By Qi.

Chinese traditional music was documented as far back as the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE). For most people around the world, music is made for amusement and entertainment. However, during the time of the Zhou Dynasty, music played a crucial political role in society. Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, even predicted the destiny of a dynasty by listening to its music. Confucian system considered the formal music to be morally uplifting and the symbol of a good ruler and stable government. Same as the Chinese philosophy, the ideal music should express harmony. It not only means the perfect relationship between human beings and the cosmos, but also means that a social order in which all the elements co-exist and interact with one another in a beautifully frictionless state. Interestingly, there were two periods that foreign musical style was fused with Chinese traditional musical style. These two periods are Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) and Republic of China (1912-1949).

In the Western traditional system, most scales use seven tones that can be transposed and that contain modes. The Chinese system concentrates in a similar way on a seven-tone scale but with a five-tone core (wu sheng) plus two changing (bian) tones.

Seven-tone Chinese Scale


Chinese instruments can be divided into 4 categories, according to the way they are played. The four categories are: Bowed, Plucked string, Wind, and Percussion. Chinese Instruments are also classified by the material they were made of. The eight categories are: Silk, Bamboo, Wood, Stone, Metal, Clay, Gourd, and Animal Skin/Hide.

Typical Traditional Chinese Instruments

BianZhong (Bronze Bells)

The Bianzhong is an ancient instrument consists of a set of bronze bells. They are used in music accompaniments for ritual ceremonies and court music. They are struck by a mallet to make sounds, depending on where they are struck. Bianzhong was a sign of power and wealth in ancient China.


The Sheng is a mouth-blown free-reed wind instrument made with vertical pipes. The Sheng is the earliest instrument that use reeds. Covering the hole(s) on a sheng’s pipe(s) would cause the entire length of the pipe(s) to resonate with the reeds’ frequency. If the hole is open, no sound is produced.


The Xiao is a vertical flute made with wood or bamboo. Due to the nature of the instrument, the sound of the xiao is naturally soft in volume and does not possess a large range of dynamics.


The Pipa, also known as Chinese Lute, is an instrument with four strings, 16 frets and a pear-shaped body. It appeared in Qin Dynasty, more than two thousand years ago. “Pi” means “to play forward”, while “Pa” means “to play backward”. It is played vertically, often on musician’s lap. Players use their fingernails to pluck the strings.


“Gu” means old or ancient. “Zheng” refers to a zither-type instrument with strings stretched between two bridges. Its strings were made of silk in the past. Other Asian types of zither instruments were originated from the Guzheng. Its descendants spread all over Asia, such as the Kayagum in Korea, the Dan Tranh in Vietnam, and the Koto in Japan.


Erhu is a two-stringed instrument, which appeared in the Tang dynasty. Although it only has two stings, it can convey a wide range of emotions. It is played vertically, often on musician’s lap. The Erhu is capable of imitating sounds from birds to horses. In its middle-high range, its sound can be sonorous, while in its low and middle range, the sound is especially stirring and somber.