Pre-Dynasty Music

From Music-China Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search


Development of Chinese music in pre-dynasitc times as evidenced mostly through archeological excavations and findings.

General information

Author Wiki Users
English title Pre-Dynasty Music
Date of publication

Entities mentioned

In this article, especially the following entities (bands, artists, cities, articles, etc.) are being called out:

Keywords & Genre

The following keywords / genres apply for this article:

Traditional, History

Important locations

Loading map...


This epoch includes the times of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.

The Jiahu gǔdí (贾湖骨笛)

Neolithic flutes carved from the hollow wing bones of red-crowned cranes (Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province)

In 1999 at a neolithic site of Jiahu China archeologists unearthed six complete 9000 year old bone flutes.[1] They are believed to be the oldest playable musical instruments ever found and are up to eight inches long and have between five and eight holes, (they) have been played and analyzed; its tonal scale is remarkably similar to the Western eight-note, do-re-mi scale.[1] Later, a 7000 year old Xun, or globular flute, was unearthed in China. The instrument was designed around the minor third interval, which is still one of the organizing principles of Chinese music. As a result, preference for minor third and major sixth intervals masks the semitones of the Chinese scale, giving it the distinctive tone that's often difficult for the Western ear to discern even today.[2]

These bone flutes have average dimensions of approximately 20 cm × 1.1 cm (7.9 in × 0.4 in), and are made from the wings of the red-crowned crane. They are open-ended and vary in the number of their finger holes, from one to eight; the 24 holed version has 23 holes in front and one thumb hole in back. Jiahu bone whistles are much shorter than the flutes, with lengths of 5.7 to 10.5 cm (2 to 4 in), and having only a couple of holes. The number of holes and the spacing between the holes determined the musical range and scale or mode in which the flute was intended to function. Lee and Shen believed that the Chinese understood the "resonance of an air column" (see open tube and closed tube) and were able to create an instrument that contained their "complete interval preference of Chinese music". Blowing across the open end of an end-blown bone flute to produce a musical sound, is accomplished in the same way, and produces a similar effect, as blowing across the open top of a bottle. The eight-holed flute can play "all harmonic intervals and two registers." These harmonic intervals are said to be a "function of culture" and were of a larger set compared to that now familiar in the West. Bone flutes were apparently also played as part of sacrificial rites, and employed in bird hunting. Gudi are not very common now, but there are some musicians today who play them.

Hemudu Xun

Photo of one of the oldest excavated Xun

It is one of the important wind instruments in ancient China, evolved from hunting weapons, either as stones throwing at animals or for imitating bird chirping to catch birds. They were mostly made of pottery with the blowing hole on the top, some had no hole for fingers, and some had several. Some were shaped like an olive, some shaped like a fish, there were also ones shaped like a cone. The picture below is one made of clay that can be traced back for over 7,000 years. Being the oldest, it has only one blowing hole and was found at Hemudu Culture site in Yuyao of Zhejiang Province.[3]

The Guqin

Another famous Chinese instrument, the guqin is said in legends to have a history of about 5,000 years. The legend states that the legendary figures of China's pre-history — Fuxi, Shennong and Huangdi — were involved in its creation. Nearly almost all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the actual origins of the qin,[4] although this is now presently viewed as mythology. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and examples have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. Non-fretted zithers unearthed in tombs from the south show similar instruments that gradually became longer and had fewer strings, but they are not named in the tombs. Chinese tradition says the qin originally had five strings, but then two were added about 1,000 BCE, making seven. Some suggest that larger zithers with many strings gradually got smaller with fewer and fewer strings to reach seven. Whether the southern instruments can be called "qin," or simply southern relatives of a northern instrument that has not survived, is questionable. The exact origins of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades.

Further information

Official pages


  1. 1.0 1.1 Spencer P.M. Harrington (November / December 1999). "Oldest Musical Instruments Still Play a Tune". Retrieved on 2013-03-30.
  2. Sacramento Chinese Culture Foundation. "Traditional Chinese Music". Retrieved on 2013-02-27.
  3. As mentioned by Read China 8
  4. Yin, Wei. Zhongguo Qinshi Yanyi 【中国琴史演义】. Pages 1–10.
  • Chang, Lulu Huang. From Confucius to Kublai Khan. Canada: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 1993. (2-7)
  • Lee, Yuan-Yuan and Sin-Yan Shen. Chinese Musical Instruments. Chicago: Chinese Music Society of North America, 1999. (63-66)
  • Shen, Sin-Yan. China: A Journey into Its Musical Art. Chicago: Chinese Music Society of North America, 2000. (107-108)
  • So, Jenny F. ed. Music in the Age of Confucius. Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery, 2000. (88-90)
  • Wu, Ben. “Archaeology and History of Musical Instruments in China”. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea. Vol. 7. Ed Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J Laurence Witzleban. New York: Routledge, 2002. (105-6)
  • Zhang, JuZhong, Garman Harboolt, Changsui Wang, and ZhaoChen Kong. “Oldest playable musical instrument found at Jiahu early Neolithic site in China.” Nature. 23 September 1999. 4 February 2007. <>.

Facts about Pre-Dynasty MusicRDF feed
Db:authorWiki Users +
Db:titlePre-Dynasty Music +
Dc:abstractDevelopment of Chinese music in pre-dynasitc times as evidenced mostly through archeological excavations and findings. +
KeywordsTraditional + and History +
Personal tools