Three Aspects of Music in Ancient China and Greece

October 1, 1980

In the two great civilizations of China and Greece, music had such a central position that its history represents a chronicle of the relationship between man and his universe. There are many parallels in the meaning and function of music to be found in both cultures. Early Greek culture has been chosen for its significance as the cornerstone of western civilization, and the Chinese for the reason that it was of primary cultural influence in the far east.

Although some basic ideas concerning music in China and Greece came from earlier periods and rested primarily on myth or tradition, the beginning of systematized concepts of the philosophy of music developed in these countries during a period strongly influenced by philosophers and founders of great religions. In the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Lao-tse, Confucius and Hsün Tzu in China and Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle in Greece were teachers and guides to new and important principles and beliefs. The time span chosen for discussion in China is approximately 550 B.C., the birth of Confucius, to the end of the Chou dynasty in 256 B.C. During this dynasty court music reached its zenith and together with li or ritual, music occupied the most prominent place in the education of a gentleman. The Greek period begins with Pythagoras (circa 530 B.C.) and continues to 320 B.C., when the rejection of tradition with a consequent vulgarization of music resulted in an almost virtual disappearance of classical music as it had been understood in earlier centuries.

Chinese civilization in large measure was the creation of revered and highly respected sages. Li, which constituted the proper etiquette or ritual, and music were believed to uphold the order and harmony of the universe. Music was regarded as the essence of the harmony existing between Heaven, Earth and Man—the all-pervading influence—and was thought essential in achieving harmony and order in the material world. The primary role of music was not to please the senses but to convey eternal truths and make man receptive to these truths. Lü Pu-We, in his musical treatise, stated that he was "able to speak of music only with a man who has grasped the meaning of the world."1 An ancient legend attributed the control of the elements and the course of the seasons to the zither playing of the music master Wen of Cheng. Before being able to play the zither with this power he had to reach the music in his own heart.

To be a truly cultured person in Greek society one had to be trained in music and as a result by it. The origin of the word "music" was the divinity associated with the creative force in nature known as the Muse. Many Greek myths testify to the mystic power of music. Orpheus is said to have tamed the Greeks with his lyre by changing their bestial instincts to those of men—in the true sense of humanity. "The lyre of Orpheus has rightly been placed among the stars; it did more than Hercules' club, it made brutes human."2 Music was considered a humanizing influence and an art by which man "is introduced to the higher levels of existence, participating in the orderly life and creative activities of the divine nature."3 Thus in Greece as in China music was metaphysical in essence.

Ethical considerations were primary in the Chinese and Greek attitudes toward music and the study of music was given paramount importance in both educational systems. Plato like Confucius advocated the study of music because of its moral value. They both realized that the science of governing men was dependent on the skill used in guiding and controlling their passions, and considered music the ideal tool with which to accomplish this end. Thus the molding of character appears to have been the single most important function of music. This in turn was based on metaphysical aspects such as the belief that music represented the ideal order and is the image of the universe, or that it typified the harmony between heaven and earth.

Probably the practical merits of music in ancient China and Greece consisted chiefly in regulating the movements of dance and poetry. In Greece music had its most important development in drama in which music, dance and poetry were combined. In China these three forms were integrated in religious ritual. The Chinese idea that "without poetry [or meaning] there can be no music"4 parallels the Greek view, as the Greek word for music (mousike) implied both music and poetry, the poet in Greece being his own composer. The tonal nature of both ancient languages made an extremely close union of music and poetry possible. The music of both cultures, being essentially monophonic and melodic in character, followed the tonal inflections of the languages and created an organic unity not attainable in languages of a non-tonal nature.



Most of the information concerning the music of ancient times in China and Greece comes to us in literature and the writings of philosophers. The incomplete Harmonics of Aristoxenus from the fourth century B.C. is the best early source pertaining to Greek musical theory. Due probably to its improvisatory nature and lack of precise notation, there are only some twenty examples of Greek classical music extant, the oldest being dated approximately 250 B.C.

During the Ch'in dynasty in China (221-206 B.C.) there was a wholesale burning of books, music and instruments. As a partial consequence of this act, the earliest actual examples of classical music extant come from the beginning of the Tang dynasty in A.D. 618. However, the classical music of China is somewhat easier to reconstruct than that of Greece, since some of the traditions concerning music were put into written form as early as The Book of Songs (Shih Ching) covering a period approximately 1122-600 B.C. Presumably all the poems contained in this book were originally set to music, though the music has not survived. The very nature of the book, which consists of poems to be sung, indicates the affinity between music and the expression of both the nobility and common people.5 Valuable insights are also given in the earliest actual musical treatise, the Lu Shih Ch'un Ch'iu written by Lü Pu-We about 320 B.C. Chinese classical music had a much longer continuity than the Greek, due probably in great measure to the reverence for tradition which has ever characterized Chinese culture. It is thus reasonable to assume that the musical examples from the Tang dynasty previously cited reflect faithfully the principles of the ancient music.6

The origin of Chinese music theory, according to legend, is ascribed to the Emperor Huang Ti, the "yellow" emperor and third divine ruler in the third millennium B.C. The musical system of this emperor was known as "all-pervading influence" or "universal kindness." The foundation tone (our tonic or key-note) was designated as "yellow bell" and was conceived as being three-faceted. It was a sacred eternal principle, the foundation or basis of the state, and a note of definite pitch in music. The foundation tone was obtained by the Emperor's Music Ruler according to legend, when he cut a node of bamboo in such a way as to give the pitch of a man's voice when he spoke without passion. He then made twelve pipes inspired by the singing of the male and female phoenix—six for the male and six for the female. All of these could be derived from the foundation tone. Theoretically this procedure consisted of cutting bamboo pipes of differing lengths, resulting in a chain of ascending fifths and descending fourths. By arranging the first five sounds in the series of ascending fifths in scale order—F, G, A, C and D—the five note scale was constructed. Any of these five tones could serve as a focal point and beginning for a new mode of the scale, the mode being characterized by this particular note acting as its principal and final note.

The symbolism underlying Chinese ritual required the foundation tone and the scale based on it to move in conformity with the twelve months and the twelve hours. For this purpose, the Chinese recognized the twelve notes (consecutive half-steps) within an octave as a means of transposing their five-note scale. These twelve pitches, all generated by the foundation tone, were rearranged in stepwise fashion and further organized into two six-note series, depending on their generation either by ascending fifths or descending fourths. This was concerned with the yang and yin theory of complementarity—the opposing male and female elements in the universe—and simply meant that tones in these two six-note series could be properly sounded together in ritual harmony. (See Appendix.)

Eight categories of instruments were used and mentioned as early as The Book of Songs (1122-600 B.C.). Each instrument was valued for its distinctive "color" or timbre, with which the Chinese were particularly concerned in their music. The categories were: wood, metal, stone, bamboo, earth, skin, silk, string and wind. Later in the fourth century B.C. these categories became associated with yang and yin, the Five Elements, the cardinal directions and numerology.7

The music in China as in Greece was essentially monodic, consisting of a single melodic line. This is conducive to inventing ways of varying and enlivening the single tone for added interest, and these techniques were employed in both cultures. However, in China emotion seems to have emanated more from single sounds than in Greece. Curt Sachs says of Chinese music that "Each note is an entity in itself, calculated to evoke in the mind of the hearer a special reaction. The timbre being thus of the utmost importance, there are very great possibilities of modifying the coloring of one and the same tone."8

The origin of music theory in Greece is assigned traditionally to Pythagoras (circa 530 B.C.) who may have been influenced by some basic ideas of the Egyptian priests and of Mesopotamian culture. These principles were then taught as part of a discipline designed to bring moral uplift. In his view the same laws governing the rhythmic movement of the stars, spacing them apart, also determine rhythm and tonal relationships in music. Pythagoras conceived mathematics to be the key to understanding the universe and was of the opinion that music was number made audible and demonstrated in sound the pure world of number. As the basis for his cycle of fifths, from which all the tones of the Greek scale could be derived, he used the interval of the pure fifth, which the Chinese had employed, it is thought, at a much earlier date to generate their five-note scale.

In the Greek system any of the seven notes in an octave could be the starting point of a scale, or mode, which was constructed in a descending pattern. Each mode consisted of two four-note patterns called tetrachords. Each tetrachord encompassed a perfect fourth; the intervals framed by the perfect fourth varied according to the particular mode. Each mode was regarded as possessing a special ethical quality or ethos. The Greeks, like the Chinese, recognized the twelve notes or consecutive half-steps in an octave for purposes of transposition.

Rhythmically, Chinese classical music theory admitted only 4/4 time but in practice it was more flexible. In spite of certain requirements making it mandatory for the rhythm to follow the nature of the words and to follow the melody, there was doubtless freedom as to individual treatment.9 In Greece there was probably no real distinction between the musical rhythms and the poetic meters.



The three areas of the philosophy of music in ancient China and Greece I should like to compare are:

  1. The spiritual or transcendental view of music which determined the proper relationship of man to the universe and to the Great One or Divine Being,
  2. The moral or ethical aspect of music which determined the proper relationship of the individual to society and was accomplished through education, and
  3. The political implications of music which were thought to be helpful in establishing the proper relationship between the ruler and/or government and the people.


The Spiritual or Transcendental

In China law and strictness were imposed on music to a degree not attained in any other society, for music "was rooted in the Great One, the universal idea that nobody can visualize or even conceive."10 The Chinese regarded music as an image of the universe and since all things were one in their view, it was assumed that music was also the image of the laws of heaven.

Correctness or propriety in music was considered essential to the cosmos. Man had no control over time and space, substance and power, but sound he created himself and it was a reflection of what was in his heart. Music could either strengthen or weaken the equilibrium of the world and was thus accepted as a serious responsibility.

Many of the ancient Chinese beliefs concerning the transcendental nature of music were held in common by Greek philosophers. Pythagoras and Plato both regarded music as an image of the universe and governed by the same laws. Similarly, in their view all things were one, resulting ideally in a world in harmony. This harmony uniting the human soul to the soul of the world was to them evidenced most clearly in the art of music. Their rationale was that music, being the most faithful reproduction of the laws of nature due to its rhythmic character, approximated most closely the rhythm and order in the universe. Plato viewed music as a copy of the Ideal Order which was revealed to the scholar in the study of philosophy. For this reason it was included as a discipline in preparation for the study of philosophy.

It should be noted that the symbolic interpretations and philosophical speculations in early Chinese and Greek music did not represent the outlook of the whole people. Primarily these views were the property of the intellectual élite. For the masses of people music served to heighten and enliven the festivals, to lighten the drudgery of work or to accompany ritual. Either it was pure entertainment or functional in relation to their religious practices. The Book of Rites, one of the Chinese classics, expresses it in this manner: "Those who know only sound but not its tones are birds and beasts; those who know the tone but not its music are the multitude. It is only the chün-tzu [perfect gentleman] who can know music."11 Aristotle in his Politics has much the same idea when he says, "Let the young pursue their studies until they are able to feel delight in noble melodies and rhythms and not merely in that common part of music in which every slave or child and even some animals find pleasure."12


The Moral or Ethical Aspect of Music

It is most often in connection with character that Confucius spoke to his students about music. One's character, he said, should be "stimulated by the study of poetry, established by the study of li [ritual] and given its finish by the study of music."13 This implies not a sleek refinement but refers to a clarity and balance of all the proper elements making up the character of a true gentleman.

To Confucius as to the ancient Greek philosophers music was important above all as an instrument of education. In Chinese humanism li (ritual) and music were even more important than gymnastics and music were in the system of Plato and Aristotle. During the Chou dynasty (1027-256 B.C.) the aristocrats learned at an early age the rudiments of the "six arts" which comprised archery and charioteering, calligraphy, mathematics, music and rituals. Hsüin Tzu, in a passage describing the participation of the perfect gentleman in musical activities and stressing their importance, says, "He makes his purpose conform to the Tao [the Way of Heaven] by using the bells and drums; he makes his heart rejoice by using the lyre and lute; he dances with the shield and axe; he decks himself with feathers; he moves in time to the stone chime and flutes."14 Through music the expression of joy—always characterized by calmness, moderation and balance—was ideally attained, and this was realized to be an extremely significant function of music. In the playing or singing of the noble person there was to be no staccato, no accelerando, no strong crescendo or decrescendo, nor anything which might arouse unrest, passion, or lust. In Confucius' words, "the noble-minded man's music is mild and delicate, keeps a uniform mood, enlivens and moves. Such a man does not harbor pain or mourn in his heart, violent and daring movements are foreign to him."15 Serenity in a man's heart was thought to be created primarily through music of the proper type. Furthermore, in the Chinese language the calligraphic symbol for music (yuo) and serenity (lo) is the same.

Confucius and other philosophers made a definite distinction between the music of a vulgar-minded man and the music of a noble-minded man. He himself found the ritual music Shao so beautiful that "for three months he forgot the taste of meat."16 This music, beautiful in form and good in influence, Confucius compared with that of Wu, which was beautiful in form but not good in influence. These terms refer to the ritual music respectively of a predynastic period and a later period. The moral effect of music was the primary test of its stature in early Chinese thought.

In the classical stage of Hellenic civilization the two-fold power of music to soothe and to stir the mind was understood to affect the moral qualities of the nation. It could strengthen or weaken the character, create good and evil, order and anarchy, peace and unrest. These ideas were not original with the Greeks, as they had existed in China and Egypt at an earlier date. Plato enthusiastically advocated the study of music because of its moral value in controlling the passions, in filling the soul with the desire for noble conduct and sound judgment, and in producing a spirit of temperance. Essentially these were the same qualities attributed to the discipline and study of music in Chinese culture. Plato was of the opinion that music was the most important part of education, as rhythm and harmonious tones supposedly penetrated deep into the soul and imparted grace and good form. A cultured person (who has studied music) in his reasoning would have a keen sense of the false and inadequate in nature and art and would keep his distance from them. He should be able to recognize beautiful forms and images, take them with joy into his soul and thus fashion himself after them. As a result this person would become "noble in character and conduct."17 Aristotle in his Politics, Book VIII, gives his rationale for the study of music. "Music is taught as a recreation, but it serves a higher purpose. The noble employment of leisure is the highest aim which a man can pursue; and music is valuable for this purpose. Music, if it were a mere amusement, should not be taught to children. . . . But music is a moral discipline and a rational enjoyment."18

Since music in Greece occupied such a prominent place in the educational system, it was chosen very carefully so as to have the maximum benefit in molding character. Melodies of bad tonality, that is to say inappropriate modes, were avoided, and those particularly appropriate for strengthening the character were stressed. The seven modes were believed to have strongly marked individual character or ethos, capable of affecting the morality of those who used them. For example the Mixolydian mode was thought to make men sad and grave, the Phrygian to inspire enthusiasm and the Dorian to produce a moderate and balanced temperament. The assumption has been made that the three pitch regions of high, middle and low were associated with certain ethical qualities. No doubt the different arrangement of intervals in each mode contributed to the variance in emotional power thought to be exhibited in the modes. To parallel this an ethical view of modes known as tiao is found in Chinese treatises, referring to the various possible modes of the pentatonic scale and their respective ideological values. These ethical connotations were presumably determined by the particular starting note of the respective mode. It was indicated previously that each note of the five-note scale was linked with one of the five virtues, and that six of the possible notes in an octave were associated with the male or yang principle and six with the yin or female principle. These correlations may have determined the varying ideological values assigned to the different modes of the scale.


The Political Implications

It was believed that the emperor of China held his throne by the mandate of Heaven. He was considered the tonic note or foundation tone of the earthly harmony, and when attuned his empire flourished. The legendary kingdom of the Emperor Huang Ti (third millennium B.C.) was cited as an exemplary period. Supposedly the people of this kingdom were able to control their passions perfectly, resulting in such an accord between Heaven and Earth that China, or the Middle Kingdom as it was called, became an earthly paradise. Since music was believed to have such a great influence on cosmic and social life, it is not surprising that it was considered imperative for each emperor to find the correct foundation tone on which to found his musical system. The thought was that the good or proper kind of music helped to create perfect peace in the empire as a result of inspiring men to good actions. In the opposite manner bad music was considered to inspire men with evil thoughts, thus leading to bad actions such as riots. Hsün Tzu in his chapter On Music reveals a political astuteness in his description of the benefits of the proper kind of music as an outlet for passions.19 He reasoned that when music is even and moderate the people are in harmony and not riotous. When the music is dignified and reverent the people are in unity and not contentious. If the people remain in harmony and unity they feel safe and secure and are satisfied with their sovereign. As a result his glory will be great and all the people of the world will be willing to accept his leadership.

The theory of complementarity, a hallmark of Chinese philosophy, is evident in the close relationship of music and li. Music made inner discipline possible while li (ritual) made outward control possible; thus the two were opposite in function. From the Book of Rites (Li Chi) in the famous ninth chapter on music, Hsün Tzu's thinking on the role of music and ritual is made clear. "Music, coming from within, produces the serenity [of the mind and heart] while li, acting from without, produces the elegance [of outward bearing and manner]."20 Music was conceived as being the harmony of Heaven and Earth and li the order of Heaven and Earth. The theory was that music led to common union, from which issues mutual affection. Li led to distinction and therefore to mutual respect. If mutual affection and respect coexisted to a great extent in the kingdom, stability and peace would be assured.

Both Chinese and Greek philosophers believed that music affected to a considerable degree the constitution of the kingdom or state, and that the science of governing men depended on the skill used in directing and controlling their passions. Since music was determined a necessary and desirable outlet for the emotions, it was accorded a primary place in both cultures for an ultimately practical purpose—that of insuring order and stability in the kingdom or state.



As has been noted there are some striking similarities in the musical systems and philosophies of ancient China and Greece in respect to three areas. The importance of music in education was firmly established in both cultures. Music was regarded as having the power either to weaken or strengthen the equilibrium of the world by its effect on character, and correctness in and appropriateness of music was stressed to promote a strong society. Music and poetry were considered inseparable and attained a remarkable organic unity, partially due to the close relation of the music to the tonal inflections of the languages. Perfect clarity of music and meaning was the goal of both cultures, as the music-poems embodied the respective moral and philosophical values of the two countries.

According to tradition the close connection between divine order, musical harmony, and government was established in China in the third millennium B.C. It appears to have been an older and more integral part of Chinese philosophy than was true in Greece. The musical system of each emperor was thought to determine to a substantial degree the success of the dynasty. In Greece music was not regarded as having such an extreme influence on government.

Unquestionably music had a unique position in the spiritual and philosophical life of ancient China and Greece. However, it seems to have been more deeply rooted in these areas in China. Music was indeed, in China, conceived of as being the wisdom of the heart. Never has the attitude toward music been more idealistic nor the conception of it so lofty as in ancient China. This is summed up very perceptively in the statement that "the Chinese have not philosophized about their musical system as we do in the West; . . . rather have they evolved their musical system to enshrine and illustrate their natural philosophy and give permanent embodiment to its principles."21



The Chinese five-note scale was generated from the foundation tone F and consisted of ascending fifths and descending fourths. The ratio used was 3:2 for the interval of a fifth and 4:3 for the interval of a fourth.




Rearranged, these tones give the five notes of the pentatonic scale: F, G, A, C and D. The twelve lüs were generated from the foundation tone F and correlated with the twelve months, twelve hours, yang and yin, etc.




The six upper lüs represent yin, the female element. The six lower lüs represent yang, the male element. Rearranged in consecutive half-steps these give the appearance, but not the function, of a chromatic scale. These tones represent the twelve notes found within an octave and were used for purposes of transposition. The lüs rearranged:


The perfect fifth was realized as the natural "harmony" of the foundation tone or fundamental. The Chinese thought of each tone as "giving birth" to the perfect fifth above. The twelve lüs may be rearranged in a circular fashion thus:




This predates Pythagoras' circle of fifths which similarly included all twelve notes within an octave and was derived from the interval of the pure fifth.

1Curt Sachs, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World (New York: Norton, 1943), p. 106.

2Walter Wiora, The Four Ages of Music, trans. M.D. Herter Norton (New York: The Norton Library, 1965), p. 74.

3F. Eby and C.F. Arrowood, History and Philosophy of Education Ancient and Medieval (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1940), p. 269.

4J.H. Levis, Foundations of Chinese Musical Art (1936; reprint New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1963), p. 192.

5B.M. Becker, Music in the Life of Ancient China (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1957), p. 22.

6Levis, p. 182.

7Becker, p. 89.

8Sachs, p. 108.

9Levis, p. 183.

10Sachs, p. 109.

11Ch'u Chai and Winberg Chai, ed. and trans., The Sacred Books of Confucius (New York: University Books, 1965), pp. 340-341.

12Sachs, p. 255.

13Becker, p. 56.

14Chai, p. 257.

15Sachs, p. 106.

16Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., s.v. Chinese Music.

17Wiora, p. 76.

18Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII, ed. R. McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), pp.1125-1126.

19Chai, p. 255.

20Ibid., p. 343.

21Grove's Dictionary, Idem.

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