Mode and Structure in Jieshi Diao You Lan
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Mode and Structure in
Towering Rock Melody Secluded Orchid
Related: Does the music here suggest "diao" means "mode" or "melody"? 1 「調」是調式的意思或者是曲調的意思?
  A traditional way of analyzing notes2          
The tablature for the silk-string qin zither melody Jieshi Diao You Lan 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 of the entire piece, it is an important source of information for understanding the nature of other melodies said to survive from the Tang dynasty repertoire, but written down with less detail.3 Understanding the mode and structure of You Lan shoud thus give insights into music of that period as well as provide deeper appreciation of the melody itself.

Analysis of the results of my work reconstructing melodies from tablature published during the Ming dynasty has focused on modal structure. This analysis has been based not on the sort of philosophical principles evident in the chart at right, but on how the music actually moves in such terms as the notes played, the notes emphasized, and how this is manipulated so as to become a language understandable to listeners. This analysis integrates a study of modal characteristics4 with other characteristics of the music. The underlying theory of this is that music may be an international language, but it is still a language. Appreciating it generally requires some feeling for that language, and this often results from the way the music combines the familiar with the unexpected.5

Here are some elements necessary to appreciating the language of You Lan. All have been essential to my personal understanding, appreciation and performance.

  1. Sectioning: the relationship between the four "movements" (details)
    Determining the common threads between the four movements (拍 pai)
  2. Mode: note collection and their heirarchy (tonal centers) (details)
    This analysis, being based on direct observation, begins with a preliminary note count of the entire melody, followed by a calculation of the emphasized notes, especially those that end phrases.
  3. Structure - punctuation/phrasing and relative speed (details)
    Although qin tablature has no direct indication of note values, it does include phrasing (though the punctuation may not be complete, or completely reliable) and occasional instructions concerning the speed of notes and phrases.
  4. Structure: couplets (details)
    Couplets, very common in Chinese poetry, have their counterpart in musical couplets: a line may be repeated with one or two notes changed, it may be repeated in a different register, the repetition may be extended or shortened, and so forth.
  5. Structure - repeated or similar phrases (details; like a refrain or a motive/motif)
    This is a matter of patterns and variants The most obvious repeated phrase is the microtonal passage at the end of each movement, but there are numerous examples of shorter note patterns in all four movements.
  6. Structure: attack-sustain-decay (details)
    "Attack" may not usually be considered as affecting structure. It is included here because the old way of attacking the strings directly rather than sliding into them does affect rhythm, hence structure. Rhythm is also affected by the nature of sound decay, especially when the sound comes from silk strings.
  7. Structure: ornamentation6 (details)
    Ornamentation is often defined as notes that do not affect structure. Since early qin music has either to be reconstructed, or has been interpreted through reconstruction, there can be significant disagreement about which notes are ornamental and which are structural.
  8. Overall Structure (details)
    When doing a reconstruction, first determine the notes, then look for structures, then try to arrange them into an overall structure. Analyzing the finished result is the same: get specific details than can be organized into an overall structure.
  9. Note values: beat, rhythm, meter, tempo (details)
    Qin tablature does not directly indicate note values. My basic assumption, that early qin music mostly uses double rhythms but this is freely interpreted, is discussed further here. Working out the notes is probably the easiest part of reconstruction. With some experience of this, some of the note values may leap out. However, as the reconstruction proceeds through its search for note structures, the note values are gradually refined through the search and discovery of the implied musical structures.

These seven aspects are discussed below in more detail. Regarding their order, reconstructing the melody began with deciding the notes, so that comes first, followed by a discussion of note values. However, note values are constantly re-evaluated based on the other elements, so that section should perhaps also be last on the list. Learning the structures helps the musician discover the beauty in the details, then internalizing a sense of those structures facilitates an ability to convey that beauty to a listener.

1. Sectioning: Four "Movements" and their relationship to the word "拍 pai"
Jieshi Diao You Lan is clearly divided into four unnumbered sections. Here the four sections are called "movements" in part because of their association with the word "拍 pai" (commonly translated as "beat" or "rhythm", i.e., musical movement), and in part to draw attention to parallels with explanations of the Western musical term "movement" (commonly translated into Chinese as "樂章 yuezhang"), such as,

A movement is a self-contained part of a musical composition or musical form. While individual or selected movements from a composition are sometimes performed separately, a performance of the complete work requires all the movements to be performed in succession. (Wikipedia)

Here the association with the word "拍 pai" (12252) originates in the fact that each of the four movements ends with the words "拍之 pai zhi". Perhaps because this sounds the same as "拍止 pai zhi", which could mean "the beats stop", there may be an inclination to think this as a logical phrase to end a movement. In fact, though, there has long been a tendency in Chinese writing to put the name or numbering of sections at the end of the section, and in origin, "之 zhi" (125) actually suggests "begin" (compare "至", also "zhi") This somewhat counter-intuitively says the instruction can be understood to mean "the beat begins (the movement that just ended)".

Here, however, calling the four sections "movements" also brings attention to one of my own understandings of the overall structure of Jieshi Diao You Lan, which is that each of the four movements has a somewhat different rhythm or rhythmic feeling. Details of this, summarized below under the Bottom Line, are in turn related to my feeling a connection between the four Towering Rock Stanzas (Jieshi Pian) of Cao Cao and the four movements of Jieshi Diao You Lan.

2. Modal Details for You Lan: note collection and their heirarchy
Here it must be emphasized that the tablature itself does not indicate absolute pitch.7 My transcriptions notate 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).

The music analysis, through direct observation of the melody, attempts to discern its modal characteristics. In this it is similar to what I have tried to do with guqin melodies surviving from Ming dynasty publication. For this see Modality in early Ming qin tablature. However, having definable modal charactertistics is not what determines where to call Jieshi Diao "Towering Rock Mode" or "Towering Rock Melody".8

A. Note Count
The note count in the chart below is followed by a calculation of the emphasized notes, here meaning the notes that end phrases. The note count comes from my own transcription of You Lan.

            / Movements
C 54 59 59 25 197
D 33 82 49 24 188
E 33 66 50 33 182
F 2 6 4 3 15
F# 9 30 15 15 69
G 50 34 30 18 132
A 24 62 47 34 167
B 9 29 21 11 70
C#     2 1 3
G# (0?)       0?
Bb   1     1
A+E     1   1
C+A       1 1
C+D       1 1
E+F       1 1
Microsteps 3 3 3 3 12
Note totals:  217 372 281 170 1070
(64 Just IH):  0 35 24 15  

B. 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.

  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

From the note count and this list of phrase endings, it seems that,

C. Tonal centers
This adds a subjective element as it seems as though not all phrase endings are indicated

D. Summary
modal chart for Ming dynasty melodies shows that the modal characteristics of Jieshi Diao You Lan do not allow it to fit neatly into any of the modes included there. Closest is probably gong mode. However, You Lan differs from all of the later modes in the way it changes tonal centers as well as in the particular non-pentatonic notes it uses.

With only one surviving example of a Towering Rock Melody, it is difficult to say what the essential characteristics are. Perhaps to explore this further one should create a new composition using these modal and structural characteristics.

3. Structure - punctuation/phrasing and relative speed
First, the punctuation gives very important guidelines but they may not always be reliable. This is where it is important to decide to what extent to consider this a "composition" or a "creation". Being a composition would suggest the creator of the melody wrote it down; the composer, knowing the phrasing, would mark it accordingly. However, my experience suggests the music was created by someone who played it, and it was written down by a some sort of scribe, perhaps a student. So although I may spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to figure out what the original rhythms might have been, and in that sense am treating it as a composition, I always keep in mind that what I am seeking is a melody that in fact should have flexibility, though within certain rules.

Since (according to my understanding) the music, though fundamentally rhythmic, is freely interpreted, the person writing it down could easily misinterpret phrase endings; meanwhile the creator of the melody, who may well have been thinking of the phrasing intuitively rather than consciously, might not notice the difference. A study of repeated phrases in You Lan can help bring this into focus. For example, a close examination of the recurrences of the repeated phrase that first appears in mm.014-022 and the one first appearing in mm.055-070 will show what clearly seems to be similar rhythm and phrasing for each occurence, but in some cases the punctuation is quite different.

Then, because guqin tablature gives no direct indication of note values (e.g., rhythm, beat and tempo), it has been said that actual note values are completely up to the player. In fact players usually learn from their teacher the note values of the melodies they play. Part of learning melodies from a teacher is learning the language of the guqin (perhaps it would be more precise to say the accent the teacher has when expressing the language, but that is another issue).

One issue here is that, for example, with something like "急 quick" it may not be clear for how many notes its extends.

Here the first line of my transcription (mm.0--3) can be used to demonstrate how note values might be pieced together. At the base is the placing of notes into a double rhythm structure (2/2), in accordance with the rationale mentioned above. Next, the last 10 notes of the line form the repeated phrase described here; its note values are based on an assumption that they are the same for all three occurrences of the motif, and then the nearby notes most fit together with the structure of that motif. This also suggests that the phrase before each occurrence of the couplet is an anacrusis, notes before the main beat leading up to it. The last note of the anacrusis, i.e., the note directly before the first note of the repeated phrase, is a "巾 left hand pluck" of the open second string. It cannot be too quick because between it and the previous note is the instruction "住 stop" ("pause"), while before the next note it says "緩 slowly". As for the note before that, it also cannot be too short because of the way it comes at the end of a long slide and has that instruction to pause after it. (The slide is also comparable to the long slide in the second occurrence of the aforementioned repeated phrase).

4. Structure - couplets
Couplets, very common in Chinese poetry, have their counterpart in musical couplets: a line may be repeated with one or two notes changed, it may be repeated in a different register, the repetition may be extended or shortened, and so forth. This is discussed further under Rhythm in early Ming qin tablature and Dapu. A good example of couplets can be seen in this transcription from the melody Qing Ye Yin. The first line shows a couplet, the second line might be seen as a different type of couplet the first half has first a variant form, the second half is a sort of extension.

There are many such couplets in the surviving later repertoire: the note patterns or pairing with lyrics make many of them easily spotted. It seems likely that this is also the case in Jieshi Diao You Lan but they may not be so easily spotted: partly because of the absence of lyrics and partly because of what seems to be missing pronunciation. However, the search for structures outlined next has led to what seems like a natural imposition of rhythmic structures, and these in turn have revealed many paired phrases which can be considered as couplets.

Here, the first such notable couplet forms the last 10 notes in the first line of my transcription (pdf). Versions of this 5 + 5 couplet are repeated later (172-6 and 283-7).

An example of rhythm and mode bringing out a couplet is mm.41-49, where 41-44 ends on G then 45-48 ends on C. Jieshi Diao You Lan has many paired phrases such as this.

5. Structure - repeated or similar phrases/passages (for context see in overall structure)
These may be referred to as "motifs" or "refrains" for short, but this is because I don't know of a single-word term for "phrase repeated one or more times")
The most obvious pattern is the microtonal passage at the end of each movement, but there are numerous examples of shorter motifs. These occur in all movements, but after the first two phrases of Movement 2 no new phrases seem to get repeated as motifs. Here is an outline (#s 001-380 are measure #s from my transcription):

  1. 000-070: Movement 1 (see also below)
    Movement 1 might be considered a sort of prelude; it has motifs that appear in all later sections.

  2. 071-220: Movement 2 (see also below)
    This movement introduces a new motif that helps mark divisions. The transcription is in 2/2 but upbeats are ignored in counting phrases; in practice, the "four-bar phrases" (paired as "4+4") may instead be felt as one beat per measure, especially in faster passages. On the other hand, while many passages in these latter three sections seem to depend on strict rhythm for coherence, others seem to call for free interpretation. When I am practicing a piece I may count out the rhythm. The count usually stays the same even when the note lengths change. This is more accurately indicated by hold signs above the notes than by changing the note values. However, even this cannot capture the variety available from one performance to the next.

    Also significant to the structure of Movements 2 and 3 is the placement of either a 再臑 zainao (an imperfectly explained ornament) or a potentially similar technique (left-hand 打 da; reading the transcription while listening should help clarify this). This aspect of the structure can be considered as follows:

    • 071-074: 1 x (4+4)
    • 075-110: 8 x (4+4); zainao begins second 4 of the second 4+4
    • 111-130: 4 x (4+4); zainao begins second 4 of the second 4+4; a left-hand 打 da begins the second 4 of the fourth 4+4
    • 131-170: 8 x (4+4); zainao begins second 4 of the seventh 4+4
    • 171-197: two free measures then beginning a transition passage to tonal center on C
    • 198-220: closing; this part can be heard as all in 4+4

    Specific to Movement 2:

  3. 221-318: Movement 3 (see also below)
    The 再臑 zainao ornament and the left-hand 打 da (which seems to have a similar function) help mark off divisions:

      Seems to begin 8 x (4+4), but actual divisition is somewhat ambiguous. Here the structure is treated as:
    • 221-245: (6 x [4+4]) almost all harmonics
    • 247-260: (2 x [4+4]) + (1 x [4+4]): two 4+4 in stopped sounds, then one in harmonics; the middle 4+4 begins with a 再臑 zainao
    • 261-274: Structure identical to previous: stopped sounds almost same; harmonics different
    • 275-287: (2 x [4+4]) + 1 x (4+4): all in stopped sounds; left hand 打 da replaces zainao, then instead of harmonics there is an upbeat leading to the couplet from the opening motif
    • 288-293: (2 x [4+4]) + (?): all in stopped sounds; left hand 打 da again replaces zainao but then, instead of the previous added 4+4, the passage cuts short as it slides up to C in preparation for the closing.
    • 294-318: Closing passage; it begins with strong cadence on C and adds a passage before closing as other movements.

    Further details:

    • Features four more occurences of a zainao or zainao-type phrase:
      1. 247-255 Eight bars beginning F#-B⇾C..D⇾E.⇾; zainao begins second half (includes a da suo)
      2. 261-269 Eight bars beginning G-B⇾C..⇾D⇾E; zainao begins second half (octave higher ; includes a da suo-type)
      3. 279-282 Compare to previous, but with left hand 打 da acting like zainao
      4. 290-293 Also compare to previous, again with left hand 打 da acting like zainao
    • 275-277: repeated downward arpeggios (挑間句 tiao jian gou; compare tiao jian gou m,234/III.1 and m.289/III.6)

  4. 319-380: Movement 4 (see also below)
    Closing movement, as emphasized by the octaves passage said to "有若仙聲 have a sound like that of immortals" as well as by the distinctive nature of the sing microtonal passage rising to C.

    • 319-358: 8 x (4+4); almost all end on E; the 8th is the above-mentioned octaves passage.
    • 359-364: Transition passage to tonal center on C
    • 365-380: Closing; rhythm quite free; microtonal passage rising to C at end is an octave higher the other three and also rises only half a pitch in the five juan sequence.


    • 319-323 and 324-328 are a rhythmic couplet.
    • 344-348 and 349-353 more clearly form a couplet.

Some patterns are defined by the rhythmic structure. Since the tablature does not directly indicate rhythm, one can debate to what extent these structures have been imposed by the re-creator (dapu-ist).

6. Structure - Attack-sustain-decay
This is included here because of the way attack can affect the hierarchy of notes and reveal melodic patterns. Almost all qin melodies since at least the Ming dynasty feature notes that are slid into. There are two common terms for this: 注 zhu for sliding down into a note, and 綽 chuo for sliding up into it. These terms do not occur in You Lan. Instead many notes are played double, e.g., through a technique like 蠲 juan, where instead of, for example, a string being struck by the right index finger pulling inwards, it is struck first by the index finger then immediately by the middle finger.

Relevant examples of such ornamentation through multiple strokes are through such techniques as the following.

The extent to which there are ornaments rather than structural notes may bre related to the speed at which each is played.

7 Structure - Ornamentation
Ornamentation affects structure by influencing the hierarchy of the notes. In guqin music, ornamentation is often considered as the slides and vibratos so common in music for the "modern" qin: the qin as it has existed since the Tang dynasty. Surviving instruments from the Han dynasty, so different that perhaps they should be called "qin-type" instruments (i.e., fretless zithers), apparently did not have the smooth, long and flat surface that allows such ornamentation. Instead ornamentation seems to come from different ways of attack.

Although there is in general much less sliding in You Lan than there is in the Ming dynasty repertoire, there are still quite a few terms used - most of them concerning upwards sliding.

Missing from the You Lan tablature, and from tablature explanations, are several terms very commonly used later:

One potential significance is that the first two and sometimes the third tend to be played before the beat; likewise many of the multiple stroke techniques in You Lan (such as quanfu, qian and juan) seem also to end on the beat. Does this mean that such pre-note slides came to be added as replacements for the old multistroke ornaments, which then disappeared; or that adding such pre-note slides to early melodies should be avoided by players seeking an early-period effect? (Is this argument relevant?)

8. Overall Structure (linked to transcription and typed original)
The following interpretation of structures in You Lan came only after extensive work in the other aspects also to be discussed below. However, explaining them needs to be done in terms of the finished result, i.e., having an understanding of the overall structure. As this structure outline progresses movement by movement. it may be useful here also to review the above similarly-organized outline of tonal centers.

9. Actual note values are more than beat, rhythm, meter, tempo
My basic assumption, that early qin music mostly uses double rhythms but that this is freely interpreted, is discussed further in a separate article, but the other aspects discussed on the present page all help determine rhythms. It is the rhythms that give structure to the melody and, as already mentioned, learning the structures helps the musician discover the beauty in the details. After this, internalizing a sense of those structures facilitates an ability to convey that beauty to a listener.

The limitations of qin tablature aside, even the most clearly written and precisely detailed written forms of music pose obstacles to re-creating the music it originally described. Here one should also try to make use of other available information, such as the following:

  1. Any other potentially relevant music
    In this case the most likely sources would be early qin music having researchable claims to a Tang dynasty source (as with several melodies in Shen Qi Mi Pu Folio 1) as well as the Tang dynasty music preserved but apparently much changed in Japan. There is some comment on both possible sources in the page on Gagaku. As yet very little has been done on the possible relevance of that music to the early guqin repertoire.
  2. Sources not directly connected to music
    In the case of Jieshi Diao You Lan, literary sources such as those mentioned in the general introduction can also provide inspiration.

Regarding the latter, the source that intrigues me the most is the set of four poems by Cao Cao called Jieshi Pian: Towering Rock Stanzas.

The bottom line: 碣石調幽蘭 Towering Rock Melody Secluded Orchid as music (recording and transcription now here)
Comments originally put here to summarize connections I feel between the music structures and the Jieshi Diao You Lan melody have now been moved to go under the actual transcriptions and recordings

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Title and Modal analysis
This page was initiated in 2020 in connection with my preparing a new transcription and recording of Jieshi Diao You Lan. The initial recording was made in 2004; the revised transcriptions and recordings are and will be linked here 

Reasons for the new translation of Jieshi Diao as "Towering Rock Melody" are discussed elsewhere.

As for mode, perhaps because I am not a specialist in music analysis the observations made here are based almost completely on having studied and played the music directly from the original tablature. The study began in the late 1970s, my recording and transcription were made in 2004. Although generally without reference to theories of modal analysis, my analysis is closer to Western analysis (that tends to focus on the music itself) than to traditional Chinese analysis (that tends to focus on philosophical aspects such as yin/yang, five elements, and so forth).

2. A different sort of analysis
The left diagram above, translated in the middle of this page, shows poetic associations of various pitches. The right diagram above, from Xilutang Qintong, p.60, shows the relationship of different tunings; perhaps grouping them by how the tuning is achieved (e.g., do the 慢角 manjiao tunings on the right all involved lowering the 角 [3rd] string?). This is practical information, but I know of no traditional charts that discuss notes/modes in terms of their purely musical relationships with each other.

3. Music from the Tang dynasty or earlier
Most famously this includes pipa manuscripts preserved in Dunhuang and a variety of manuscripts taken to Japan during the Tang dynasty, where they became the basis for Japanese court music, gagaku

4. Modal analysis
See Modality in early Ming qin tablature.

5. Combination of the expected and unexpected
Exceptions include some forms of recitation and background music.

6. Ornamentation (Wikipedia)
The Wikipedia article says

Ornaments or embellishments are musical flourishes—typically, added notes—that are not essential to carry the overall line of the melody (or harmony), but serve instead to decorate or "ornament" that line (or harmony), provide added interest and variety, and give the performer the opportunity to add expressiveness to a song or piece.
It then mentions eight types of ornaments:
  1. Trill (short, like 全扶 quanfu and 卻轉 quezhuan; also short tremolos (e.g., fast 輪 lun; 長鎖 is longer but not fast enough)
  2. Mordent (a fast 撞 zhuang; compare 蠲/涓, but on same pitch)
  3. Turn (compare "奐 huan")
  4. Appoggiatura (compare 注 zhu and 綽 chuo: before the beat)
  5. Acciaccatura
  6. Glissando
  7. Slide (上 shang and 下 xia are usually shorter and faster)
  8. Nachschlag

7. Pitch (see also Absolute pitch)
When I began studying guqin there was no mention of absolute pitch; the aim was to tune to the pitch that made the instrument sound its best withouth putting too much stress on the strings. In general, my experience has been to tune the silk strings as high as possible 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.

In contrast, Chinese conservatories have required tuning all Chinese instruments to the modern Western standard of A=440 Hz (vibrations per second). This is one reason why they require students to use nylon/metal or composite strings.

8. Jieshi Diao: Towering Rock Melody or Mode?.
The "diao" in "Jieshi Diao" is often interpreted to mean "mode"; it is further said that You Lan is called "the fifth piece" because it is the fifth entry on the melody list at the end of the score, since the first four are actually either just mode names or modal preludes. Those who say this add that "Jieshi" may then be termed a Chu type of mode.

The first problem is that to be "in" a mode requires either there being other examples of that mode, or the characteristics of the mode must in some other way be known. As a stand-alone piece, then, it is difficult to say it is "in jieshi mode" rather than being "a melody named Jieshi, or a "jieshi-type melody". Thus the reason that here Jieshi Diao is translated as "Towering Rock Melody" rather than "Towering Rock Mode", is that, with no other examples, it may be more accurate to say Jieshi is a type of melody, and what connects it to other Jieshi melodies may have nothing to do with the melody at all. It simply is not known.

Further reasons for translating Jieshi Diao as "Towering Rock Melody" are discussed elsewhere.

9. First two notes.
This footnote in my You Lan Commentary needs further verification based on analysis of the actual paper of the original manuscript.

10. Phrase ending indications
In the You Lan tablature the words "一句 yi ju" ("one phrase") are used to indicate the end of some but not all phrase endings. Another expression, 取聲 qu sheng ("select the sound"; 取餘聲), may similarly indicate a significant pause, but that is not certain, and it is not counted here as one of the phrase endings here. There are:

46 一句:15, 17, 8, 6.
25 取聲: 6, 11, 6, 2. (In Mv.1. two are 取餘聲, one is 煞聲; in Mv.2 one is 取餘聲; in Mv.3 one is 取餘聲.)

Eleven of the qusheng are together with (just before) yi ju at the end of phrases; in my transcription I have added several qusheng at the end of phrases (two in Mv.2, four in Mv.4). Two phrases end wtih 煞聲。一句。 and one ends with 煞。一句

More generally speaking, just as much classical Chinese writing was not punctuated, a number of Ming dynasty tablatures also had either no punctuation or limited punctuation. In the case of Jieshi Diao You Lan the first movement seems quite fully punctuated while the later sections go for extended periods with none at all. This has led to major differences in interpretation.

11. Various aspects of my modal analysis of Ming dynasty modes can be found in the Guqin Analysis section of this site.

Return to the annotated handbook list or to the Guqin ToC.