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Music Beyond Sound : The Transcriptions 1
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This book (soft-cover; 30.5 x 22 cm), has transcriptions of all the music on my Music Beyond Sound CD. The music is from the qin handbook Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (<1491).

There are 120 pages of transcriptions, put into Encore, together with the original lyrics, by Kevin Mak; I then re-copied the original tablature beneath the lyrics. There are also 26 pages of commentary in English and Chinese (translation by Tsui Cheong-Ming).

As of November 1998 this book was available in a few Hong Kong shops (e.g., HK Cultural Center; Harmony Music), but as yet there is no general distribution.

Here is my preface to the book.

Commentary on Music Beyond Sound

The only surviving copy of the Qin Handbook of Music from the Zhejiang (School) Elucidated through Lyrics (Zheyin Shizi Qinpu, hereafter Zheyin) was originally found in the Tianyi Ge library in Ningbo. Reprinted in Qinqu Jicheng, Vol. 1 (1st and 2nd series, Zhonghua Bookstore, Beijing 1962 and Shanghai 1981), it has two folios and apparently had 42 pieces: double pages 1-4, 15-21 and 144 (assumed to be the last page) are missing. The title is found at the beginning of the second folio, together with a note stating that the book was "compiled/explained by Antiquarian Gong Jing from the Banze district of Nanchang".

Zheyin consists of music thought to have been in the collection of Ming prince Zhu Dianpei (1418-1491), grandson of Zhu Quan, who published the earliest surviving compilation of qin tablature, Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425). Pieces in Zheyin are preceded by a poetic and/or historical commentary by Xi Xian (Beyond-Sound Immortal), probably the literary name of Zhu Dianpei. Xi Xian refers to Zhu Quan as his Royal Ancestor, and Zhu Dianpei succeeded his grandfather as prince of Nanchang in 1448. In addition, the official Ming history indicates Zhu Dianpei was a poet, so perhaps he wrote or adapted some of the lyrics.

The recording Music Beyond Sound consists of the 12 complete pieces from Zheyin not previously occurring in Shen Qi Mi Pu, plus one of the two incomplete pieces. The 64 pieces of Shen Qi Mi Pu are thought to represent primarily a Song dynasty (960-1280) tradition, and the music in Zheyin may well come from the same type of source: 28 of its 42 pieces are identical. However, whereas Shen Qi Mi Pu had no lyrics, all Zheyin pieces do. The Chinese tablature, here hand-copied below the notation and lyrics, is paired according to the quite strict formula one character for almost every right hand and certain left hand strokes (the latter often paired with non- meaning syllables); generally there was no pairing with short runs, slides or other ornaments, while a run longer than two notes might be assigned one character.

A later handbook, Chongxiu Zhenchuan Qinpu (1585), included 36 of the 42 pieces in Zheyin. Usually the lyrics are identical, though the melodies are somewhat, or even very, different. In addition, the lyrics (following the formula mentioned in the previous paragraph, as do almost all Ming dynasty qin pieces with lyrics) fit some pieces in Shen Qi Mi Pu not found in Zheyin, perhaps indicating those pieces were once part of a longer version of Zheyin. Again, the source of the lyrics is not given, though a preface criticizes the way the royal Beyond-Sound Immortal, assisted by Antiquarian Gong, paired lyrics and music. If any extended lyrics can be traced to pre-Ming dynasty sources, this will have significance for dating the accompanying melodies, and/or for understanding their method of composition.

As for the missing pages in the surviving Zheyin, their length and location indicate the first part probably began with the jiao modal prelude, followed by Lingxu Yin then sections 1 to 6 of Liezi Yufeng. These three pieces were probably identical to the versions in Shen Qi Mi Pu: their lyrics in Chongxiu Zhenchuan Qinpu fit perfectly according to the formula mentioned above. Zheyin pages 15-21 has just the amount of space to have included the remaining sections (3-11) of Tiantai Yin (thus the recording could include only the first two sections), then sections 1 to 5 of Qiao Ge (so the recording omits this entire piece).

Zheyin probably once had - or was intended to have - considerably more pieces. Besides the matching lyrics of Chongxiu Zhenchuan Qinpu , the main evidence for this comes from the modes. Modes are of two types: those using standard tuning, where the relative tuning of strings is Sol, La, do, re, mi, sol, la (also seen as Do, Re, Fa, Sol, La, do, re); and those using non-standard tuning, where one or more string is re-tuned in relation to the others. Standard modes in Shen Qi Mi Pu are gong, shang, jiao, zhi, yu, and shangjiao; in addition there are seven modes using non-standard tuning. Zheyin includes all Shen Qi Mi Pu pieces in the jiao, zhi, yu, and shangjiao modes, but none from gong or shang. It includes all the pieces in four of the non-standard tunings, but none in the other three (mangong, manshang and manjiao). In other words, if Zheyin includes one piece from any mode in Shen Qi Mi Pu, it includes all the pieces in that mode (though see the next paragraph).

Another oddity worthy of comment: all Zheyin pieces in zhi and yu modes (except the modal preludes) are different from their versions in Shen Qi Mi Pu, but those in jiao, shangjiao, and the non-standard tunings are all identical. Does this indicate that pieces in zhi and yu modes were actively played, and so changed? Or did the compiler of Zheyin find these pieces in another (fragmentary?) older collection?

The pieces here are not compositions in the sense of music written by one person for others to play. Rather they are descriptions of how a qin master actually played a piece, using a specific form of shorthand detailing relative tuning, finger positions, strokes and ornaments, implying but not directly indicating note values. Other than its use of a few archaic descriptions of stroke techniques, the tablature in both Shen Qi Mi Pu and Zheyin is basically the same as that used today, except in its method of indicating finger position. Specific Problems in Transcription, particularly Table V et seq. (this is discussed in detail in the article Rhythm in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu ), most of which is online).

The most important differences between Shen Qi Mi Pu and Zheyin are that the latter is less systematic in its method of indicating finger positions, and it also has many obvious errors: unplayable instructions. "Slide up from the 9th position to the 10th position" must contain an error, since the 9th position goes down to the 10th. Because Shen Qi Mi Pu has so few obvious mistakes, one might assume there are also few hidden mistakes, and that the many obvious mistakes in Zheyin imply many hidden mistakes as well. As for correcting the mistakes, in Shen Qi Mi Pu this was helped by the fact that most pieces can be found later in identical or closely related form; with Zheyin later versions seem related to a common source rather than directly to Zheyin, making them less helpful for making corrections. All this means that one must be very careful in making conclusions about mode based on the music in the recording Music Beyond Sound.

Do the mistakes in Zheyin result from careless transcriptions or careless editing of previously accurate transcriptions? Were the pieces of Zheyin not included in Shen Qi Mi Pu also in the collection of Zhu Quan, who omitted them because there were so many errors? Or is it possible that many of the pieces now so clearly presented in Shen Qi Mi Pu once had a similar number of errors, so that Zhu Quan's editing was quite extensive? At present there are no firm answers to these questions.

The old tablature perhaps at times encouraged a description of positions based on subjective observation rather than theoretically correctness. This could be a problem if, for example, the bridge on the qin in use was somewhat high, making the actual stopped positions somewhat lower, or if the qin studs were not accurately placed. A different sort of problem is that some of the tablature might have been partially edited by different people at different times: here one must consider, in addition to copying errors (particularly as it is not certain these pieces were at that time actively played), inconsistent usage within a single piece.

This means that, although there is no (or only weak) evidence the tablature was intentionally designed to give flexibility to the performer, this is the actual result. For the person trying to use the tablature to reconstruct an ancient style this makes the task more difficult.

Interpretations here reflect the player's understanding of the modality of qin music of that time, based on having already reconstructed all 64 pieces in Shen Qi Mi Pu as well as various pieces from other 15th and 16th century qin handbooks. Thus the music here should reflect the modality of those other books.

These reconstructions focused on the instrumental idiom and its similarity with Shen Qi Mi Pu. Attention was paid to the lyrics, but in the absence of a Chinese tradition saying these pieces were actually ever sung, as well as a lack of praise for the interest and quality of the lyrics, this was made secondary to fluid performance. In the final transcriptions, however, some adjustments were made to help match the phrasing of the lyrics to that of the music, leading to some of the differences between the rhythms in the transcription and in the recording. Sung versions would certainly require even more rhythmic changes.

As mentioned, all pieces in Zheyin had lyrics paired to the music, perhaps by Zhu Dianpei himself; Shen Qi Mi Pu had none. The pairing formula, as also mentioned, was one character for almost every right- and some left-hand strokes, but how was this accomplished? China has a long tradition of writing poetry to fit predetermined line lengths and patterns, so one must consider the possibility that the words were paired by someone who didn't know the music, but simply counted the strokes. In some cases the pairing seems to show a lack of understanding of the music; in other cases the results are quite singable.

The normal strictness of pairing suggests that if lyrics were written (or adapted) to match a fixed melody, then when the pairing doesn't fit, the adapter either was careless or did not understand the music. If melodies were adapted to fit pre-existing lyrics, then when they don't fit the adapter did not want, or was unable, to make changes in order to allow strict conformity to the rules of pairing. Perhaps there was a combination of the above, originally done orally, then written down separately and finally combined.

There are no guidelines to be found telling the intended function of the lyrics in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu. Was the pairing done simply because of a theory which said qin music should be sung (or singable)? Were they to be sung out loud by the player or another person, or by the player silently? Used only as a mnemonic device? Recited? Note that Chinese music is traditionally heterophonic (see heterophony), so the singer can alter the rhythms somewhat so as not to be following the instrument in unison; and through inflections (ornaments) on individual notes the singer can fit the tonal structure of the words to the contours of the melody. Of course, when accompanied by the lyrics the music would have to be played more slowly than can be heard on the recording.

A number of surviving 16th and 17th century qin handbooks consist of or include simple qin melodies with accompanying lyrics. There one can state more confidently that the pieces were intended to be sung.

To develop a sung version of the pieces here the following is suggested: (1) listen to the recording to get a feeling for the melody; (2) understand the meaning of the lyrics; (3) practice singing the melody unaccompanied by qin, giving more emphasis to the natural rhythm of the words than can be found in the transcriptions or recordings; (4) smooth out the melody by ignoring most octave leaps; (5) sing freely, the qin following the voice, not vice versa; (5) sing quietly, as though for a late night lullaby, keeping in mind that the singer would have been a scholarly amateur (and not bel canto). Note that most passages without lyrics are repeats of passages which do have them; perhaps here the lyrics should be repeated as well.

Concluding Remarks:

When playing qin, one never looks at the tablature: one learns pieces from a teacher and the tablature is largely a mnemonic device. But what of ancient tablature, where there is no teacher?

Ancient tablature can be divided into two types: collections such as Shen Qi Mi Pu, with the stated aim of preserving pieces inherited from antiquity; and handbooks which presented the style of a particular qin master. To what extent should we consider these descriptive handbooks to be prescriptive?

The Chinese tradition has always been that, though as a student you copy your teacher exactly, once you have achieved a certain level you are free to make changes: you have become part of a living tradition. Individual and regional styles naturally developed because the changes were influenced by environment. However, today in China (and not just within qin play) there is a tendency to combine once-distinctive regional styles into an "improved" modern system, and then to modify local styles accordingly. In spite of the obvious Western influence on the modern style, this can be a healthy trend. However, it also has had the negative side effect of blurring the distinctive regional styles, decreasing the variety. Will this lead to the survival only of one "national" style?

Under the belief "variety is best", the aim here is to try to recapture the tonal, melodic, rhythmic and coloration parameters within which a lost qin style (or styles) might have been played. The descriptions in the old tablature have thus been seen as prescriptive to the extent that they might establish that "if you wish to play within this style, you should follow these rules." This still allows a large scope for creativity, and is also a basic tenet of the early music movement in the West: creative re-creation.

The player, having tried to work out the notes as accurately as possible, then tried to create from this a consequent rhythmic framework (following rules mentioned p. xxiii, #54 below). This resulted in a sort of idealized form, found in the notation, which contains somewhat more regular rhythms than will be found on the accompanying recording: the transcriptions are of the tablature, not of the performance.

Differences between the tablature, notation and recording then resulted (in addition to the adjustments mentioned above made for lyrics) from playing from memory, not slavishly, but trying to ensure that variations from the written tablature and notation are within its style. The differing versions should serve as a reminder that more than one interpretation is possible.

(The transcriptions printed in this book were based on hand copies made during the reconstruction process. There the real challenge was not figuring out notes but working out appropriate note values, something not directly indicated in qin tablature. This is largely a matter of searching for structures (again see Rhythm in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu). Thus the layout places more emphasis on revealing musical phrase structure than on equal per-line note density.

Barlines follow the lyrical phrasing rather than the music rhythms, hiding the regular rhythms in many passages; in performance these rhythms may also be hidden by the free interpretation.)

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Please note that the transcriptions use Western staff notation as though they are the Chinese number notation. In other words, C is not the modern C or the baroque C, but the relative note do, corresponding to the Chinese gong or 1. This is because there is no absolute tuning with the qin: the actual pitch of the strings depends on such variables as the size of the qin, the quality of the strings and the temperature, as well as the taste of the player. There are further comments on this under Modality in Early Ming QinTablature.

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