Gongche notation

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Gongche notation
Traditional Chinese 工尺譜
Simplified Chinese 工尺谱

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 characters that were used to represent musical notes, namely "" gōng and "" chě. Since the pronunciation chě for the character "尺" is uncommon, many people call it gongchi notation or gongchipu by mistake[citation needed].

Sheet music written in this notation is still used 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[edit]

Basic characters[edit]

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.

Gongche
shàng

chě

gōng

fán

liù


Jianpu 1 2 3 (4) 5 6 (7)
Movable do solfège syllable do re mi (between fa and fa♯) sol la (between ti♭ and ti)
Simplified  

Usual variations[edit]

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

Gongche


Jianpu (7̣)
Solfege sol la (between ti♭ and ti)
Simplified

Sometimes "士" shì 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.

Gongche scale for Kunqu
Gongche 上̗ 尺̗ 工̗ 凡̗ 𠆩 𠆾 亿
Jianpu 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Solfege do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti
Gongche scale for Cantonese opera
Gongche 亿 𢒼 彳尺 𢓁 𢓉
Jianpu 5̣̣ 6̣̣ 7̣̣ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Solfege sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa

Pronunciation[edit]

When the notes are sung in different opera traditions, they do not sound as the words would be pronounced in the respective regional dialects. Instead, they are pronounced in an approximation of Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation.[citation needed]

The following is an example from Cantonese opera.

Pronunciation of Cantonese Gongche characters
Gongche
character
Cantonese Gongche
pronunciation
[hɔ̏ː] sìː jìː sɑ̄ːŋ tsʰɛ́ː kʊ́ŋ fɑ́ːn líːu wúː
Usual Cantonese
pronunciation
[hɐ̀p] sìː jỳːt sœ̀ːŋ tsʰɛ̄ːk kʊ́ŋ fɑ̌ːn lʊ̀k ŋ̬̍

Rhythm[edit]

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. Gongche is written in the same format as how Chinese was traditionally 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 left 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, there is one beat in every two notes, i.e. two notes are sung or played to each beat. These notes in solfege with markings will show 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.

Using this method, only the number of notes within a beat can be specified. 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[edit]

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, typically using a movable "do" system.

The notation is not accurate in modern sense. It provides a musical skeleton, allowing an 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. Variations among different 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[edit]