When an “A” (A4) is played on a piano, whether in Taiwan or California, the resultant musical tone will almost certainly be vibrating at 440hz (440 vibrations per second). In our contemporary world, we think of musical pitches as fixed and measurable entities. However, for most of human history, pitches were relative with few if any absolute standards.
It was not until the 19th century that mankind was able to scientifically measure a sound’s frequency. Before this time, there would often be profound pitch differences between countries, regions, towns, and even between pipe organs in the same church. During these periods, musicians simply tuned their instruments collectively, one player sitting next to another.
Organs were particularly challenging to deal with, making them particularly fun to talk about. This a set of pipes from a 19th century organ, located in County Kildare, Ireland. These pipes have been “cone tuned.” The end of each pipe has been crimped or flared to make small adjustments to their pitches. Over the years, constant changes in Western tunings and temperaments often fatigued a pipe’s metal beyond repair. These damaged pipes would be salvaged by cutting them down to produce higher pitches.
China & the Yellow Bell
In China, music that was cosmologically “correct” would be performed on “correct instrumentation correlating to the five elements of nature (metal, wood, water, fire. and earth), [and would] bring equilibrium and harmony to man and nature.1” The original, and probably legendary, Yellow Bell (Huangzhong) was a pipe that sounded a fixed pitch. A fixed pitch so perfect in its qualities that it would uniquely resonate with the harmony of the cosmos. Unfortunately, this legendary pipe was lost, leaving court officials with only a description of its dimensions. Each new dynasty, convinced that the previous dynasty had lost the “Mandate of Heaven” (天命), would set new “Yellow Bell” pitch and tuning standards. Teams of officials would be employed to recalculate cosmological signs, seeking to determine the correct frequency for the “Yellow Bell” pitch. This was not a trivial task. It was thought that affairs of state would not run smoothly if a court’s musical pitches were not “correct,” or at least as close to “correct” as possible.
From this new “yellow bell” pitch, theoreticians would first derive the pentatonic (5 note), then the diatonic (8 note) and in later periods, the chromatic pitch collections (12 note). Practically speaking, new tunings necessitated the creation of new, and incredibly expensive, sets of court instruments. Average musicians simply did not have the resources to keep up with these changes in musical technology. Perhaps this is why Buddhist monasteries focused on non-pitched percussion. Fixed pitches and Yellow Bells were matters for courts.
As Mo DI (墨翟) opined in his Condemnation of Music:
“… can the chaos in the world be put in order by striking the big bell, beating the sounding drum, playing the qin and the se, and blowing the yu and the sheng? Even I do not think it is possible.
Therefore Mozi said : The levy of heavy taxes on the people to construct the big bell, the sounding drum, the qin and the se, and the yu and the sheng, is not at all helpful in the endeavor to procure the benefits of the world and destroy its calamities.
Therefore Mozi said: To have music is wrong.”
One of the most famous sets of ancient bells extant was found in 1977 while excavating the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng. A gift from King Hui of Chu, this 5 octave set of chromatic bronze bells were cast in 433 BCE, the year the Marquis died. I assume he died protecting these bells from jealous bell snatchers. There is an unmatched bell in the set that the King had specially made upon hearing of Yi’s death.
You can watch this very set of bells being played here.
Pitch & Buddhist Music
Most Chinese Buddhist music consists of vocal chanting and non-pitched percussion. In contemporary practice, pitch is relative, being continually adjusted to support the vocal comfort of practitioners. While singing, the collective pitch of an assembly (congregation) invariably drifts lower and lower. To adjust for these slides, the weinuo (chant leader) will periodically shift a melody’s pitch upward by step.
Pitch, in the context Chinese Buddhism, is relative.
The notes of a chant are not sung in relation to external pitch standards (e.g.: yellow bell), but in response to spontaneously created pitches. As such, the second pitch of a chant is sung in relation to the first pitch, the third pitch in relation to the second, and so on. This is how spontaneous a cappella singing works (think Happy Birthday), the weinuo will begin singing, and the assembly will follow suit based on the pitch introduced.
All melodies can be seen as a set of tonal relationships. As with a connect the dots picture, the spaces between nodes creates the image. Similarly, regardless of where you begin sonically, following a specific pattern of pitch relations will result in Happy Birthday or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. A singer’s skill is judged not by their ability to sing absolute pitches, but on their ability to accurately navigate the relative distances between pitches.
When I notate a Buddhist chant, I am in essence measuring it, and in measuring it, I’m changing it. Buddhist melodies are primarily taught through oral transmission, and where notated, absolute pitch is not specified. This freedom has allowed chant to change and adapt over time, responding as needed to current social and political pressures. In a way, notating a melody freezes its ability to adapt.
Unlike the score for Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Symphony #9), notated Buddhist chants, no matter how accurate, should never be seen as definitive. Notated scores represent singular performances, pressed between glass, and laid out for examination. As such, in the next post I’ll dissect the musical particulars of DRBA’s “Request for Dharma.”
The Harvard Dictionary of Music 4th edition, Don Michael Randel editor, Harvard University Press, 2003. p. 260.