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The above was translated by Stephanie Chin (錢屬賢 Qian Shuxian) from the following English article:
(Original Chinese title "古琴採用傳统真絲絃相對現代鋼絲絃和复合絃在音調和音色差別上之科學鑑證)
A scientific examination of the different tonal colors
produced on a guqin by silk, metal and composite strings
John Thompson (唐世璋)
Originally almost all Chinese stringed instruments had silk strings; those that did not usually had a form of gut. Gradually most of these stringed instruments began using other material for their strings, but it was not until the Cultural Revolution that anything other than silk was used for the strings on a guqin. Prior to the Cultural Revolution some efforts had been made to develop non-silk guqin strings. One reason was that good quality silk was not being made available to the makers of guqin strings. In addition, there seemed to be a declining interest in playing guqin, and some people blamed the quiet sounds of silk strings. Then, during the Cultural Revolution, nylon metal strings were introduced as part of an effort to change the guqin from an inward instrument of self-cultivation into an instrument that could be performed for the masses. By the 1980s silk strings were rarely used in China, epitomizing the emergence of the guqin as a performance instrument. The method of play, particularly as taught in the music conservatories, changed accordingly.
The present writer began studying guqin in 1974. Around the year 1990, as I was increasingly being asked to perform, I also began using nylon metal strings, primarily for these performances. However, within a year or two I began to notice that the constant use of these strings was causing damage to the lacquer on those instruments that had them.
In addition, having completed my reconstruction (dapu) of all the melodies in the Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425), I began presenting papers on the two approaches possible when doing dapu: using the tablature as a basis for creating new versions of old melodies, or using the tablature to try to reconstruct the music as it was played at the time it was written down. My own focus has been the latter interpretation of dapu. In this way I try to follow the principles used in the West for what is called Historically Informed Performance. According to these principles, scholars and musicians follow as closely as possible the notation and historical records of an early music genre, also examining related oral and written traditions. Then, having done as much as they can to uncover the principles behind the early music genre, they then play the music either strictly from the records of specific melodies, or freely from the tradition as learned from those records.
An essential part of Historically Informed Performance is using historically correct instruments, and this includes using the correct strings on a stringed instrument. Having used both silk and nylon metal strings I was instinctively aware of how the different types of strings changed the way I played. However, I also felt it was important to make some scientific measurements that might explain the reason for these differences. This research centers on the music colors produced by silk strings and by strings made with other materials.
One of the essential characteristics of guqin music is the fact that different colors can be achieved when playing the same pitch in different ways. Thus, any particular pitch will sound different when played as an open string, as a harmonic, or as a stopped sound on differing strings. This variety of color was an essential part of the traditional aesthetic of guqin music, but to my ears such variety of color is not possible without silk strings. Use of nylon metal strings thus leads to a different style of play, one that emphasizes other melodic possibilities on the guqin.
These musical colors can best be defined in terms of the musical overtones of the pitches being played. A musical pitch is usually defined in terms of the frequency of that pitch. Thus the modern concert A is usually defined as 440 hertz, i.e., 440 vibrations per second. However, the pure pitch 440 hz is a very piercing and mechanical sound, generally considered to be ugly. What gives beauty to the sound are the overtones that can be produced when playing this pitch on a musical instrument. These overtones are essentially multiples of the fundamental using ratios such as 2/1 (880, 1760….), 3/2 and so forth. When the ear listens to what it thinks is a pitch of 440 hz, it is actually hearing a whole series of overtones that it combines and interprets as 440 hz.
While living in Hong Kong I participated in one specific project that measured scientifically the colors produced by different stringed instruments. The aim of that project was to try to reproduce on a synthesizer the sound of various stringed instruments. Since the musical colors that distinguish different instruments can largely be described in terms of the overtones produced, reproducing their sound in a synthesizer requires measuring then reproducing these overtones.
What this research had found on all the plucked strings it had measured so far (mostly on Western instruments such as a guitar) was that when first plucked the overtones were much stronger than the fundamental. However, usually within one second most of these overtones had died away, leaving the fundamental as the main measurable pitch.
We next measured a guqin with silk strings. For this we measured open, stopped and harmonic tones, but only single notes, no slides or other ornaments. What we then discovered was that, once again, when the string was first plucked the overtones were much stronger than the fundamental. However, instead of fading away within one second, on the guqin the overtones faded very gradually, remaining stronger than the fundamental for five seconds or longer. In addition, the differing frequencies of overtones faded at different rates, and this made the sound change as it faded. Sometimes the overall pitch seemed to go slightly up and down, somewhat the way the pitch of certain bells seems to rise and fall after they have been struck.
These measurements help explain the appeal of certain characteristics of the traditional guqin repertoire, such as repeating the same note on different strings. People who regularly play with silk strings know very clearly that neither nylon-metal strings nor the new composite strings are capable of producing such varied color from repeating one note. However, to my knowledge the quality and fading of overtones for these other strings on a guqin has not yet been scientifically tested with sufficient thoroughness.
The plan of the current project is thus to measure open, stopped and harmonic sounds using three guqin. One will be strung with silk, the other with nylon-metal, the third with composite strings. The strings will then be moved onto another instrument and the test repeated. After a third such test all three types of strings will have been tested on all three instruments.
As yet, however, this testing is not yet complete.
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