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The Prehistory of Chinese Music Theory

Elsley Zeitlyn Lecture in Chinese Archaeology and Culture, delivered by Professor Robert Bagley, on 26 October 2004.

The tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (d.433 BC), excavated by Chinese archaeologists in 1978, contained thirty well-preserved musical instruments. The most spectacular are a set of 41 chimestones and a set of 65 bells, both of which carry lengthy inscriptions concerning pitches, scales, and transposition. These inscriptions are the earliest texts on music yet known from China, and the bells still sound the pitches that their inscriptions refer to.

The set of chimestones is chromatic, that is, the step from one stone to the next is always a semitone. The bells, each of which produces two distinct pitches depending on where it is struck, supply a five-octave pentatonic scale on C as well as shorter stretches of other scales, including a chromatic stretch.

The bell and chimestone inscriptions use two systems of pitch nomenclature, one for relative pitch and one for absolute pitch. Names for a sequence of standard absolute pitches are inscribed on a subset of the bells designed to embody those standards. For relative pitch the inscriptions use a solmization system. It assigns monosyllables to the steps of the pentatonic scale and disyllables to the remaining steps of the chromatic scale.

After describing the chromatic instruments and their inscriptions, the lecture will try to account for the theoretical understanding they exhibit by proposing a hypothetical prehistory for Chinese music. It will be argued that Chinese music theory before the Marquis of Zeng's time differed significantly from the music theory of later periods, and that the startlingly early appearance of the chromatic scale in China is connected with that difference.

Robert Bagley is a specialist in the art and archaeology of Bronze Age China. Educated at Harvard, he has taught since 1985 at Princeton University, where he is a professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology. His research interests include Shang and Zhou bronzes, ancient metal technology, ornament, and the archaeology of ancient music. He is the author of Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (1987), editor of Art of the Houma Foundry (1996) and Ancient Sichuan (2001), and has contributed chapters to The Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999) and The First Writing (ed. Stephen Houston, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press). He wrote the chapter on the Marquis of Zeng's bells in Music in the Age of Confucius (ed. Jenny So, 2000).

More about the Elsley Zeitlyn Lectures on Chinese Archaeology and Cultures