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24. Yellow Bell Mode
- Standard tuning:2 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 played as 1 2 4 5 6 1 2
黃鐘調 1
Huangzhong Diao
An autumn scene painting 3        
Huangzhong Diao is the first of the three pieces in Taigu Yiyin to have no commentary at all:4 it is a beautiful but short melody about which virtually nothing is known. Its lyrics are by a poet of the Tang dynasty but it is grouped amongst melodies with stories connected to the Han dynasty.5 Its title is the name of a musical mode, but its music does not seem to have the modal structure of any other melodies said to use that mode. In addition, there is no attribution for the music itself.

What we do know is that the present melody is a setting for qin of the lyrics to the poem Ninth Month by Li He (791 - 817).7 In the Chinese lunar calandar the ninth month usually begins some time in October; this may be the beginning or middle of autumn in the Western calendar but on the Chinese lunar calendar it comes just after the middle of autumn (the eighth lunar month is called "mid-autumn"). In any case, the association with autumn makes it interesting to compare the modal characteristics of this melody (since there are no apparent melodic connections) with those of the melody in this handbook called Old Autumn Wind as well as with the melodies of the shang modal preludes outlined elsewhere. It is also tempting to use it as a prelude for one of the qin melodies for autumn.

Li He's "Ninth Month" is one of what the Yuefu Shiji calls his 13 Songs of the Twelve Months.8 The 13 songs are each connected to one of the 12 months plus an intercalary month. By tradition an intercalary month could be inserted between any two months during the calendar year but in this case is the last poem. In contrast, as can be seen from this chart, the 13 months have been associated with the 13 studs on the qin (the intercalary month added right in the middle), and these studs, in turn, are associated with the names of musical modes. There the ninth month is linked with the tenth stud, called wuyi; the 11th month is linked with the 12th stud, called huangzhong (yellow bell). However, there is no mention of the yellow bell in the lyrics. So why is the setting of this poem called "Yellow Bell Mode"? And is it a modal prelude?9

Within the musical system of the Twelve Tones, Huangzhong, the Yellow Bell, usually comes first.11 It was generally considered the fundamental tone, its pitch being the basis for generating all other tones. It is not clear whether any similar significance was placed on the Yellow Bell Mode: it was generally used for a non-standard tuning. But just as there was uncertainty about what the correct pitch should be for the Yellow Bell itself, there seems also to have been uncertainty about Yellow Bell diao (which can mean either tuning or mode, or both).

In Ming dynasty handbooks one can find three different tunings for Yellow Bell Mode:

  1. 1 3 5 6 1 2 3 (from standard tuning slacken 1st string, tighten 5th)
    This is seems to be the most common Yellow Bell tuning in Ming dynasty qin handbooks. Further, in Shen Qi Mi Pu and other handbooks, pieces in this Yellow Bell tuning are often said to be in Wuyi mode: see
    Shenpin Wuyi Yi.
  2. 1 2 3 5 6 1 2 (from standard tuning lower the 3rd string)
    This is the tuning for the Huangzhong Yi, #99 in Xilutang Qintong); there are two associated pieces using this tuning.
  3. 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 (standard tuning, with the first string as gong)
    The present piece may be the only surviving example of a huangzhong melody using this tuning.12 The melody stands alone, without a modal prelude and without serving as a modal prelude.

The reason why this handbook uses the title "Huangzhong Diao" for a melody in standard tuning is thus quite puzzling. Since according to the above-mentioned chart huangzhong is associated with the 11th month one might look there for a connection to the lyrics. However, also as mentioned, the lyrics here are connected to the Li He poem about the 9th month, associated with wuyi. It may be more than coincidental that wuyi and huangzhong modes were sometimes considered the same; neverthless, the association of the lyrics specifically with huangzhong rather than wuyi remains unclear.

As for the music itself, the main tonal center here is the note played on the open first string (do); the secondary tonal center is the note of the open fourth string (sol). However, the closing note is do and fa together. Many melodies have unexpected closing notes. Perhaps further research might explain why, as well as provide answers to the other questions.

Original preface 13


Music and lyrics 14 (看五線譜 see transcription, 聽錄音 listen here or on )
One Section with lyrics throughout. The setting follows the syllabic structure ([7+7] x 4) of the 李賀 Li He lyrics:

(00.00 to 00.11 on the recording: closing harmonics used as a prelude)
離宮天似水,               竹黃池冷芙蓉死。
Li gong san yun tian si shui,   zhu huang chi leng fu rong si.
Round the secondary palace clouds wander, sky resembles water;
          bamboo yellows, pools chill, lotuses die.

月綴金鋪光脈脈,              涼虛庭空白。
Yue zhui jin pu guang mai mai,   liang yuan xu ting kong dan bai.
The moon embellishes golden door-rings, beaming brightly;
          cool gardens and vacant courtyards are empty, pale and white.

花飛飛風草草,              翠錦琅滿層道。
Shuang hua fei fei feng cao cao,   cui jin lang gan man ceng dao.
Frost flurries fly freely, winds whirl;
          green brocade and red stones layer the road.

雞人唱罷蘢蔥,              鴉啼金井下疏桐。
Ji ren chang ba xiao long cong,   ya ti jin jing xia shu tong.
The cock-herald's call ends as dawn shines bright;
          crows call over golden wells as they descend from thinning thickets.

Translation tentative. Glossary:
離宮 li gong: temporary palace away from capital; summer palace; name of a constellation;
yun: for 雲 YFSJ has 螢 ying: fireflies
芙蓉 furong: if on land: hibiscus; if in water, lotus
shuang: elsewhere 露 lu (dew)
雞人 jiren: 43065.2 "chicken man", i.e., "cock-herald“: an official in ancient times who announced sunrise

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a
separate page)

1. Huangzhong Diao 黃鐘調 (QQJC I/283)
48904.1240 黃鍾 - same as 黃鐘, man's name;
48904.1327 黃鐘 - 音律名,十二律之一,六律六呂之基本音,配陰曆十一月 mode name, one of the 12 tones
48904.1330 黃鐘調 - 燕樂羽聲 banquet music in yu sounds, or 雅樂六調之一 one of the six modes of Court Music. Could there have been an assumption that court music must come from the Han dynasty?

2. Tuning and Mode
Shenpin Wuyi Yi has comment on huangzhong and wuyi modes, but the melody here uses standard tuning and the main tonal center is do, secondarily sol, mostly pentatonic but with a few added fa and flatted ti.

3. Autumn scene (image copied from
The sky and water have the same color, leaves are yellow and thinning, and the birds flying: all this makes the image reflect nicely the lyrics and mood of the melody. The painting and calligraphy are both by 老樹畫畫,本名劉樹勇 Old Tree Painter Liu Shuyong, from 山東濰坊 Weifang, Shandong Province. He is a Professor in the School of Culture and Communication, Central University of Finance and Economics.

The vertical calligraphy on the left side has this couplet,

In the wind yellow leaves fall, a goose is hastening south;
Play a melody before departing, we'll meet again next year.

In then closes with "灰__"

Another poem, associated with this painting here, accompanied it with the following poem by 井丹林先生林大春 Lin Dachun, aka Mr. Jingdan Lin (1523-1588):

In an estuary playing qin
Fine rain crosses Jiangguan, with qin seated by a sea of clouds;
The landscape seems to have emotions, but when will my bosom friend again be here?

4. Commentary within Taigu Yin
All melodies have prefaces except:

The prefaces tell stories related to the melodies, saying little or nothing about the music itself.

5. Chronology of the melodies
A few of the melodies might have ancient origins but there seems to be no way to learn which ones - or which parts of which ones.

7. 九月 Ninth Month by 李賀 Li He
Yuefu Shiji, Chapter 82 (p.1162). The differences between the text of the qin version and that of the YFSJ version are noted below. I do not know why this particular poem was set here for qin or whether any of the other poems ever had a similar setting, but of Li He's 13 songs (next), only the first month has the same structure as here ([7+7]x4).

8. 13 Songs of the Twelve Months by 李賀 Li He
All 13 poems are included in Yuefu Shiji at the end of Chapter 82 (pp.1161-3). YFSJ calls the set 十二月樂辭十三首 13 Songs of the 12 Months, adding that the full title was 河南府試十二月樂辭並閏月 13 Songs of the Twelve Months plus the Intercalary Month (Poems Written for the Henan Provincial Examinations).

9. Is "Yellow Bell Mode (黃鐘調 Huangzhong Diao)" a modal prelude?
Modal preludes were usually indicated with the word "meaning" (意 yi) at the end, thus, Huangzhong Yi and Shenpin Wuyi Yi. Some, however, are simply called "diao": e.g., in Shilin Guangji. Although the structure of the melody here is not dissimilar from that of some modal preludes, these preludes are usually associated with melodies that use the preludes, and there is no such associated melody with this Huangzhong Diao.

11. The Yellow Bell (黃鐘 Huangzhong) (intended as a form of absolute pitch?)
Yellow Bell, before its use as the name of qin tunings/modes, was the name of one of the 12 standard pitches, as well as of the bell that produced the Yellow Bell pitch. This was considered the fundamental pitch, on which all others were based. (However, although 48904.1327 黃鐘 gives references saying other pitces come from huangzhong, it says nothing about the need to find the correct huangzhong.)

The idea of the Yellow Bell as a pitch standard seems to have originated with a story about 黃帝 the Yellow Emperor and his assistant 伶倫 Ling Lun, as told in the 吕氏春秋 Lüshi Chunqiu (Lü Lan; Wiki); see Part 1 Almanacs, Book 5 Zhongxia, Chapter 5 (CTP). As translated in Knoblock and Riegel (p.147) this reads:

In the past the Yellow Sovereign commanded Ling Lun to create pitch-standards. Ling Lun, having passed through the western regions of Daxia, then went to the shady northern slopes of the Kunlun Mountains. He selected bamboo from the valley of Xiexi which had hollows and walls of uniform thickness. Cutting it between two nodes to a length of 3.9 inches, he blew on it and fixed its sound as the note gong for the Yellow Bell pitch-standard. The sound it made was styag-rhyag. He then made the twelve bamboo tubes, one after the other. Carrying these to the foot of the Kunlun Mountains he heard the calls of the male and female phoenixes, which he used to divide the twelve pitch-standards; six corresponding to the calls of the male, and six to the female. These he harmonized with the fundamental note gong of Yellow Bell. The note gong of Yellow Bell can be used to generate all the other notes. Hence, it is said that the note gong of Yellow Bell is the root of the male and the female pitch-standards.

One can use the following passage from the Huainanzi (Knoblock, 3.28) to represent the sort of information ancient texts generally convey about this Yellow Bell:

Using three to examine matters: 3 × 3 = 9. Thus the Yellow Bell pitch pipe is nine inches long and harmonizes with the note gong. Furthermore, 9 × 9 = 81. Thus the number of the Yellow Bell is established therein. Yellow is the color of the Potency of Earth; the bell is that by which the [seeds of] qi are sown. At the winter solstice the qi of accretion produces Earth; the color of Earth is yellow. Thus the [note of the winter solstice] is called Yellow Bell.

The number of pitch pipes is six, classified as female and male [for a total of twelve]. Thus it is said there are twelve bells to act as adjuncts to the twelve months. Each of the twelve is based on three. Thus if one sets up [the number] one and triples it eleven times [i.e., 311], the total is 177,147. The Great Number of the Yellow Bell is therey revealed.

Other early sources focus on the importance of correct pitches. One example is translated in DeWoskin (e.g., pp.46 and 80-83, but also search the index for "huang-chung"). The following, from p. 81, is a quote from the History of the Later Han (for 京房 Ching Fang see Wiki Jing Fang):

We can go back and read in the old canon. We can even get possession of some of the old instruments and configure them exactly as Ching Fang prescribed. Still, we cannot set the tension of the strings exactly. There is no way in writing to make people clear on a precise tone. Those in the past who knew it may have desired to teach but had no takers. The very enlightened knew it instrinsically without the need for teachers. Therefore, we graduallly lost those in the historian's office who could discriminate the high fom the low. There are really only two means by which these can be transmitted, either by deriving them from unchanging numbers or by watching the ethers.

Given the importance of correct pitches, it is not surprising that in classical literature one can read many essays on this topic. If they give specific calculations, though, most are like the quotation above that addresses the relationships between the notes. Here, even a straightforward systems such as sanfen sunyi, equivalent to the Pythagorean system for determining the 12 basic pitches, caused much agonizing, beginning with the problem that going through the cycle of fifths left you with a 13th pitch that was not one octave higher than the first one, but slightly off of that: for the sake of heaven and earth this problem needed to be solved. Then there were further elaborate calculations on even more arcane matters.

In addition, attempts were made over time to use measurements quoted in ancient texts to suggest certain pitches for the Yellow Bell. However, these are all pure guesswork. For example, even if measurements were given, we don't know the precise meaning of the measurements. This absence in classic texts of more reliable or specific detail about the Yellow Bell made it impossible for later people to determine its original pitch.

Underlying the difficulty of determining the pitch was, of course, the absence of a method for measuring frequency (today measured in Hertz). Given this, how could one determine and then record for posterity the fundamental pitch for calculating all the other pitches?

Nevertheless, each subsequent dynasty was supposed to do just this: determine the correct pitch for their standard bell (or bell set). For, from early times it was generally assumed that, to give government affairs the best chance to run smoothly, the musical pitches must be correct; at the same time there was an awareness that since the original Yellow Bell was lost, there would always be uncertainty in trying to determine its best pitch. To understand this more fully requires finding details of when attempts were made to find this pitch, including how specifics about how the search was made. If there was satisfaction with the result of the search, then there should be accounts specifying on what specific occasions throughout history this occured, just how the "correct" pitches were determined, what the pitches were (in relative or cosmological terms?), how much they tended to change, whether people wrote about the necessity to change them, and so forth. As yet I have not found specific information on all of these. The details here should thus be seen only as a tentative outline.

The search for the correct pitch often centered on the concept of "life energy" (氣 qi) and the idea that only the correct absolute pitches would have the correct qi. The most ancient known expression for this search for the correct pitch was apparently "inquiring into qi" (侯氣 hou qi). It has been said that this dates back at least from the Zhou dynasty, but to my knowledge there are no actual records of this in surviving Zhou texts. Perhaps, though, the flavor was still to a certain extent along the lines of the following, quoted from Joseph Lam, State Sacrifices and Music in Ming China, p.83, as follows:

As outlined in the Collected Ceremonial of the Ming Dynasty, the houqi exercise takes place within a space surrounded on all sides with a three-tiered wall that is sealed after all necesssary implements have been installed. Within the space is a round, canopied shallow excavation into which soil-filled trays are placed, each aligned to one of the twelve points of the compass. Twelve pipes, each of an appropriate length, are buried at an angle in the soil to a depth that fixed their exposed ends on a plane with one another. Each pipe is then filled with ashes and covered with a piece of raw-silk cloth. On a prescribed day in each of the twelve lunar months, a qi is thought to cover the earth to a specific height, generating sympathetic ethereal vibrations that would joggle the silk cloth and ashes in a specific pipe, leaving a mark that shows the exact height the qi had covered. That mark is considered an indication of the accurate length of the pitch pipe being examined. For example, the qi that arrives on winter solstice was considered to cover a height of nine cun. That measurement is what an "accurate" huangzhong pipe of nine cun should match. As music theory, the houqi exercise is more speculation than practice, and there are many variations in its application. Nevertheless, in its time it provided a means to use the cosmic qi to confirm the measurement of the pitch pipes.

Given the theoretical (or ideological) importance of having the correct tone for the Yellow Bell, one would think that each time this was done the emperor would have officially designated a specific bell or bell set as having the correct pitch, and the pipes and/or bell(s) would have been preserved in a secure place. (In addition, such pipes themselves were used to standardize such measurements as volume and length.) However, as yet I have little further information on when or whether this actually took place, or whether any such sets have indeed survived.

(I have not yet carefully read the further information about qi and tuning the bells given in Needham, but it does not seem to give details that would allow us to know the specific pitches that may have been used at any specific time in the past.)

For online information an internet search for "Yellow Bell" does give some related stories; e.g., this page on a Yellow Bell website.

12. Tracing Huangzhong Diao
Zha Guiide 13/--/251 has this title and its lyrics only here in Taigu Yin. There is no accompanying commentary

13. NFI

14. Original lyrics for Huangzhong Diao
Here are the original lyrics compared to those in Yuefu Shiji:

離宮散雲天似水,竹黃池冷芙蓉死。   (for 雲 YFSJ has 螢 ying: fireflies)
月綴金鋪光脈脈,涼月虛庭空淡白。   (for 淡 YFSJ has 澹; for 月 YFSJ has 苑)
霜花飛飛風草草,翠錦琅玕滿層道。   (for 玕 YFSJ has 斑)
雞人唱罷曉蘢蔥,鴉啼金井下疏桐。 (for 唱罷 YFSJ has 罷唱; for 蘢蔥 [clumped/verdant] YFSJ has 瓏璁 [tinkling jade)

Thus the poem by Li He as found in YFSJ 82 (p.1162) is as follows:

九月 in 李賀:河南府試十二月樂詞並閏月


Creating a singable English version of a classical Chinese poem calls for, as much as possible, having the same number of syllables in English as there were in Chinese: only this makes it possible to pair words and music following the traditional pairing method. Although this is nearly impossible, I have made the following tentative attempt with the present lyrics:

Summer palace, clouds drift, sky like water;
        Bamboo withers, ponds chill, flowers die.
Moonbeam-s spread their golden veins;
        cool yard-s are empty, pale and white.
Frost flies free in whirling winds;
        green brocade and red stones coat the path.
Cock cries end as dawn looks grand;
        crows fly off o'er golden wells.

Here, even though in a number of places syllables were added to slides, so far it has still been impossible to capture all the original meaning of the poem.

For similar attempts with other qin songs see jiu Kuang (Wine Mad) and Se Kong Jue (Heart Sutra).

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