sound to accompany ceremonial, but they seem to be unaware of all but its most basic features. Whereas ordinary peasants may be familiar with the melodies of popular vocal genres, the melodies of the core repertory on shawm are rarely catchy or hummable. Assessing audience appreciation is not simple—not only for Chinese ceremonial music, of course. This music has certainly lost much of its audience since the arrival of pop since the mid-1990s, but I suspect audiences always kept their distance, not least because of the sheer volume of the music. A crowd assembles for the more popular pieces in the afternoon, but in the winter those gathering round for the suites in the morning may be attracted as much by the fire as the music. Though they come and go, even now people do still stand (or squat) and listen.

Far more than elite qin and pipa solos, repertoires for shawm and shengguan ensembles have always been part of public community music-making, for both common people and the elite. And they are a more “ancient” tradition than most sizhu silk-and-bamboo genres. So if we are interested in imperial culture, such as qin music, Ming temples and calligraphy, or Qing fiction, we must try and understand how this music works—how its pitches, metres, and rhythms are crafted; such living traditions are our best clue to illustrate how imperial culture sounded, one that you can’t get from old books.

Most importantly, this article is only of any use if it prompts us to get to know the music by listening to it. Any written text analysing any music is only of any interest at all if the “reader” not only goes and listens to the recordings, but further gets to know the pieces—not with the head but in the bones, with ears not eyes. This article does not save you the trouble of getting to know the music with your ears and heart; I hope it will make it easier, but notation is always an imperfect tool for “capturing” sounds, and certainly in this case “the music” consists of far more than my simple visual presentation. Swing and timbre are essential elements of the music, and the transcriptions inevitably ignore all this for ease of discussion. […] If this article encourages you to listen, then fine; but I’d be happy if you didn’t read this but just really got to know the pieces by listening.

So what I am attempting here is to help the reader—or rather, listener—become familiar with this music, in real time, by going through it, phrase by phrase, seeking out logic and craftsmanship.

While notation is an emblem of the “high culture” of the qin scholar, it is of little importance among shawm bands—but of course it doesn’t begin to adequately represent the actual sounds of either (or any) genre.

This is the score of the version used by Guan Pinghu—its boxed marginal annotations (including gongche solfeggio) being exceptional:

Opening of Pingsha luoyan in Qinxue congshu manual (1910).

The long history of qin music is canonized in scores and erudite commentaries. In learning, notation is a major tool, much prized: it is a fiendishly complex form of tablature. Ornaments are precisely—even pedantically, I would suggest—written into the score; and though the rhythmic interpretation is not specified, it is transmitted strictly from master to pupil. Thus individual renditions by the same player are no more variable than between, say, performances of a Beethoven sonata. Of course, different teachers transmit different versions, enshrined in different scores and performance practices; but what I am discussing here is the fixity or variability of performances in any one single tradition.

Like the majority of qin pieces performed today, qin versions of Pingsha luoyan have been handed down from master to pupil with the aid of notation since around the 18th century. The practice of dapu, recreating early pieces surviving in early notation whose performance practice has long been lost, has only become fashionable since the 1950s, and has not superseded the traditional practice of transmission. But one might feel that the rigid prescription of qin scores fossilizes the music.

Conversely, in Yanggao county until the mid-20th century, shawm music was sometimes learnt with the aid of gongche solfeggio mnemonics; but these served only as an outline, and the main learning process (as in many folk traditions over the world) takes place during ceremonial performance, allowing for constant flexibility in variation over a fixed skeleton. Versions of the “same piece” within the single county of Yanggao differ somewhat between bands, but there is intrinsic flexibility even between performances by the same band.

Senior shawm players in Yanggao still vaguely recall gongche. But blind musician Erhur (who himself rejoiced in reciting gongche) observed provocatively that “only stupid gujiang learn gongche; good ones don’t need it”! Though it may be useful for “us” to show some kind of melodic skeleton (in this case I suggest it isn’t), players have long learnt mainly by aural means. Moreover, reading this article and studying its transcriptions is only an aid to getting to know the music (of both genres) with our ears and heart.

Players and contexts
Despite the prominence of the qin in classical poetry and painting, there can only ever have been a few hundred players active at any time. By contrast, there have long been hundreds of thousands of shawm-band musicians, throughout towns and villages. And whereas quite few of those few (amateur: prestigious) qin players played with any great competence, daily ritual business demanded high standards of a majority of (professional: outcast) shawm-band musicians. Shawm-band traditions are basically hereditary, dating back many generations; hereditary transmission is less routine among qin players.

The qin repertoire has long been played mainly for self-cultivation, either alone or in the presence of other aficionados. Since the 1950s it has sometimes been performed on the concert stage, and has also been much recorded, but the traditional context also persists. The shawm repertoire is performed only for funerals and temple fairs, but since the 1990s the rise of pop music has made the traditional suites more rare.

With so many ancient scores, the qin repertoire appears to be vast, but many of the pieces in those scores are similar variants, and individual players only have a rather limited repertoire. The repertoires of shawm bands, though rarely notated, include numerous “small pieces” (mainly processional) and a smaller corpus of long suites (often six or eight); but considered nationally, given the presence of shawm bands in most of the villages of China (!), this is a vast corpus.

Of course, both qin and shawm repertories are diverse: the qualities of these two pieces cannot represent a more general comparison. There are a few more complex qin pieces, but Pingsha luoyan is quite typical; there are more simple shawm pieces, but the grandeur of Da Yanluo is typical of the grand suites transmitted (at least until recently) in north China.

Detailed melodic analysis is not a major theme within qin studies, but there is even less such analysis of the shawm repertoires, apart from my own study.

“We” (urban-educated) may tend to attribute mystical significance to the slides, fingerings, decorations of the qin; even if “we” consider the shawm piece worth analysing at all, we might not necessarily notice similar details, or attribute such significance to them. But the decorations of the two shawm players are no less subtle and complex. In qin music the shapes and movements of the two hands are fetishised and canonized; the fingerings of the shawm player, a more private and personal language, are just as complex and tactile.

Guan Pinghu’s version of the qin piece is generally divided into six short sections, which will not necessarily be audible to the listener; it may sound like a through-composed melody. The shawm piece is on a much grander scale, with over a dozen sections, clearly separated by percussion interludes.

The title
What I can’t attempt here, you will be relieved to learn, is a comprehensive collation of all Chinese melodies whose titles are related to Pingsha luoyan (Geese landing on the sandbank), Yanrluo 雁兒落 (Geese landing), Da Yanluo (Greater Geese landing), or even Yan guo nanlou 雁過南樓 (Geese crossing southern mansion, a popular shengguan melody around Tianjin). This, like any study of any single Chinese tune-family, would be a multi-volume work for which no-one I can think of, unless perhaps the late great Yang Yinliu, would be capable; it would encompass early vocal versions preserved in Qing dynasty scores, as well as a mass of living regional instrumental and vocal pieces. [2]

The labelled melody Yanrluo is widespread in regional opera, but short. Throughout China there are innumerable shawm variants of the title Yanluo. Yan guo nanlou is a common (long and slow) shengguan piece in northern ritual.

The idea that Chinese music is programmatic is widespread but misleading. In the case of elite solo genres like the qin, it is indeed true. But more often (see my Folk music of China, pp.130–40), the “labelled melodies” (qupai) are precisely labels, serving more for identification than for any specific meaning—with even less of a programmatic element than jazz standards (see also my Plucking the winds, pp.257–8 and n.242). Here I always like to cite Ciaran Carson’s Last night’s fun, a wonderful exploration of this issue for Irish music.

So shawm players rarely if ever bother with any extra-musical associations—apart from knowing the complex rules about which ritual to perform which pieces in which scale. Anyway, they are often illiterate.

Both qin and shawm pieces are “early” or traditional, having been handed down since imperial times; but pundits make much more of the “ancient” (gu) label of the qin.

2 The qin piece Pingsha luoyan

Several versions have been recorded and transcribed, and more renditions may be found online. Versions played by six masters are transcribed in the important Guqin quji 古琴曲集 (1982, pp.228–49), with tablature beneath the stave notation.

Here I shall discuss the classic 1950s recording by the qin master Guan Pinghu (1897–1967): [3]

This, incidentally, is also a piece which I used to practice in the days before I came to feel that my involvement with “folk music” detracted from my ability to concentrate on the qin with the discipline I felt necessary to do it justice. Incidentally, one reason why the qin may be attractive to learners is that, despite the complexity of its notation, the beginner can soon get to grips with some of the great pieces; while their spiritual depths may require lengthy immersion in the whole ethos of early Chinese culture and philosophy, technically they are not necessarily too demanding. The tablature is so complex (like a transcription of a Charlie Parker solo?!) that one wants to break free from it as soon as possible by internalizing the melody in the fingers.

Typically of this literate tradition, qin scores since the Ming dynasty contain verbose discussion of the origins of this piece, and even (given that qin music, unlike most Chinese instrumental music, is programmatic) descriptive texts for its sections. Invaluable aids for such study are the 1958 Cunjian guqin qupu jilan, [4] magnum opus of the great Zha Fuxi (whom I also mentioned in an article on the Zhihua temple); and John Thompson’s remarkable website www.silkqin.com—his typically through discussion of Pingsha luoyan is here (see also here).

Typically of qin myth-making, some scores claim that Pingsha luoyan was “composed” by ancient luminaries like Chen Zi’ang in the Tang dynasty, Mao Minzhong in the Song dynasty, or the early-Ming prince Zhu Quan. But the first notation we have dates from 1634—indeed, just around the time when the shawm was becoming popular in China, and when the title might have been becoming popular on the shawm; and of course that version might itself have been adapted from a Tang or Song piece, just like the 17th-century qin piece! All we can usefully say about any of the versions played today is that they have been handed down since at least the 17th century.

I haven’t sought to unearth any sources on qin players active in the Datong region in late imperial times, but it is quite likely that there were some—whether locals or officials from central-eastern China based there on temporary postings. If we did discover any qin players from Datong in imperial China, it wouldn’t necessarily yield versions of this piece closer to the shawm piece, but it’s a nice historical fantasy, reminding us of the existence of elite culture in the area; indeed, such notional qin players would regularly have employed shawm bands to play Da Yanluo for their ceremonies!

Here is a transcription of Guan Pinghu’s version (from my copy of Guqin quji, with some annotations by my teacher Li Xiangting, and me, 1986–7):





Again typically of qin pieces since the Ming dynasty, it opens and closes with a brief section in harmonics.

The tempo as heard on recordings and performances since the 1950s is slow. Qin music in general is not entirely slow, with some quite fast sections, but they are never so wild as the final sections of a shawm suite. The metre is not always clearly duple. Modern transcriptions, with their somewhat arbitrary bar-lines, may not reveal underlying metrical patterns. Cadential figures in particular often contain an “extra” beat.

As with other qin pieces, the range is wide, though most of the melody is played by stopping the upper strings. A melodic pitch is often decorated by sounding an open string one or two octaves lower; sometimes octave doublings are played. Phrases are often varied with simple left-and right-hand techniques; but whereas in shawm music (or any folk genre) variation is more flexible, in qin transmission it is rigidly fixed.

In its use of pitches it is entirely pentatonic. Early qin scores suggest a wider use of pitches was once used, with a single five-note scale becoming more standard by the early Qing dynasty. The scale is based on la (D in the score), with subsidiary cadences on mi (A) and do (F).

To consider an undecorated version, it is hard to identify specific stylistic features that distinguish it from many other items in the qin repertoire. Of course, analysing such an undecorated version is an academic exercise—the effect of any piece (including shawm music) resides in how it is performed.

Melodically the material is sparse: the harmonics of §1 lead to the exploratory alap of §2, establishing a basic pitch hierarchy of la, mi, and do, and suggesting a couple of embryonic motifs. As a more regular beat is established, §3 introduces a recurring motif—two bars repeated:


That last bar is repeated to lead into a more extended melodic argument.

§§4 and 5 are minor variants on §3. By contrast with the creativity of shawm players, its tiny left- and right-hand variants are all the more underwhelming by being so narrowly prescribed; that they are fixed in notation doesn’t make them interesting.

§5, from bar 22, adds a coda, leading into the final two sections—which revisit the more free-floating mood of the opening. In §6 melodic phrases dissolve as tiny motifs revolving around so and mi are explored:


—a style (sometimes called “tassels”, cf. my Folk music of China, pp.146–8) elaborated with far greater sophistication by shawm bands. After this brief flurry of excitement, the reflective mood is reasserted before the final harmonic flourish. *

* At the risk of further alienating the qin community, I can’t say I’m crazy about this recording. I hope it’s the recording quality rather than Guan Pinghu’s playing, but it sounds to me as if it makes the very mistakes that John Thompson’s teacher discouraged (n.32 here):

The clear structure and lack of ornamentation, at least in the original version, is perhaps why this was sometimes considered a beginners’ melody, even though later versions became much more elaborate. Unfortunately, beginners playing this melody often overdo it, revealing what my teacher considered to be two common errors in particular: making and emphasizing too many similar long slides up into notes, and using the left thumb to make sounds that are too percussive. Regarding the slides (綽 chuo), these are rarely called for in early tablature and their constant emphasis quickly becomes tiresome. As for the left thumb percussive sounds, what the tablature actually calls for is a technique called 罨 yan, its literal meaning being “to cover”, the image being “an echo from an empty valley“; instead many players like to turn this into a percussive slap.

I’m not at all suggesting the qin piece is superficial: with its economical melodic material and varied fingering techniques, it creates an atmosphere suitable to the meditations of its players. I appreciate the piece! But, as we will now see, the shawm suite can in no way be considered inferior; and its more complex melodic material is just as enriched by decoration—which in this case is part of a dynamic oral tradition.

3 The shawm suite

Shawm melody: background
This discussion is a summary of relevant sections of my article

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian Music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), 25–112

Short of experiencing the music in living ritual context, you can hear two amazing renditions by the Hua band of Da Yanluo: a 2001 recording session on the audio playlist (track 11, from the CD Walking Shrill); and this 1992 funerary version on video (from the DVD with my book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi):

You can (and must!) put this in the context of my analysis of all the suites, internalizing their melodic vocabulary (see my article, pp.53–7).

The core repertory of the Yanggao shawm bands is for two identical shawms whose lowest note is e1, playing in heterophony—for my transcriptions I transpose them to C. The melodies are accompanied by a percussion section of barrel drum, two pairs of small cymbals, and knobbed gong.

The mood throughout is majestic and imposing. If this music sounds at first to be very free, the melodies are actually rather fixed; flexibility occurs mainly in the decorations of an elusive melodic skeleton—although few players are consciously aware of any such skeleton. The two shawm players play the same melody in heterophony: differently decorated versions of the same melodic outline. Over the constant percussion metre, the shawm players (especially the top player) use considerable melodic and rhythmic latitude, with constant syncops. Though I know of no local term, swing is all-important, in both melody and percussion.

The upper shawm part is evocatively called zoujian (walking shrill) or chuijian (blowing shrill), while the lower part is known as lata, “dragging out the bass”, always gravitating towards the sonorous lowest notes. Circular breathing allows players to create continuous sound, although the top player often takes breaths to punctuate the melody. The lower part is important; without a good lower player, the drum has to work harder. The upper player often soars off wildly up to the top two notes on the shawm, two octaves and one tone above the lowest note, bending the rhythms across the main beats with a jazzy swing, before returning to the main melody. Like most aspects of this music, this is not casual but highly regulated: for instance, in Shuilongyin (Walking Shrill, tracks 2–3) the top player always “walks shrill” in exactly the same passages, in both bendiao and meihuadiao scales.

Similarly, at places known but not articulated, the top part also often reverts to the lower register, playing more or less in unison with the lower part.

(My article, p.32): I have refrained from showing both shawm parts throughout, aiming at a more “emic” transcription; the single “composite” melodic line given is based on the lower of the two shawm parts, with occasional illustrations of the top part. To further aid visual and musical comprehension, I favour a rather simple outline of the melody, with the melodic line sometimes shown in an “ideal” form, switching between upper and lower parts so as to make the melodic line look more natural. I can’t always achieve this, so bear in mind that if you see an ascending leap of a sixth it may logically be better interpreted as a conjunct descent of a third:
The “walking shrill” of the upper part, clearly heard, is sometimes but not always indicated in my transcriptions; while I sometimes show some idiomatic phrases in the top part, I usually leave it to you to work out with your ears when the top player plays in the lower octave in unison with the lower player, when he plays an octave higher, or indeed when he creates other heterophonic ornaments. Anyway, my transcriptions are approximate, reflecting considerable latitude in performance; I hope this will also remind you to consult it as a clue rather than relying on it at the expense of aural appreciation. Thus too my commentaries invite you to focus on a single melodic line; while I hope you will enjoy the subtle heterophony in the two parts, I downplay it for the purpose of analysis.

The drum line, shown occasionally in my transcription, gives a mere illustration of possible patterns; sometimes the drum part is shown where it illuminates phrasing. Where a substantial section is repeated, the drum patterns may not be identical upon the repeat, though they often show considerable consistency. In addition, the gong is sounded on the first beat of every bar; two pairs of small cymbals play on beats 1, 3, 5, and 7 of 8/4 bars, and beats 1 and 3 of 4/4 bars. (For more on metre and percussion patterns, see my article, pp.58­–60, and here).

Hua Jinshan 1991Hua Yinshan 1991

Different tunings were once used for the qin more than in recent times; indeed, early qin scores of Pingsha luoyan contain versions in several scales. But it is not part of the qin tradition to perform alternative versions of the same piece in different scales.

Conversely, melodic instrumental ensemble repertoires in north China (both shawm music and shengguan ritual music) have versions of the same nuclear melody in different scales (performed at different points of a ceremony). This creates significant variation, even transformed melodies.

Returning to notation, though senior players still vaguely recall gongche, Erhur (who himself rejoices in reciting gongche) observed that “only stupid gujiang learn gongche; good ones don’t need it”. Though it may be useful for “us” to show some kind of melodic skeleton (in this case I suggest it isn’t), gujiang have long learnt mainly by aural means. Moreover, as I have already hinted, reading this article and studying its transcriptions is only an aid to getting to know the music (of both genres) with our ears and heart.

In line with ancient tradition, shawm bands in Yanggao have a dimly-recalled theory of seven scales (diao), for each of the holes of the shawm. A (fanciful, I believe) tradition that the eight suites should be playable in all of the “three main scales” (not counting liuzidiao in the list below) suggests that the seven scales were never used equally. Gujiang in this area can now play in only three or four scales, in a circle-of-fifths relationship (here I refer to actual pitches, a major third higher than my transcriptions in C):

  • bendiao “basic scale”, tonic E, the lowest note on their shawms (score: C)
  • fanzidiao tonic A (score: F)
  • meihuadiao tonic D (score: B♭)
  • liuzidiao tonic B (score: G)

The following table shows how these scales are reached by substituting an adjacent pitch for each of the scales in the cycle. The tonic of each scale is marked in bold, and incidental pitches outside the main pentatonic scale are bracketed:

shawm pitch table

For a spurious note on a similar process in Herbie Hancock’s Ostinato, click here!

Though gongche solfeggio is little known in Yanggao today, my discussion of melodies will rely heavily on pointing out relationships between degrees of the scale, expressed in solfeggio, into which gongche translates well. As with sargam in India, these relationships are the quintessential basis of Chinese instrumental music, rooted in ancient theory.

The timbre of the shawm is always a major element in the different scales. In all scales except liuzidiao, the sonorous lowest note on the shawm (e1) plays a major role. In bendiao this lowest note on the shawm is do. In fanzidiao scale, theoretically a fourth higher than bendiao, the lowest note becomes a so, melodies often descending from do to so, as in local vocal music: local folk-song and opera is based on the so mode.

Meihuadiao is theoretically one whole tone lower than bendiao, with D as its tonic, the top finger hole and thumb covered; the tonic in the lower octave would be the note below the lowest note on the shawm. But the timbre of the shawm is such that the lowest note E still exercises a strong pull, and the D may sound more like a blues 7th. Further, the scale still uses a G#, not a G♮, a sharp 4th in the key of D; indeed, the high G# is often used (in this as in all scales) as a passing note down to F# and then back up to A—in fanzidiao the same phrase is also common, sounding like a Landini cadence!

Meihuadiao scale is considered hardest to learn, though the meihuadiao version of Shuilongyin (playlist, track 4—actually almost the only piece still played in this scale) is more commonly played than the bendiao one. The plaintive meihuadiao version was traditionally played as the afternoon overture, before the more jocular “small pieces”, because the musicians must first remind people that the gujiang are “civilized” (wenming).

In all scales, melodies are based on pentatonic sets, with the two further degrees of the heptatonic scale used occasionally as passing notes or to create a feeling of temporary modulation. This technique, used in southeast Asian musics, has been termed metabole.

Even within one basic scale, emphasis on certain pivotal notes gives a feeling of different modes: the tonic of the scale may not be its main note, cadences also falling on other degrees such as the 2nd, 5th or 6th. With a change of scale, the mode may also change.

So to illustrate the same melody in three alternative scales, here is the opening melodic section of the suite Da Yanluo. Since the 1980s this suite has mainly been played in fanzidiao scale, as on the audio playlist and the video.

DYL§1 in 3scalesThe meihuadiao version (effectively a 4th higher than the common fanzidiao version, with the more plangent mood intrinsic to that scale) has rarely been played since the 1990s; but the Hua band played it for me in 2001 (Walking Shrill, track 8). In 2005, to everyone’s immense satisfaction, they also recalled the bendiao version, rarely played since the 1980s. The few senior players who still recall its gongche solfeggio version recite it in yet a fourth scale of liuzidiao, but no-one today appeared to be able to play that version.

I won’t comment here on the different melodic lines of the three scalar versions, but you can see how playing the melody in three scales involves far more than mere transposition, creating substantially different melodies and rhythmic patterns. You can also assess scalar variation by comparing the two versions of Shuilongyin in bendiao and meihuadiao (Walking Shrill tracks 2–3); and two versions of Baiheyan (tracks 5–6).

To the casual listener it may seem like random noise, or even free jazz, but we can already see what a complex system the shawm bands have inherited here.

Da Yanluo: analysis
For more detail, see my article, pp.77–89.

In Yanggao the Da (“Greater”) of the title distinguishes it from another suite, now obsolete, called Xiao (“Lesser”) YanluoDa Yanluo is the only suite in the Yanggao repertory (apart from Baiheyan) that is clearly divided into sections linked by percussion interludes—the full version has 14 melodic sections. As the tempo quickens, the cumulative effect is exhilarating. The suite is somewhat flexible in length: though the sequence of movements is strictly observed, individual movements can be expanded by using longer cadential phrases, and some movements may be repeated or omitted, depending on the mood of the ceremonial.

Whereas the qin piece uses just one pentatonic scale, this shawm suite, sets forth from one pentatonic scale to explore different pentatonic sets by occasional substitution of pitches, so that the scalar material is much more varied and sophisticated.

The piece divides into the complex opening four sections, and the sequence of “fast pieces” from §5. §2 is an expanded variant of §1, and §4 an expanded version of §3; the later fast pieces resemble each other stylistically and structurally.DYL1DYL2
For this movement, see also the transcription above of versions in three scales. During the slow percussion introduction the shawms check their tuning (as on the video), introducing the scale they are about to use. For this suite Hua Jinshan begins to vary the standard 8/4 drum pattern quite early. Note the subtly slower tempo when the shawms first come in majestically with the melody.

Though the overall tempo over the whole suite progresses from slow to fast, we will note other subtle adjustments in tempo. After hectic accelerandos through the course of a section, the drum tends to slow the tempo at the end of sections, sometimes spelling it out for the ensemble by playing a sequence of heavy repeated crotchets.

The first half of the very opening bar immediately presents two alternative pentatonic scales, first fanzidiao, with F, then bendiao, with E:

Though the last beat of bar 1 remains ambiguous, the F only serving as a passing note down to E, bars 2 and 3 tend to stress F more often. We begin to hear typical descending phrases, ending on the lowest note of the shawm:

The common ornamental leap in the top part may lead down either back to A or to G:
4or 5
and though the following phrases all lead further down to D, they are not equivalent:
Unlike the shock of the stressed fa in bar 24 of the bendiao piece Shuilongyin (Walking Shrill, track 2)  in this fanzidiao piece with F as its tonic, we expect the note F to fall on main beats—and we’re also becoming accustomed to phrases descending from F to the low C, do to so:
But just as we are getting used to the fanzidiao scale system, both this §1 and §2 have their final cadence on A, having first suggested bendiao on C, with the A as la (a scale which has already featured in the second halves of bars 1 and 2):
and then, outrageously, a burst of liuzidiao scale on G, with the cadential A as re:
This abrupt final modulation is found in all three scalar versions, as we saw above. The free-tempo descending “tail” on the upper shawm, again suggesting a la mode in bendiao, only encourages us to put fanzidiao on hold:
Note that otherwise this whole suite is hexatonic, avoiding the note B♭, fourth degree of the fanzidiao scale; B♮only features in passing as part of these rare cadential excursions to the bendiao or liuzidiao scales. Note also that in these free-tempo codas, as in the cadential sequences of sustained notes in later movements, the percussion maintains its regular metre.

This is a variant of section 1, with a fast interruption in the middle. For contexts where the atmosphere is “fiery”, they may even use this fast interruption in §1 too. The sudden fast tempo begins just at the place where that A became prominent in §1, playing around with short motifs apparently in a bendiao scale cadencing on A as la:
The coda of §2 abruptly restores the slow 8/4 tempo while, remarkably, confirming the liuzidiao scale suggested at the end of §1, two scales distant from fanzidiao in the circle of fifths:
—reminding me of those wacky brass chords at the end of a Berlioz overture. If in theory this is a modulation to the scale two fifths up the circle, in practice for shawm players it is probably a question of ratcheting up the pitch by a whole tone—just as meihuadiao (two fifths down the circle from bendiao) is reached by playing a tone down from bendiao. The final cadence on A may thus sound like a re—but by now we are thoroughly confused! The long final cadence is again blurred in the top part by a descending “tail” in bendiao.

Now firmly back in fanzidiao (that liuzidiao coda of §§1–2 was a false trail!), the opening phrases descend to the low so, the latter two of which are equivalent to phrases heard in §1:
Bar 3 is a kind of rallying call, ambling harmlessly up and down the pentatonic scale (a phrase we meet in both shawm and shengguan repertoires):
and signalling a very different new mood from bar 4, where the two shawms are to play more in unison. Phrases continue to descend to low C/so, always ringing the changes, until the action begins to centre more around F/do from the end of bar 6:
The drum drops out around here, and again at places in §§4 to 7, prompting zany syncopations from the two pairs of cymbals. Where the drum drops out and comes back in again is flexible, and my score shows only possible examples—if the gong player is inexperienced, the drummer may even decide not to drop out at all, in order to ensure rhythmic stability. But ideally this is a fine means of creating variety in timbre.

Phrases descending to low C/so still dominate; they more often begin from F/do than from A/mi, though bar 12 seems briefly like a new idea:
From bar 34 (§3 “jumps” from the end of bar 12 to bar 32) a version of the phrase heard in bars 7–11
leads into a nice build-up of the descending phrase from do to so, like a stretto:
The ascending and descending rallying call from bar 3 is heard again in bars 42–43, and a sustained high E, descending to D, begins to be used more often in long cadential sections to regroup the forces, itself creating modal variety before the final cadence on F—sounding, as I noted above, rather like a Landini cadence:
Some later movements conclude with E falling to D, without the final F. Also distinctive to this cadential sequence is a motif which will feature in later movements (note also the subtly slower tempo as this phrase is announced):
—though drum master Hua Jinshan doesn’t yet play in rhythmic unison with the shawms for this phrase, as he will in later movements. For his final free-tempo “tails”, Hua Yinshan plays descending phrases in bendiao and even meihuadiao, as if to give us relief from the diet of fanzidiao.

(For anyone avidly comparing the 1992 video and 2001 audio versions, §§3 and 4 are more accurate in the former than on the latter. In the latter version the band inadvertently made a cut in §3 from bar 11½ to bar 38½, and in §4 they omitted the repeat of bars 15–20.)

§4 is a faster variant of §3, also adding substantial more material in the middle of the movement. As you can see from my transcription, the opening of §4 is a metrical simplification of the opening of §3—though metrical variation is a common feature of southern Chinese silk-and-bamboo traditions, and is used for some shawm music in the northeast (audio playlist track 5, and commentary), this is the only fleeting instance I have found in Yanggao shawm music. Thus the section from bar 4 of §4 begins the same as that of §3, only it is now faster.

The extra section of §4 begins by rising from D/la not to F/do but to G/re, with both movements here heightening the tension with a swaggering syncopation:
(By the way, syncopation is little heard in the qin piece, but features regularly in the qin repertoire, in popular pieces like Yuqiao wenda.)

The shawm melody goes on to briefly suggest a bendiao scale, soon overruled, before cadencing unusually on D:
The next short section (from bar 15) is repeated (though not on the version on the CD):
23 etc.
(The upper player often varies those up-beats by playing a D, rather than a C, on the last note of bar 20, often over a C from the lower player, like an exuberant added sixth.)

Again, melodic movement revolves around the descent from do to so in myriad permutations, syncopation creating jazzy effects. Eventually, the melody rejoins that of §3, though at this faster tempo, details of the melody from §3 often become blurred,
24sounding more like  25 .

Though the melodic material is identical, the gong stroke (first beat of the bar) now falls on what in §3 was the 3rd beat of the bar. As always, the material is highly economical, but permutations are endless.

From here on, the suite consists of “fast pieces” (jiabanqu), which are relatively short and mostly four-square. The opening four-bar phrase is usually repeated (as in §§5, 6, 9, 11; §13 repeats the opening three-bar phrase). The earlier “fast pieces” sometimes open with a short motif from one of the opening movements, and they conclude with an identical passage. From here on also, the melody on shawms is increasingly submerged under the bombardment of the percussion; as the notes fly past, melodic details are only sporadically audible, and my transcriptions are increasingly skeletal. Unlike the simple ostinato patterns in §6 of the qin piece, here short atomised phrases explore competing scales with metabole and dazzling technique. You can pursue my analysis further in my article.

While the whole piece is firmly in fanzidiao, the last five movements consistently alternate final cadences on D and C: while cadences on D confirm the general la-mode in fanzidiao, §§11 and 13 have their final cadences on C, in what suggests not a so in fanzidiao but a do in bendiao. One might suppose these final cadences to be immaterial, only they always play them the same: no-one plays a D cadence in §§11 or 13, or a C cadence in §§10, 12, or 14, although we might wonder why not. Although the pieces are always played in fixed sequence, my only reservation about this elegant theory is that, in versions I have heard since 1985, sometimes one or more movements in §§10–13 may be omitted (as on the 1992 DVD, which lacks §§10 and 13). And anyway, given the frantic tempo and the submission of melody to percussion, it’s a rather academic point.

Dry discussion of melodic detail and scalar ambiguities shouldn’t deafen us (sic) to the sheer irresistible cumulative force of this sequence of melodies, which (despite their economical material) is never obvious, always inventive. Apart from the long cadential ostinato phrases, simple repeated material is very rare, and despite the recurrence of descending motifs from do down to low so, the melodies have to be learned through long exposure, with no short-cuts; as in northern wind repertoires generally, the piece seems to take delight in avoiding repetition.

4 Origins

All this leads me to a still more hazy area. The shawm seems to have become popular among the Han Chinese around the Ming dynasty, perhaps the 15th century, soon spreading from the ceremonies of the armies and the courts to those of the common people. I have stressed that in traditional imperial society there was no clear division between elite and popular culture: notwithstanding certain areas mainly limited to the elite, like qin music and calligraphy, both classes had access to the same pool of musical culture. Indeed, the elite were the main patrons of folk music such as the shawm bands. Even the regional courts employed shawm bands, who did tours of duty for them before returning to their village homes.

So how did the shawm repertory since the Ming dynasty originate? Once this exotic instrument arrived, what did Ming musicians do with it, how did they learn it, and what did they play on it? Presumably not the music of its Central Asian place of origin, but some style that would be popular among the Han Chinese. Did they compose new pieces? Or did they adapt existing pieces for other instruments? I would assume the latter. So what kind of pieces would be suitable? The most obvious starting point would be the small guanzi double-reed pipe, known as bili, the leading instrument in ensembles since as early as the 6th century CE. I surmise that court bili players would take to the new shawm, and start out by trying to adapt the existing bili repertory to it. Indeed, both shawm and shengguan repertories are dominated by many ancient titles from the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties. Adapting them to the demands of two shawms, rather than the more mixed heterophony of the ensemble with instruments like bili, sheng, di, and pipa, would soon lead to considerable variation.

Incidentally, most Central Asian shawm styles the melody is played by a single shawm; after the shawm was taken up in China, musicians must quite soon have decided to play two shawms together in heterophony. Why? Sure, they would immediately have realized that no other type of melodic instrument could compete with its volume; but the heterophony of the two shawms is one of the most magnificent inventions of Ming culture.

There is a knotty class issue here too. Court musicians were virtually slaves; ritual specialists, both temple-dwelling and household-based, were playing shengguan music by the Ming dynasty; by at least the 18th century there was a clear class division between lowly shawm bands and the shengguan music of prestigious ritual specialists. Though shawm players also played a subsidiary repertory of guanzi pieces, members of shengguan ritual ensembles would disdain to play the lowly shawm or even associate with shawm players,  At some stage, while shawm bands were becoming indispensable to elite and common ceremonial, their status in folk society was to sink even lower than the shengguan musicians from whose ranks, I surmise, they had emerged.

Today, it is hard to see precise links between shawm melodies and such early scores as we have, such as vocal pieces from early times preserved in 18th-century compendia. But we have to assume that a major process, whether we call it composition or adaptation, was stimulated by the arrival of the shawm from the 15th century or so. Though imperial sources appear to offer slim pickings on which to base such speculation, I hope Chinese scholars will find clues.

5 Conclusion

I wouldn’t claim that complexity is a criterion for excellence—but were anyone to do so, then in virtually all parameters the shawm suite is more complex than the qin piece. At the very least, the melodies of shawm bands need to be taken seriously.

  • The qin piece Pingsha luoyan and shawm suite Da Yanluo compared

   qin: educated, amateur, high status
   shawm: illiterate, professional, low status, hereditary within family
Social function and venue
   qin: Alone for self-cultivation, and at indoor amateur gatherings of aficionados
   shawm: played outside gate on morning of funerals and temple fairs
   qin: solo, monophonic with occasional octave doublings of main notes
   shawm: two shawms and percussion; melody heterophonic
Age of piece?
   qin: earliest notation 1634
   shawm: hard to guess, but perhaps played for many centuries
Extra-musical connotations?
scores and commentaries give literary and pictorial programme
non-programmatic, but context-specific
   qin: learnt with teacher with aid of tablature
   shawm: learnt aurally in performance; vestiges of oral solfeggio mnnemonics
   qin: 6’54” (!)
   shawm: 15’–20′
   qin: 6 sections played continuously
   shawm: 12+ melodic sections with percussion interludes
   qin: intimate, meditative
   shawm: solemn, macho
   qin: quiet, small dynamic range
   shawm: loud, small dynamic range
   qin: left- and right-hand ornaments
   shawm: constant decoration and nuances of timbre
   qin: some free-tempo, mostly slow-to mid-tempo duple metre; some cadences
in triple time.
   shawm: fixed duple metre from slow to fast; subtle modifications throughout;
some extended free-tempo melodic cadences over fixed percussion tempo
   qin: commonly played in one version in modern times
   shawm: versions played in three scales
Use of pitches
   qin: one pentatonic set
   shawm: pentatonic base, pitch substitutions create temporary modulation
   qin: simple
   shawm: extended, ad lib

To repeat, I’m not at all suggesting the qin piece is superficial: with its economical melodic material, its emphasis on subtle decoration, it creates an atmosphere suitable to the meditations of its players. But as we have seen, the shawm piece can in no way be considered inferior; and its more complex melodic material is just as enriched by nuance and decoration—which in this case is part of a dynamic oral tradition.

Coming from a background of studying folk culture, for all the wondrous mysticism of qin music, it is easy to hear the qin as inculcating conformity, slavish obedience to an inflexible, over-prescribed score. Indeed, this would seem curious to Bach and Mozart. While qin players will point out the flexibility of rhythm that comes from the lack of metrical markers, master-pupil transmission further limits individual creativity. Transmission among shawm bands is strict too—but there, more flexibility is built into the system.

Like WAM, the repute of the qin is based on its propaganda power, derived from elite literacy and the claim of antiquity and mysticism. Elite genres certainly shouldn’t have a monopoly on the claim to antiquity. If I have appeared to downplay the subtleties and mystique of the qin piece while appreciating the complexities of the shawm suite, perhaps that helps redress the balance.

So all this is an illustration of why it just won’t work to try and admit “the other classical traditions” of “art music” to the elite club of WAM. In China, and perhaps elsewhere, most of the Western notions of what constitutes “classical” apply just as well to “folk” genres; an attempt to define “classical” leaves us with little except for the narrow repertoire favoured by the elite. Instructive as melodic analysis can be, there is no “autonomous” absolute music: all kinds of world musics have their own rules, their own complexities, serving different roles in social life. For more, see What is serious music?!

[1] I still find myself calling these instruments by the Western term “shawm”, reluctant to lumber them with the official (and historical) term suona, which Yanggao musicians, like many villagers throughout north China, know but rarely use; instead they call it by their own local terms, like niezi or weirwa. Cf. Walking shrill, and  Vocabularies, educated and local.
[2] Cf. my early “The Golden-character scripture: perspectives on Chinese melody”, Asian Music XX-2 (1989): 21–66.
[3] Guan Pinghu guqin quji 管平湖古琴曲集 [“Favourite Qin Pieces of Guan Ping-hu”] (2 CD set, Wind Records, 1995); Guqin quji pp.235–8.
[4] Zha, pp.489–95 (jieti 245–51), 1001–1006 (geci 477–82).