Wŭ Shēng: The Five Voices

//Wŭ Shēng: The Five Voices

Wŭ Shēng: The Five Voices


This post will discuss the basics of Chinese music theory (Yuelü), the very “tip of the proverbial iceberg.” In the context of a blog post, it is simply not possible to detail the richness and depth of the Chinese musical tradition. As such, this discussion will be one of exclusion, not inclusion. Despite this admission, the information covered would have been familiar to the musically inclined of the Tang, Song & Ming Dynasties. The majority of Buddhist chants still used in contemporary practice were codified during this period.

Warning: Discussions of music theory can get nerdy.
Even if you’re not a theory wonk, there is still a lot to enjoy.

Chinese Music Theory: Yuelü 樂律

Complete Book of Music and Stanza Zhu Zaiyu, 1536-1611

~ Zhu Zaiyu, 1536-1611
Yuelü Quanshu, “Complete Book of Music & Stanza”

Yuelü, the Han Chinese people’s word for music theory, is a combination of yue (music) and lü (temperament/tuning). Yuelü, a word first introduced in the writings of Sima Qian (ca. 100 B.C.E), can be contrasted with yueln which concerns music’s role in society. Yuelü can be further broken-down into five related concepts: voices/sounds (shēng ), temperament/tuning (lü ), scale (diào 調), melody (qiāng ), and meter/rhythm (pāi 拍).

All of these concepts are interesting, but not all are directly applicable to Buddhist chant. This post will examine shēng and diào using the Request for Dharma melody as an explicative tool.

Voices: Shēng

440px-Sima_Qian_(painted_portrait)“A singly emerged sound is called shēng.”

~ Sima Qian
Shǐjì 史記, “The Scribe’s Records” (ca. 100 BCE)


In the quote above, Sima Qian implies that shēng means a sung sound. However, shēng can refer to any musical or naturally created sound.

The Five Voices: Wŭ shēng 五聲

Zheng Xuan
 (127‐200 AD)

“When [the five tones] gōngshāngjué, zhǐ, and  are mixed together side by side, they are called yin (tone). When they come out singly, they are called shēng (voice).

Broadly speaking, Chinese music is based on the pentatonic pitch collection. Pentatonic, meaning five tones, is derived from the Greek words pente and tonos (pl. tonoi). In the same way, the term wŭ shēng (五聲), a combination of wŭ and shēng, means five voices. 

In a quirk of history, both of these terms refer to the same collection of five pitches. By dividing vibrating strings and bamboo pipes into simple ratios (halves/thirds/quarters), Pythagoras and Chinese music theorists both discovered the pentatonic collection. Both also came to the same inescapable conclusion; music reflects the underlying order of the Cosmos. 

Pythagoras dividing strings

Pythagoras dividing strings

“[the Pythagoreans] saw that the … ratios of musical scales were expressible in numbers [and that] .. all things seemed to be modeled on numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the elements of number to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.”

Metaphysica τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά, “Metaphysics Book 1” (ca. 350 BCE)

Lei categories (similar things) naturally attract each other. Things of the same  ether will assemble together; sounds that compare will answer each other. Strike a gōng note and [another] gōng will vibrate, strike a jué note and [another] jué will vibrate.”

~ Lü Buwei
Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, “Mr Lü’s Annals” (239 BCE)

Here Lü Buwei is not only talking about sympathetic resonance. He is suggesting that like people, items, energies, attitudes, and tendencies reinforce one another.

In Han music, the five voices (wŭ shēng) were labeled: gōng , shāng 商, jué 角 (also spelled jiao), zhǐ 徵, and yǔ 羽. These five pitch names were found inscribed on the Marquis Yi of Zeng’s Bells (ca. 433 BCE). This is the first extant example of these five pitch names being used jointly. It is hard to overstate the historical importance of this archeological find.

Referred to as zheng shēng (orthodox notes), Confucian scholars correlated the wŭ shēng with bodily organs, compass directions, elements, flavors, odors, colors and more. They also connected with societal groups and activities.

“The gōng represents the ruler, shāng, the ministers, jué the people, zhǐ affairs; and  to things. If these five tones are in order, there will be no want of harmony in the state.

If the five notes are all irregular, and injuriously interfere with one another, they indicate a state of insolent disorder; and the state where this is the case will at no distant day meet with extinction and ruin.”

~ Various
(Liji 禮記, the Book of Rites, ca. 475 BCE – 221 BCE)

Each tone is equivalent to our modern solfège syllables*: do, re, mi, sol, and la. In both systems, syllables don’t represent absolute frequencies but are established relative to the pitch of gōng (do). Remember, pitch is relative.

wŭ shēng Gōng Shāng Jué Zhǐ
solfège syllables* Do Re Mi Sol La
jiǎnpǔ notation 1 2 3 5 6


Thus far I’ve referred to the pentatonic pitches as a collection, not a scale. Scale, from the Latin scala, translates to ladder. As such, a scale is an ordering of notes by step (rungs on a ladder). By contrast, notes in a melody can come in any order.

Scales and Modes: Diào 調

The Wŭ Shēng (Pentatonic) Scale

The term Diào implies both scale and mode. Let’s organize our pentatonic collection as a scale (by step).

Notes related by step will be adjacent to one another on the musical staff. If a line or space is skipped, these notes are then said to be related by leap (skipping a rung on the ladder). In the pentatonic scale below, notice the leap between mi – sol and lado.

We will return to this…

*click on triangle to listen

I’ve created this first pentatonic scale on C (no accidentals). When listening to the above scale, notice that C (do/gōng) is the melodic/harmonic focal point.

Building a Wŭ Shēng (Pentatonic) Scale

Treatise on Music, Yuan Wanqing (ca. 7th century)

A semitone is the distance between adjacent keys on a piano keyboard and/or between the wedges on the traditional pitch wheel above. Between do – re, re mi & sol la there are 2 semitones, and between mi – sol there are 3 semitones. Additionally, if we complete a loop from la back to do, there are 3  more semitones. Putting these semitones together (360° from gōng to gōng) we get the pattern 2, 2, 3, 2, 3. It is this combination of semitones that gives the pentatonic scale its distinctive sound.

If we add pitch names to the outer ring of the wheel, it’s easy to construct a pentatonic scale on C. Placing gōng on produces a scale of C, D, E, G & A. To be super nerdy, let’s use the Chinese name for C (huang zhong) and label this a gōng huang zhong scale (i.e. gōng on C scale).

Gōng huang zhong (Gōng on C)

gōng lin zhong (gōng on G)

Turning the inner ring clockwise and placing gōng on G will produce the pentatonic scale G, A, B,& E. Continuing to be nerdy, this can be labeled a gōng lin zhong scale (gōng on G). This method allows us to recreate the same scale pattern (2, 2, 3, 2, 3), starting on any pitch.12 scales can be produced with this technique. One gōng scale for each pitch of the chromatic collection*.
* There are no enharmonic pitches in this system.

The Wŭ Shēng (Pentatonic) Modal Scales

Musicians also built scales starting on the other syllables: shāng, jué, zhǐ, and .

Wŭ Shēng Modal Scales
gōng mode Do Re Mi Sol La
shāng mode Re Mi Sol La Do
jué mode Mi Sol La  Do Re
zhǐ mode Sol La  Do Re Mi
mode La  Do Re Mi Sol

The syllable a scale starts on is referred to as the scale’s zhu zi (home character). This pitch is the melodic/harmonic center of the scale and of any melody that employ it.

All of these scales use the same five pitches, but each scale uses a different pitch as the melodic/harmonic center, the zhu zi. The listener of these modes and melodies are thus given the opportunity to examine these pitches from different angles.

Semitone Sequence of Each Wŭ Shēng Mode
 Do-Re Re-Mi Mi-Sol Sol-La La-Do  Do-Re  Re-Mi  Mi-Sol  La-Do
gōng mode 2 2 3 2 3
shāng mode 2 3 2 3 2
jué mode 3 2 3 2 2
zhǐ mode 2 3 2 2 3
mode 3 2 2 3 2

Notice that by starting on different syllables of the pentatonic collection, the semitone relationships shift. For instance, the gōng mode starts with the semitone relationships 2, 2, 3, while thjué mode starts 3, 2, 3. These changes allows us to hear the difference in each mode.

Listen to each mode in turn, noticing how the melodic/harmonic emphasis shifts for each.

60 scales can be produced in this way.
One gōng, shāng, jué, zhǐ, and yǔ modal scale for each pitch of the chromatic collection (5 X 12 = 60).

Very few of these modes were used outside of the imperial court. In order to produce all 60 scales you need a full set of chromatic bells, and as mentioned, the cost was largely prohibitive.

Determining a Melody’s Mode

To determine a melody’s melodic/harmonic center, we need to find the tune’s most prominent note.

There are several ways to establish a note as a melody’s melodic/harmonic center.

  1. Start a melody or melodic phrase on it.
  2. End a melody or melodic phrase on it.
  3. Increase a note’s duration in relation to those that surround it.
  4. Repeat a note one or more times.

Let’s try it!

Listen to the first four phrases of the Request for Dharma. Using the criteria above, decide which pitch is most important (central).

notes on the treble clef staff

notes on the treble clef staff

rotate the inner wheel

To determine mode, write down the notes from your melody (musical letter names), eliminate duplicate notes, and place these pitches on the pitch wheel. Rotate the inner wheel until it aligns with your melody’s notes.

Which pitch is the most prominent?

If you follow along with the playback, it’s fairly easy to tell that G* (sol) is the most prominent pitch. All four phrases start on G and G is repeated multiple times to accommodate more lyrics.

*The pitch of G is the second line from the bottom of the staff.

Which mode is being used?

basic2In the first four phrase of this melody, we only have the notes C, D, E, G & A. These notes can be pulled straight from the melody (duplicates removed).

There is only one way to put there 5 pitches on the wheel, and when we do, we see that G is on zhǐ. G is the most prominent mode so…

We are in the zhǐ mode starting on G (zhǐ lin zhong).  

Musical Form: Request for Dharma


The Request for Dharma can be broken into 5 discrete phrases (sections) of music. The first 4 phrases start and end in identical fashion. On the left, I’ve marked the beginning of each phrase in purple and the end of each in blue.

Listen again and try to hear/see these beginnings and endings.

phrases1In comparing phrases 1 and 2, notice the extension added in the middle of phrase 2 (marked with green box). In this instance, the pitch G is repeated. These extensions, present in phrases 2, 3 and 4, allow for the addition of more syllables (lyrical content). Phrases 2 and 3 have 3 more syllables than phrase 1, and phrase 4 has 4 additional syllables.

phrase5Phrase 5 is noticeably different, lacking the same beginning and ending formula present in phrases 1-4. The first 4 phrases starts on the note G and emphasizes G through repetition. By contrast, phrase 5 starting on the note A but ultimately emphasizes F. Using our criteria, phrase five ends on an F, and the final F is of a longer duration. This emphasis of F gives phrase five a different harmonic profile and creates a sensation of travel, moving the listener to a new place musically (from G-town to F’s-ville).

Listen to the chant again, paying attention to the repetition in phrases 1-4, and the harmonic shift in phrase 5.

This final or “cadential” phrase wraps-up this chant on the words, “quickly realize non-birth” (速證無生). Thinking symbolically, it is interesting that the words “non-birth”, representing a new manner of being, are musically set in a different harmonic place.

This particular closing phrase is a melodic formula used to close many chants. Indeed, it can be used to set any four syllable text (ex. Guan-yin Pu-sa, or A-mi-tuo-fo).

Xuan GōngRotating the Gōng

In the previous section we saw a harmonic shift in the fifth phrase of the Request for Dharma. In Western music, a movement of harmonic orientation/focus is called a modulation. In Han music, to change harmonic orientation is to xuan gōng (rotate the gōng). Literally one turns the pitch wheel to place gōng on another pitch.

In order to make a modulation work, changing tones are employed. In Han nomenclature, bian (flat) means a pitch lowered by a semitone and qing (sharp) is a pitch raised by a semitone. For example, bian zhǐ would be zhǐ (sol) lowered by a semitone, qing  would be yǔ (la) raised by a semitone.

In this system there are two main techniques for modulation. Let’s take a look!

Qing jué wei gōng: sharpened jué as gōng

In this type of modulation the jué (mi) pitch is raised by a semitone (qing jué)

Starting Point: Any wŭ shēng mode will work.
For this example, I’ll use the pitches C, D, E, G & A (gōng on C, shāng on D, jué on E, zhǐ on G and  on A).

Step 1: Move jué up by 1 semitone. (Turn the inner ring one click clockwise).
In this instance, E (jué) moves up a semitone to F (qing jué).

Step 2: Declare this new pitch gōng. F changes from qing jué to gōng.
Now we have
 F, G, A, C & D (i.e: gōng on F, shāng on G, jué on A, zhǐ on C and  on D).

Notice that there is only a one note difference between the scale from step 1 (C, D, E, G & A) and step 3 (F, G, A, C & D). These two groups should be seen as closely related (4 out of 5 components are the same). This small alteration (1 semitone) works to shift our harmonic perception.

By contrast, modulating to a distance key, with few notes in common (ex. C, D, E, G & A to A♭, B♭, C, E♭& F) is much more difficult. There are simply many more alteration to make. Not only do singers and instrumentalist have to adjust, it is also more jarring to the listener.

Step 1: Jué up by semitone


Step 2: Gōng zhong lu (Gōng on F)

The visually appearance of this modulations eventually led to its nickname, separating the fan

Bian gōng wei jué : Bian gōng as jué

In this type of modulation the gōng (do) pitch is lowered by a semitone (bian gōng).

Starting Point: Any wŭ shēng mode will work.
Again I started with the pitches C, D, E, G & A (gōng on C, shāng on D, jué on E, zhǐ on G and  on A).

Step 1: Move gōng down by 1 semitone. (Turn the inner ring one click counterclockwise).
In this instance, C (gōng) moves down a semitone to B (
Bian gōng).

Step 2: Declare this new pitch gōng. B changes from bian gōng to jué.
We now have G, A, B, D & E (i.e: gōng on G, shāng on A, jué on B, zhǐ on D and  on E).

Notice that there is only a one note difference between the scale from step 1 (C, D, E, G & A) and step 3 (G, A, B, D & E). These two scales should be seen as closely related (4 out of 5 components are the same).

Step 1: Gōng down by semitone

Step 2: Bian gōng wei jué (B as j)

With shāng on the bottom of the circle, this modulation was eventually given the nickname, pressing shāng.

Ps. I like how I’ve present these modulation nicknames graphically, but I’m not 100% that this is where these names originated. 

Request for Dharma: Modulation

Our melody contains four phases in the zhǐ mode. In the final phrase we rotate the gōng (modulate), raising the jué pitch by semitone to a qing jué. This qing jué becomes the new gōng pitch. This particular modulation is one of the two modulations we examined above: splitting in fan. The fifth phrase is in the gōng mode.

We might also say that the first four phrases are in the zhǐ mode, a mode that reflects the affairs of the people and reinforces propriety. Similarly, the final phrase is in the mode of princes and kings (gōng mode), supporting sincerity in the listener.

Wait a second!
Do the different modes have different emotional effects on listeners?

Mimesis and Mode

Plato & Aristotle

Plato & Aristotle

For this final section, I’ve borrowed the ancient Greek term mimesis (pron. mi-mee-sis). If a mimemata is a mental image of a real world item/emotion/characteristic (eg. a cup, sadness, honor), a mimesis is an artistic representation of a mental image. Plato suggests that these representations are ‘man-made dreams produced for those who are awake’ (Sophist 266C). In his Politics (1340b), Aristotle suggests that ‘musical times and tunes provide us with images of states of character.’ In this framework, a melody is a mimesis that can, depending on its qualities, produces emotional impressions in the ear of the listener. These impressions are not the “real world” emotions themselves, but a representation of these emotions.

Aristotle details the emotional impact of each modal scale.

“The musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each. Some of them make men sad and grave… others, like the relaxed modes, enfeeble the mind, another produces a moderate and settled temper, [others] inspires enthusiasm.”

~ Aristotle (Politics – 1340b)

It should not be inferred that the only benefit of orderly music is the creation of mental abstractions (mimemata). Plato suggests that the more educated and virtuous a man is, the more they’ll be able to realize these abstractions in the real world.

“The standard by which music should be judged is the pleasure it gives, but not the pleasure given to any and every auditor. We must take it that the finest music is that which delights the best man, the properly educated, that above all, which pleases the one man who is supreme in goodness and education.”

~ Plato (Law Book 2, Sec 665)

These concepts do not fully reflect Sima Qian‘s Confucian based ideas. In “The Scribe’s Records,” music has the ability to directly support/elicit sincerity, virtue etc. Music doesn’t just allow the listener realize internal mimemata in the real world (good or bad), it literally creates proper and virtuous internal order. In this scheme, the real world behavior and idealized mimemata become one substance through the application of an appropriate mimesis (music). This is echoed centuries later in Ruan Ji’s “Essay on Music.”


Sima Qian

“Hence the Gong mode interacts with the spleen [meridian], and sincerity is harmoniously strengthened. The Shang mode interacts with the lung [meridian], and righteousness is harmoniously strengthened. The Jue mode interacts with the liver [meridian], and humaneness is harmoniously strengthened. The Zhi mode interacts with the heart [meridian], and propriety is harmoniously strengthened. The Yu mode interacts with the kidney [meridian], and wisdom is harmoniously strengthened. Hence, music reinforces the right ethos on the inside, while it differentiates between the respectable and the indecent on the outside.”

~Sima Qian
(Book of Music, vol. 24 in Shǐjì, The Scribe’s Records, ca. 100 BCE)

Ruan Ji

Ruan Ji

“The former sage-kings made music to control the emotive state of all creatures and to unify their wills, such that their voices were balanced, their appearances harmonious, subordinates did not long for the music of their superiors, and superiors did not lust after their subordinates. Superiors and subordinates did not quarrel, all of which perfected loyalty and righteousness.”

~ Ruan Ji, 210-263 CE
(Essay on Music)

The Doaist philosopher/musician Xi Kang takes an opposing stance, arguing that no intrinsic quality of music will lead to proper deportment. Music does not the cause emotions; music releases emotions that are already present.

Xi Kang

Xi Kang

“Although smiles and laughter originate from happy feelings, they are results of their own structural pattern. They are by no means natural reactions to music.”

“Speaking about grief and joy, these feelings are caused by events we experience; they are as such already contained in the human mind. The harmony in music only causes an expression of these (already existent) emotions to be released.”

~ Xi Kang, 223-263 CE
(Essay: Music has in it Neither Grief nor Joy)

It should not be assumed that Han Chinese musicians saw music as only a therapeutic pursuit. Ronald Egan points out that listeners of the Han, Wei and Jin routinely described melodies as bei (sad). Bei however, can more fully be translated as profound or powerful, with the potential to elicit strong emotions. Related most directly to this discussion is the Melancholy Song of Qi Liang’s Wife, which describes that shāng mode as sorrowful.

gaiqi“…Who is it that sings such a melody?
It must be the wife of Qi Liang.
The pure shāng mode is carried forth on the wind,
In the middle, the melody falters.

She plucks once and sighs three times,
Ardent feelings with sorrow that lingers.
I do not pity the singer for her bitterness…”

~attrib. Xiao Tong
(19 Ancient Poems, Gǔshī Shíjiǔ Shǒu)

Similarly, in Ouyang Xiu‘s “A Farewell to Yang Zhi,” the gōng mode is described as “grand” and the  mode as “delicate.”

Final Thoughts

It is unclear if the composers of Buddhist chant were actively seeking to embody Confucian ideals. Was the zhǐ mode in the Request for Dharma chosen to reflect the affairs of supplicating laypeople? Maybe, but probably not. However, these melodies were composed during a period when these concepts and philosophies were paramount. It is impossible to study the development of Chinese Buddhism without acknowledging the influence of Han culture and Confucian ideals. In the same way, a study of Chinese Buddhist music would be diminished if not be viewed within the context of these trends and traditions.


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  • Chen, Joseph C.Y., Early Chinese Work in Natural Science: A Re-examination of the Physics of Motion, Acoustics, Astronomy and Scientific Thoughts, Hong Kong University Press, 1996.
  • Cook, Scott. Yue Ji” 樂記 — Record of Music: Introduction, Translation, Notes, and Commentary in Asian Music, Vol. 26, No. 2, Musical Narrative Traditions of Asia (Spring – Summer, 1995), p. 25.
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  • Ji, Raun. Rectifying Lasciviousness through Mystical Learning: An Exposition and Translation ofRuan Ji’s “Essay on Music,” in Asian Music, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer – Autumn, 2007), pp. 44-70.
  • Kárpáti, János. Myth and Reality in the Theory of Chinese Tonal System in Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 22, Fasc. 1/4 (1980), pp. 5-14.
  • Mark, Michael. Music Education: Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today, Rutledge, 2008.
  • Nakaseko, Kazu. Symbolism in Ancient Chinese Music Theory, Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Nov. 1957), pp. 147-180.
  • Rošker, Jana, S., Ji Kang’s Essay “Music has in it Neither Grief nor Joy” (聲無哀樂論) and the Structure() of Perceptions in Philosophy East & West, University of Hawaii Press.
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  • Sörbom, Göran. The Classical Concept of Mimesis in A Companion to Art Theory, Blackwell Publishing, Ltd 2002.
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* Bolded book were vital to my understand of yuelu.


By |2017-03-22T00:11:05+00:00July 8th, 2016|Background|Comments Off on Wŭ Shēng: The Five Voices

About the Author:

I am currently living and studying Buddhist music and liturgical development at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts. I received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.Ed in Instructional Design from San Francisco State, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University, working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley, and blogging at about music and technology. (http://musictoolbox.org)
Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox

Currently living and studying Buddhist Music at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, I am doing my best to learn all I can about this amazing liturgy. I received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.Ed in Instructional Design, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University, working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley, and blogging at about music and technology (http://musictoolbox.org) His dissertation, Cho-Han, was performed by Osmo Vänska and the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the 2007 Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute. A BMI award winner and MacDowell Fellow, he attended the Summer Composition Workshop in Hoy, Scotland, where he worked with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. His other honors include awards from the Arts Fund, NACUSA, New Music Delaware, “Friends and Enemies of New Music”, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Prism Saxophone quartet.

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