Saturday morning, November 7, 10–10:50 CST

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Chinese Music and Chinese Music Theory

Ya-Hui Cheng (University of South Florida), Chair

The Cultural Binds of Tonal Function

Anna Yu Wang (Harvard University)


Analysis of culturally unfamiliar music, or “world music,” is a burgeoning subdiscipline whose maturation brings a fresh tangle of methodological problems into the purview of North American music theory. How can we analyze world musics in a culturally resonant and ethical manner, and how do we theorize musical experiences that appear to contradict our own acquired intuitions? Taking as a case study tonal function in a Chinese theatrical tradition called huangmei opera, I draw on ethnographer Dwight Conquergood’s framework of dialogical performance and ethnomusicologist Judith Becker’s notion of habitus of listening to propose a model of analysis underpinned by fieldwork and two-way inquiry.

My case study concerns the phenomenon that sol—the fourth tone in the pentatonic sequences C-D-E-G-A, D-E-F♯-A-B, E-F♯-G♯-B-C♯, etc.—forms the final sonority of most huangmei opera works. Indeed, sol-ending huangmei opera melodies can evoke greater structural closure than juxtaposing do-ending melodies, revealing sharp incongruencies with how tonal functions are imagined in Western art music. Reflecting on ethnographic encounters with musicians of huangmei opera, I trace their tonal experiences of sol and do back to several socially ingrained frameworks, including the tonal profiles found in ancient Chinese ritual texts and a cross-disciplinary aesthetic ideal known as 韵味 (yunwei). Ultimately, I wish to suggest that the experience of tonal function, whether in huangmei opera or Western art music, must appeal to the relevant habitus of listening—the particular nexus of social narratives within which a musical intuition resides—in order to accrue cultural resonance and musical significance.

The Disunity of Ancient Chinese Music Theory

Lars Christensen (Saint Paul, MN)

Lars Christensen is an independent scholar in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In 2019 he completed the PhD in music from the University of Minnesota with the dissertation “The Time-suturing Technologies of Northern Song Musicology,” which analyzed how discursive, metrological, and diagrammatic strategies in music reform discourse in eleventh-century China allowed for a more direct connection with the ancient musical past. He has published in Asian Music, Studien zur Musikarchäologie, and Music in Art. He is currently working on projects in the music of the Global Middle Ages and the early use of music notation worldwide. Lars is also a performer of Javanese gamelan and numerous other kinds of music.


Postcolonial critics have noted the homogenizing effect cultural distance can have as intracultural differences are downplayed to emphasize perceived essences. Scholars of non-Western music often assimilate the ideas of various theorists to construct a seemingly impersonal system that can serve as an “emic” analytic tool. For example, modern writers might posit an ancient and unified Chinese tuning system, based on a standard pitch and generated using alternating ratios of 2:3 and 4:3. This is not wrong, but such coherence was hardly the experience of the theorists they draw on, who struggled to situate themselves within a bewildering array of competing systems. For them, such commonalities were too obvious or fundamental to require much comment, and they might have seen only contradictions that resist elision.

In this paper, I translate and analyze a passage by Northern Song scholar, Chen Yang, from his magisterial Book of Music (1101). In the introduction to a section on tuning, he briefly surveys the work of eleven theorists spanning eight centuries, concentrating on how their approaches cannot be reconciled. Chen omits anyone from the preceding 450 years, implying it is not simply the trope of Tang decadence, but instead that the figures of the distant past themselves did not describe a singular theory, but rather a set of variations on a theme. We collapse these variations at the risk of greatly simplifying the intellectual milieu and decontextualizing the innovations of later theorists, who were not so much stepping beyond classical precedent as participating in a longstanding conversation.