Qin songs 琴歌
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Repertoire of Qin Songs with lyrics in Cipai and in regular lines YFSJ, Qin melody lyrics    Pairing words and music 網站目錄
Qin Songs 1
Qin melodies with lyrics attached 2
Qin melodies with lyrics: two approaches? (enlarge)3  
A full account of qin songs requires some comment on Chinese songs in general, but that is generally beyond the scope of this website.4 Even within the qin repertoire my focus has largely been instrumental melodies.5 Nevertheless, I have also reconstructed and recorded a number of qin songs.6 And this study has increased considerably since around 2014, when I began looking more carefully at qin handbooks published at the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasties. The rich tradition of qin songs published at the time.

Earlier in the Ming dynasty it is a fact that, although quite a few surviving qin handbooks of that period include lyrics for some or all of their melodies, it is not always clear that they were intended for singing.8 In addition, or perhaps as a result, qin songs were rarely performed until recently.9 There has been some research and speculation about the sources of the modern qin song tradition,10 and many melodies and their lyrics (or texts) have been transcribed into modern notation or otherwise documented.11 On the other hand, although the tablature and lyrics are usually clearly paired side by side, there are few if any descriptions of how they were actually performed.12 Another limitation is that it is generally necessity to memorize the lyrics if the same person is playing while singing, as it is generally not possible to play while reading music or lyrics.13

Regarding the method of performing, it seems that in traditional literature there was little written advocating, for example, a Kunqu style of singing, or a plain style, or any other style. It also seems quite likely that there was an active oral tradition of qin songs, the musical results (either words, or music, or both) never written down.14 Many were also likely sung by women, and this is something that has been little studied.15

Almost all qin melodies with lyrics published before the modern era have their lyrics paired to the music in a very word intensive manner: for each character in the lyrics the qin player has to make one right hand stroke or left hand pluck. Words are usually not paired to slides or every note of a complex figure such as a glissando (gun or fu), but many qin songs have no left-hand ornaments, with the result that for each character (i.e., syllable) there is only one note. This sort of setting of one character for each note is called a "syllabic setting". Tradition says that this approach to qin songs dates back to Confucius himself;16 and this practice has remained remarkably consistent up to the present.17

On the other hand, it is perhaps due to just this syllabic style that some people have argued that qin melodies should be purely instrumental, as singing just gets in the way of the delicate qin tones (further comment). Quite likely this attitude is predicated on an assumpution that with qin songs the voice should sing the same melody as the qin plays, following exactly as written the tablature to which it is paired. If one can set aside this assumption there are various possible ways of incorporating the lyrics when they are paired to the tablature; much of this might also apply to accompanying the qin with any other instrument.18

Literary aspects of pairing words and music for qin songs is discussed in more detail under Cipai and Qin Melodies.

Singing qin songs: appropriate performance practice

As for actual performance practice within the disparate types of "qin songs", guidance from other Chinese repertoires as well as from that of qin suggests several differing approaches. Deciding which approach to take is crucial to making the pairing a success. The possibilities include:

Up to now I have never found any accounts in classical qin texts describing or prescribing how the vocal lines should be performed (or not performed). However, under Se Kong Jue there is some comment that might be considered relevant.

Voice production is another aspect that was never indicated. One never sees at the front of a qin song instructions such as, "Sing in the style of Kunqu opera". In fact, there is never even any direct indication as to whether the singer and the player should be the same person. However, there is some potentially useful commentary on this in the publications listed here.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Qin songs (琴歌 qin ge) references
21570.76 琴歌 has four sub-categories:

21570.77 琴歌酒賦 qin ge jiu fu (qin, song, wine, poetry) gives three examples:

These examples all suggest either qin, singing, drinking and doing poetry as four activities, or qin with singing and wine with poetry as two, but all done together.

See also,

  1. Cipai and Qin Melodies (including further references)
  2. Xu Jian, Creators of Qin Songs (plus my footnote)
  3. Zha Fuxi, Differentiating qin songs.

None of these has contemporary information on how the songs would actually have been done.

2. Qin melodies with lyrics attached
These can be divided into two categories (compare "My qin song repertoire"):

  1. Melodies clearly intended to be sung (e.g., see "short songs" under my repertoire)
    This includes:
            - Melodies for particular lyrics (or a text)
            - Melodies that can be applied to differing lyrics, e.g. ci lyrics or lyrics in lines of fixed length
  2. Primarily instrumental melodies with lyrics/text attached (further comment)
    Here it is often not clear whether the pieces are intended actually to be sung. Examples include:
            - a setting of Wang Xizhi's Lanting Preface).
            - pieces originally published as instrumental melodies, such as those as in >1505

There are no separate terms that I know of that distinguish between such different types of "qin songs", nor any published studies on this subject: they all seem simply to be grouped under "qin ge".

Given the rôle of ci lyrics in Chinese song, it is often difficult to separate information on a page such as the present one and that in the one called "Cipai and Qin Melodies." The attempt being made here is still in process.

3. Images: Qin melodies with lyrics: two approaches? (enlarge)
The first two handbooks with lyrics show very contrasting approaches to the one-character-per-stroke model. The illustration above gives examples of the two basic types that are distinguished here:

Examining the transcriptions of qin melodies may make it easier to see the contrasting types.

4. Music for early Chinese songs outside the guqin tradition
The listings of qin melody titles such as those linked here, as well as the extensive bibliographies such as that of Qin Shu Cunmu, provide evidence that there was much written music in China prior to the establishment of the Ming dynasty in 1368. However, it was almost all handcopied and very little survives. Furthermore, there does not seem to be an authoritative bibliography of actual surviving early notation and tablature. Surviving resources that include actual musical examples include:

However, the above mostly concerns instrumental music, with few song texts. For notation and tablature with song see, for example,

Work on songs from the Ming dynasty is in its early stages. Meanwhile there are several other relevant bibliographies currently available online, in particular several by David Badagnani, beginning with this one from the Northern Song dynasty .

5. My focus on instrumental melodies
My repertoire lists over 230 pieces of which about 53 have lyrics but many of these seem not intended to be sung and I can only sing from memory about 15.

6. My studies of qin song
Although I have spent much time transcribing many songs, and have also recorded quite a few of these (examples), I make few claims for "authenticity" (other than that they express my authentic feelings for and beliefs about the music). Since the information I have been able to find from other sources, whether ancient or contemporary, is often either very sketchy or contradictory, I have been putting my observations here (including my tentative singing of a number of songs) largely in hopes of getting reactions that will help me and others get a fuller understanding of the songs and their potential. Some issues include:

  1. Value of the songs: I find some of them very beautiful according to my understanding of the way they were written down, and yet in history there are qin masters who seem to have categorically condemned all qin songs. (See, for example, the comments here about syllabic setting together with the criticism of this outlined elsewhere.) How can these two extremes be aligned?
  2. Pairing the words and music: Since nothing seems to have been written about this in classical sources, many people have different ideas about how the lyrics and music should be paired. In one sense none of the attempts should be considered incorrect. On the other hand, it is possible sometimes to say, "It is unlikely that in the past they were sung in this way" (e.g., using a bel canto voice); or to say, "Although there is no textual evidence supporting this way of singing the songs, there is also nothing to say they were never done in that way" (e.g., singing them in ways other than following the common syllabic formula). On the other hand, I cannot help but question people who say they must be done, or must have been done, in any particular way, and that any other way is incorrect.
  3. Pronouncing the words: Once again nothing seems to have been written about this in classical qin sources. In classical Chinese there were regional pronunciations that would have accorded to some degree with local dialects, as well as (over time) ones considered as national pronunciations. Did people in the Ming dynasty who set lyrics to a song imagine them sung their local dialect, a perceived national one, or a perceived archaic one? In the absence of a definitive answer, presumably any of these pronunciations could be justified.

Further understanding of these issues will require working together with someone with more understanding of traditional Chinese singing styles and techniques.

8. Intended for singing
See further comment.

8. Modern performances of qin songs
There are several people in China who have focused on this. Two examples are

  1. 天津薄克禮 Bo Keli of Tianjin
    This includes:
    1. 薄克禮,中國琴歌發展史 (A History of the Development of Chinese Qin Songs [no music examples])
    2. 薄克禮,張子盛:中國古代琴歌精華校譯 (transcriptions; mentioned further here).

  2. 若遺 Ruo Yi (artistic name of 無錫王烈 Wang Lie of Wuxi
    Recordings by many people of his song settings (both original and based on earlier versions) are included in his CD sets, of which there are at least three (general title 元音絃歌):
    1. 清夜吟 Qing Ye Yin (commentary, tablature, transcriptions and 1 CD; further info; not yet seen)
    2. 人生若只如初見 Ren sheng ruo zhi ru chu jian: commentary, tablature, transcriptions and 3 CDs with his settings of ci lyrics by 納蘭性德 Nalan Xingde (1655 - 1685; Wiki).
    3. 襄陽謌 Xiang Yang Ge: commentary, tablature, transcriptions and 4 CDs with his settings of various qin songs

Somewhat older is the work of 王迪 Wang Di, mentioned below. However, I have not as yet made a proper study in this area.

9. Revival of interest in qin songs
This is part of the general revival of interest in the guqin. In addition, whereas before around 2000 CE it seemed most common to perform guqin songs in a bel canto style, since then there has been more interest in singing them in a more Chinese manner (wearing Chinese costume is also popular for qin song events).

10. Sources of the modern qin song tradition
In Qinshi Chubian, Chapter 6a3, Xu Jian writes that during the Yuan dynasty a scholar named Yu Yan closed his doors and, among other things, created qin songs based on such classical texts as the Book of Songs. He adds that this is the source of the Ming dynasty qin song tradition. This may be true, but it is difficult to verify, as the earliest surviving collection of such songs was not published until the Taigu Yiyin of 1511, which had 38 songs.

11. Documenting the sources of modern qin songs
Some modern publications collecting transcriptions of old qin songs are listed here, beginning with those by 王迪 Wang Di.

12. Approaches to performing qin songs
Given the lack of appropriate descriptions, some ideas regarding my own performances of qin songs are outlined here.

13. Constraints on performing qin songs
Hence on a number of my own recordings I have double tracked the qin and vocal parts separately. The main problem for me with this is my desire to perform the songs heterophonically, but this is difficult if the qin and voice are not rendered at the same time.

Note also that, whereas a player may be happy to sing with a similar volume to that produced by a qin, most singers will wish to sing louder.

14. Oral tradition of qin songs
Although guqin music is often perceived as a written tradition, since so much of the music was written down, it has also always been an oral tradition. Here one must always keep in mind that, although writing down qin music aided its transmission over time and space, requiring it to be written down also limited some of its possibilities. Obvious barriers included devising new finger technique symbols and writing down songs/melodies that quite likely were performed quite differently on different occasions. This is why, although no specific examples seem to have been transmitted, it is is difficult to imagine that qin players who also loved opera would never have tried, for example, to sing a beloved opera song while devising appropriate qin accompaniment.

15. Women and qin songs
It has been well documented that during the Ming and Qing dynasties women created quite a body of painting and poetry. Less studied is their role in creating qin melodies and songs, many of which quite likely were not written down. There is further on this under Women and the Qin. See also the theory that many of Jiang Kui's songs were actually created by women.

16. Qin songs and Confucius
世紀,孔子世家四十七 Annals of History, Hereditary House of Confucius, Annal 47 (China Text Project), the biography of Confucius in the Annals of History (Section 60 of 85, RH, p.22), says,

Confucius chose 305 songs in all, and these he set to music and sang, fitting them to the music of Emperor Shun and King Wu

These 305 are the songs in the Book of Songs (Shi Jing). Here "絃歌 xian'ge" (literally "strings song") is translated "set to music and sang", the assumption being this was done on the qin, presumably because of the account in this same biography that Confucius studied the qin from Shi Xiangzi. Elsewhere when Confucius is described as playing music the common term used is again xian'ge, with no direct mention of instrumental music. It is perhaps also from here that the idea came that the musical settings were syllabic, this evidence being equally tenuous.

17. Continuing word intensity of qin songs
Not considered here is the possibility that in oral tradition such syllabic settings were less common.

Three reasons why qin songs contined to be so word intensive, in spite of the criticisms mentioned above, could be as follows:

  1. A belief that Confucius always sang as he played qin
    I am not sure of the source of this opinion.
  2. A related belief that his melodies (i.e., the songs in the Shi Jing) had syllabic settings
    As for whether Shi Jing melodies in particular did all originally have syllabic settings, I do not know the earliest references to this or of any early explanations for this.
  3. A belief that the original songs on which Song ci were based had syllabic settings
    Each Song dynasty ci was written following the syllabic structure of an earlier ci. Thus, the earliest known lyrics for the song 長相思
    Chang Xiang Si had four phrases with the pattern 3,3.7.5; therefore, new ci called Chang Xiang Si would have the same pattern. Some people think that this means the original songs must have had a syllabic setting. (Note that there can be confusion in English from the fact that the spelling of the 詞 ci of 宋詞 Song Ci [see also cipai] is the same as the ci of 楚辭 Chu Ci.)

People who adhere to these beliefs may also feel that free interpretation of the relation between words and music is disrespectful. Here it is also difficult to know the influence of the fact that playing qin was considered primarily an amateur tradition and thus resistant to more complex performance practice.

18. Singer
There is also some discussion here as to whether all qin songs were actually intended for singing.

19. Monophonic approach (see also singing when learning)
Some people consider this the most traditional, or pure, way to sing the songs: there is an aesthetic that says qin music should be plain. Some teachers also encourage singing a melody when learning it.

20. Performing heterophonically rather than in unison (see "heterophony" in the glossary)
A good example of this is Beijing Opera, where the singer usually has his or her own personal accompanist on a type of erhu (fiddle). When I was studying this I often heard afficionados relate how outsiders (often foreigners) would ask, "Can't they play together?" The answer would always be, "Of course, but that would be boring." In general, this seems to have been true of most traditional Chinese song forms, art songs in particular.

Here it is perhaps relevant to cite this comment from Liu E: "君子和而不同 Gentlemen seek harmony, not unity"? (Here "harmony" refers to "sounding good together" and is not related to the technical Western distinction between "harmony" and 'counterpoint/polyphony'.) Liu E's character says the scholars prefer unison play while he himself clearly prefers the heterophonic approach, though he considers it more rustic. Others might consider this unison play as symptomatic of the decline in the quality of qin play, an opinion discussed at some length in James Watt's essay The Qin and the Chinese Literati.

An interesting exception to this heterophonic approach is the most common practice today when performing qin songs (as well as instrumental duets that include qin). Perhaps this is because the performers are usually either non-professionals or, if professionals, have had their training in conservatories where the 19th century Western aesthetic often seems to be most emulated. In any case, in these performances either the singer or the second instrument tend to follow the qin rather than follow the traditional heterophonic style.

As for myself, although generally I most enjoy doing qin songs heterophonically, the necessity of memorizing the lyrics has been a severe limitation on this. As a result I have put online a number of recordings where I double track, first recording the qin, then singing the lyrics. However, when doing it this way it is very difficult to sing heterophonically, as it generally requires a type of simultaneous interaction.

21. Reciting lyrics/text while melody is played
This may be particularly appropriate where the lyrics are actually a setting of a prose text such as Wang Xizhi's Lanting Preface (see Lin He Xiuxi).

Even with poetic lyrics sometimes the music, while lovely, seems to leap around too much to allow it to be sung naturally. Here it is intriguing to consider reciting lyrics to some qin melodies connected to old ci lyric forms (cipai). The original ci melodies being long lost, new poems written to their metric patterns came to be recited, not sung. With a new melody in that form perhaps they could be sung, but perhaps that would not be necessary or even desired. The creator of the melody could then create something without being limited to a vocal idiom.

Two poems by Li Qingzhao in a ci form called "Extended Washing at Creek Side" (攤破浣溪沙 Tanpo Huan Xisha) are used on a separate page to consider further the question of whether lyrics should perhaps be recited instead of sung in spite of there being a pairable melody.

22. Silent rendering of text
This may be particularly appropriate for long melodies that seem purely instrumental, but to which lyrics have been added. The earliest examples of this are almost all of the melodies in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu.

Return to Qin Poetry and Song or to the Guqin ToC.