The Origin of the names for the 5 Pentatonic Notes in Chinese Music.

June 10, 2015

The other day Boyler wants to know how the names for the five pentatonic notes (Wu Yin 五音) in Chinese music came about, why are they called Gong 宮, Shang 商, Jue 角, Zhi 徵and Yu 羽 for the equivalent of do, re, mi, so and la in the western musical scale.

It turns out that there are different theories for their origin proposed by different etymologists and I will present 4 of them below:

1) According to ancient astronomy: Those were some of the names for the 28 Lunar Mansions. For example: the first note “Gong” represents the “Zhong Gong” 中宮 or the Central Palace in the center of the 28 Lunar Mansions, the other four notes are drawn from the rest of the star configurations.

2) According to domesticated animals: The five domesticated animals, namely the Niu 牛 or Buffalo. Ma 馬 or Horse, Zhi 雉 Or Pheasant, Zhu 豬 or Pig and Yang 羊 or Goat, sounded very similar to Gong, Shang, Jue, Zhi and Yu. These are also five of the 12 Zodiac Animals representing their respective Earthly Branches at the same time.

3) According to ancient tribal totems: With their clan or family names similar to the names for the five notes.

4) According to the ancient sovereign ruler and the ruled: The musical classic “Le Ji” 樂記 mentioned, “Gong is for the sovereign ruler, Shang is for the officials, Jue is for the people, Zhi is for national affairs and Yu is for public properties.

Whether the theory has its origin in ancient astronomy, domesticated animals, tribal totems or sovereignty, having different ways to explain the origin of the names for the five notes indicated that music to the ancient Chinese served many different kinds of purpose for different occasions. Their particular choice of names gave ancient Chinese music an additional sense of mystery, pure simplicity and a colorful sense of feudal aesthetics, reflecting the different concepts about music held by the ancient Chinese.

The choice of five instead of seven note in the Chinese musical scale, with “fa” and “ti” missing, is also interesting, because Five Notes fits well in with the Five Phases in Chinese philosophy and the Five Organs in Chinese Medicine, but that is another story….

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