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Gongche notation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Gongche notation or gongchepu is a traditional musical notation method, once popular in ancient China. It uses Chinese characters to represent musical notes. It was named after two of the Chinese character that was used to represent musical notes, namely "工" gōng and "尺" chě. Since the pronunication chě for the character "尺" is uncommon, many people call it gongchi notation or gongchipu by mistake.

Sheet music written in this notation is still seen for traditional Chinese musical instruments and Chinese operas. However the notation is becoming less popular, replaced by mostly jianpu (numbered musical notation) and sometimes the standard western notation.

The notes

Basic characters

The notation usually uses a movable "do" system. There are variations of the character set used for musical notes. A commonly accepted set is shown below with its relation to jianpu and solfege.

Usual variations

The three notes just below the central octave are usually represented by special characters:

Sometimes "士" sh́ is used instead of "四" . Sometimes "一" is not used, or its role is exchanged with "乙" .

To represent other notes in different octaves, traditions differ among themselves. For Kunqu, the end strokes of "上" "尺" "工" "凡" are extended by a tiny slash downward for the lower octave, a radical "亻" is added for one octave higher than the central. For Cantonese opera, however, "亻" means an octave lower, while "彳" means an octave higher.

Some other variations:

  • "尺" is replaced by "乂" in Taiwanese tradition.
  • "凡" is replaced by "反" in Cantonese tradition.
  • "彳上", the "do" just above the central octave, is usually replaced by "生" in Cantonese tradition.

The following are two examples.




When the notes are sung in different opera traditions, they do not sound as how the characters are usually pronounced in the respective region speeches. Instead, they sound like imitating the pronunciaton in Standard Mandarin. The following is an example in Cantonese opera.

The rhythm

An example of gongche notation
An example of gongche notation

Gongche notation does not mark the relative length of the notes. Instead, marks for the percussion, understood to be played at regular intervals, are written alongside with the notes. Traditionally, Chinese is written from top to bottom and then from right to left. The rhythm marks are written to the right of the note characters.

The diagram at the right illustrates how the tune "Old McDonald Had a Farm" will look like if written in gongche notation. Here, "。" denotes the stronger beat, called "板" bǎn or "拍" pāi, and "、" denotes the weaker beat, called "眼" yǎn or "撩" liáo. In effect, we are beating in two, and two notes are sung or played to each beat. If we write the solfege of those notes and mark them, we will see a similar effect:

do do do sol la la sol   mi mi re re do
Example of gongche use with guqin tablature and beat marks.
Example of gongche use with guqin tablature and beat marks.

Using this method, we can only specify how many notes are sung within a beat. The actual length of each note is up to tradition and the interpretation of the artist.

Notice that the actual rhythm marks used differ among various traditions.

History and usage

Gongche notation was invented in the Tang Dynasty. It became popular in the Song Dynasty. It is believed to have begun as a tablature of certain musical instrument, possibly using a fixed "do" system. Later it became a popular pitch notation, using usually a movable "do" system.

The notation is not accurate in modern sense. It provides a musical skeleton, allowing the artist to improvise. The details are usually passed on by oral tradition. However, once a tradition is lost, it is very difficult to reconstruct how the music was supposed to sound. Conflict among traditions increased the difficulty in learning the notation.

The system was also introduced to Korea (where it is referred to as gong jeok bo) in ancient times and many traditional musicians still learn their music from such scores (although they typically perform from memory).

External links

  • Cantonese Opera (in Chinese) explains how the gongche notation is used in Cantonese opera. This document shows how the same piece of music is written in gongchepu, jianpu, and the standard notation.
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