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Modality in Jieshi Diao You Lan 1 碣石調幽蘭的調式

The tablature for the silk-string qin zither melody You Lan in Jieshi Mode has been preserved in a manuscript dating from the 7th century CE. As the world's oldest surviving solo instrumental melody written down with sufficent detail to give reasonable expectation of accurate reconstruction, it is an important source of information for understanding the nature of other melodies surviving from the Tang dynasty repertoire, but written down with less detail.2

Modal analysis of You Lan begins with a preliminary note count of the entire melody, plus consideration of the emphasized notes, here meaning the notes which end phrases.

In the following data it must be emphasized that the tablature itself does not indicate absolute pitch.3 My transcription notates the open first string as C two octaves below middle C, but this should be considered as the relative pitch do (1 in Chinese number notation). The relative tuning, written here as C D F G A C D is thus actually do re fa sol la do re (or 1 2 4 5 6 1 2).

Phrase Endings

The phrase endings are as follows. Most interpretations I have heard, and my own as well, suggest additional phrase endings within these directly indicated phrases; those extra endings are not included in the following account.4

1. G, G, E, C, C, C, C, C, C, G, C, C, F#, C, C
2. A, E, C, G, C, E, D, C, C, C, G, E, G, C, C, C, C
3. C, G, E, E, F#, C, C, C
4. C+A, E, G, E, C, C

Note Count

A preliminary note count from my own transcription of You Lan yields the results found in the chart below. It should be pointed out that almost all reconstructions of You Lan consider the opening finger technique to produce the note sequence C-G# twice. The note count given here is one reason I consider G# to be a mistake and play the opening sequence as C-C1.5

            / Sections
C 56 59 59 25 199
D 33 82 49 24 188
E 33 66 50 33 182
F 2 6 4 2 14
F# 9 30 15 15 69
G 48 34 30 18 130
A 24 62 47 34 167
B 9 29 21 11 70
Bb   1     1
C#     2 1 3
A+E     1   1
F+D       1 1
C+D       1 1
E+F       1 1
Microsteps 3 3 3 3 12
Note totals: 217 372 281 169 1039

From this note count it seems that the predominant scale is C D E F# G A B C (1 2 3 4# 5 6 7 1), with F as an occasional alternate to F#, and C as the tonal center (sometimes shifting to A, D, E or G but always returning to C). The only other notes to occur are C# (three times), Bb (once), and the three notes that occur in the microstep passage near the end of each section. In Sections 1-3 this passage goes from A# to C; in Section 4 it goes B to C. Each is an ascending pattern of 5 notes, making four micro-intervals, with the precise pitches of the 3 middle notes unspecified (called microsteps in the chart above).

Additional observations

It can be seen that the most common notes by far form the pentatonic scale C D E G A C (1 2 3 5 6 1). The early Ming dynasty tablature (published in the 15th and 16th centuries, but much of it considered earlier music) that I have studied also uses this scale. The most common additional notes in Ming tablature are F and B, and the shang mode commonly alternates E with E flat. C is the most common tonal center, but some modes have as their tonal centers A, G and D.6

In Ming tablature non-pentatonic tones often indicate a change in tonal center. Thus B will often occur when the tonal center has changed from C to G, F# will occur when the tonal center has moved to D, and C# comes when the tonal center has moved to A. In this context these notes could be considered not so much as non-pentatonic tones as thirds within a new tonal center. In You Lan the notes F, F# and B do not regularly occur together with such changes in tonal centers. Thus the music of You Lan might be considered to be more truly diatonic than the repertoire preserved in Ming dynasty tablature.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. I am not a specialist in modes, and so the observations made here are basically calculations of certain details based on my own transcription, rather than conclusions about mode.

2. This includes some short pipa lute melodies found at Dun Huang and the Tang dynasty court repertoire as preserved in the Japanese gagaku repertoire but today being reconstructed according to principles discovered by the Tang dynasty music research project begun at Cambridge University in the 1950s.

3. Pitch (see also Absolute pitch)
In general there seems to be a tendency to tune the silk strings as high as one can without having them break regularly. Thus the actual pitch depends on such conditions as the size of the qin (a smaller instrument can mean higher tuning), the thickness/quality of the strings, and the daily temperature and humidity. On a standard length qin with silk strings as made today the open first (lowest) string is commonly tuned somewhere between A and C two octaves below middle C. The range of the qin is just over four octaves.

4. In the You Lan tablature phrase endings are indicated by the expression 一句 yi ju ("one phrase"). Another expression, 取聲 qu sheng ("select the sound"), may indicate a significant pause, but this is not considered here.

5. See footnote 4 in You Lan Commentary.

6. My comments on Ming dynasty mode can be found in the Qin Analysis section of this site.

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