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Silkqin Blues
Blues structure as a model for new qin music
絲弦琴藍調 1
Silk string qin with piezo pickup2        
John Thompson, New York
Presented at the International Week of Qin Culture
Beijing, China, October 2006

This paper suggests one approach to the dual issues of playing qin with other instruments and of providing a framework within which one can improvise.3 The approach is to create qin melodies that use the traditional playing techniques, but to put these melodies into a structure that other musicians can recognize. The structure selected here is 12-bar blues. As examples I discuss the origin and structure of my first two original qin compositions, China Scholar Blues and Lovebird Blues.4

The society that created blues music is very different from the one that created qin music. Nevertheless, a number of people have said that they can hear musical connections between blues and qin music. Mentioned most often are such characteristics as modality, the bending of notes, and the general playing around with tones. As with blues, qin music also has a reputation for sorrowful expression. In both genres the emotional content can indeed run very deep.5


In the past, most Chinese music was passed on by oral tradition, much of it allowing or requiring flexibility of interpretation. This flexibility can be seen as a form of structured improvisation. It could mean that musicians occasionally changed melodies as they played them, that they adapted them for the particular circumstances of performance, or that they gradually developed them according to their personal tastes. Such flexibility was also required for much ensemble music, traditionally played heterophonically.6 In heterophonic performance each musician plays the same melody, but each plays it in his or her own way, depending on such factors as the nature of their instrument and the circumstances of performance.

The qin has the world's oldest surviving detailed written instrumental tradition, and there is much commentary suggesting that music was intended to be played precisely as written, preserving its antiquity. But there is also commentary suggesting approval of individual interpretation or other forms of improvisation. In general, a student would learn a melody not from the tablature but by copying the teacher; later (hopefully after having mastered the teacher's technique), he or she would often make changes.

As for qin accompaniment, old handbooks include a number of qin songs, and there is much evidence to suggest that the qin was sometimes played with another instrument such as a xiao flute. However, the methods to be used for such performances were never written down or described in detail. Chinese tradition suggests that for such occasions, heterophonic performance might be most appropriate. This would allow, or require, considerable freedom in the performances by the individual musicians. For this reason, skilled players of most Chinese music instruments had to acquire improvisational techniques. However, there is no evidence that this was ever part of the training when studying qin. Perhaps for this reason, in such performances today, the voice or the other instrument usually just follows the qin melody.7

To my knowledge, traditional Chinese music never had regular musical structures within which individuals or groups could improvise. As a result, all parties involved in the performances had to know the entire melodies being played.

In contrast, the classic 12-bar blues structure allows musicians unfamiliar with particular melodies to play along almost immediately. At a basic level this may only mean playing chords that fit in with the pattern. Having done this, though, as the artists continue to play together they eventually can produce the sort of musical exchanges that breathe life into structured improvisational music.8

The blues structure

Inspired by such factors,9 I decided to see what would happen if I took some qin melodies or melodic motifs and put them into a framework related to the classic 12-bar blues structure, which is as follows:10

Bar #   1 2 3 4   5 6 7 8   9 10 11 12
Chord   I IV I I   I IV I I   V IV I V
C major   C F C C   C F C C   G F C G
A minor   A D A A   A D A A   E D A E

As for the chords, "I" stands for the tonic chord; "IV" for the subdominant; "V" for the dominant. It should be noted that there are no chords in traditional qin music; instead there are tonal centers. Thus, on the qin, V is a tonal center up a fifth from the main tonal center (tonic), while IV is a tonal center a fourth up from the tonic.

The Chinese pentatonic scale is gong shang jiao zhi yu, today usually written as 1 2 3 5 6 (equivalent to do re mi so la; compare C D E G A). My research into hundreds of Ming dynasty qin melodies shows that their modal structure is usually either 1 - 5 (1 as the main note, 5 the secondary note; 4 is avoided) or 6 - 3 (6 as the main note, 3 secondary; a fourth up from 6 is 2, which is not avoided).11 As a result, when adapting Ming dynasty melodies to a blues structure, melodies in modes such as the gong mode (which is 1 - 5) cause some problems because of the emphasis on 4, which is not part of the pentatonic scale. On the other hand melodies in a mode such as the yu mode (which is 6 - 3) seem to require less modal change, since the sub-dominant, here 2, is in the pentatonic scale.12

General approach

Although I have enjoyed very much listening to improvisational music of many types, my personal music training and experience were first Western classical then early qin, neither of which demands much improvisation. So my idea has been that I would create and learn some blues-structured melodies and their variations so well that I could improvise on them. I would then have structures that would allow jamming with musicians who were unfamiliar with the qin, or even with Chinese music in general.

The four most likely approaches in writing blues for the qin are as follows. Write a completely new melody; adapt a Western blues melody; write a new melody based on melodic motifs from the qin repertoire; adapt an existing qin melody. So far I have limited myself to the latter two approaches.13

Next, having created the basic melody, one must decide how to play and develop it. Generally speaking, blues melodies become songs in several verses. In each verse the melody is basically the same. The lyrics may be repeated, or new ones may appear. The melodic accompaniment can be harmonic (chordal), with the other musician or musicians playing chords that fit the blues structure. There can be counterpoint, in which the other musicians play a different melodic line from that of the original melody, but this new melody fits with the original. Or the accompaniment can be heterophonic, with the other musicians playing basically the same melody but interpreting it differently.

Because to me an essential quality of traditional qin music is the subtle richness of the overtones produced by playing on silk strings, I have been trying to create accompaniments in such a way as to minimize their interference with the sounds of the qin. For this I prefer heterophony and counterpoint to monophony and harmony. With monophonic play the other instrument is likely to obscure the colors of the qin melody, while chordal accompaniment can obsure it even more.

Thus, my approach so far has been to create counterpoint melodies that fit with the original melody. This is partly because, as I have been working on this alone, providing accompaniment requires me to record myself and then play along with the recording. It is difficult to play chords on the qin, and I have no experience with the art of heterophonic playing.

I will now discuss two examples.

Blues melody #1: China Scholar Blues

See Appendix 1, a transcription of China Scholar Blues, Section 1.

For China Scholar Blues I took a variety of qin music motifs and tried to put them in a 12-bar blues structure. However, when I then added lyrics the result was 13-bar. The melody uses the raised-fifth string tuning.14 The main note is the open fourth string (la or 6), and the secondary note is the open seventh string (mi or 3). This makes the mode rather similar to the Western minor mode, and thus is an example of minor blues.

The lyrics concern the traditional Chinese scholar studying to pass the imperial examinations.

I've got the China Scholar Blues, worried about my future.
Learn this, forget that, so it goes. What a life to choose, sir!
Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing: names, places, dates memorizing;
Yi Jing, Dao De Jing, Shi Jing, Ana-lects, Art of War comprehending.
All this, just to pass an exam where success means they're likely to send you.
To some remote awful place, with dull matters to attend to.

These certainly are not typical blues lyrics, and I am in no way a lyricist, but they do summarize some feelings people have about studying classical Chinese culture. I have played this melody several times for university classes. If it is a music class, the students don't usually understand the lyrics at all. Students in a Chinese culture class seem to appreciate it more.

Having created this melody, I then wrote three more melodies, each of which can be played together with the first melody. Here is the second verse, with the original melody on top and the counterpoint melody underneath.

Recently an English friend took this sound track and made an arrangement for guitar and harmonica. This is an example of chordal or harmonic accompaniment.15 (Play recording)

Blues melody #2: Lovebird Blues

See Appendix 2, a transcription of Lovebird Blues, Verse 1 (in two sections)

To create this melody I started with my note-for-note reconstruction of the traditional qin melody Wenjun Cao, as preserved in Fengxuan Xuanpin (1539),16 This melody is strongly centered on I and V. It has two sections, each here arranged as a 12-bar blues melody. To make it fit this structure I had to add two phrases in each of the two sections.

My transcription of the first verse, containing the basic blues melodies puts the additions in brackets. An examination of this transcription shows precisely the relationship between the original melody and the doubled 12-bar blues version. Some of the lyrics were repeated, but these repeats do not always correspond with the melodic additions.

For the second verse of Lovebird Blues I again wrote an accompanying melody in counterpoint. I then added a third verse re-doing the two basic melodies with a somewhat different rhythm (beginning on the beat instead of the upbeat). For the fourth verse I re-did the counterpoint melody to go on the beat instead of the upbeat.


In addition to the four melodies mentioned here (the above two plus Gufeng Cao and Zhi Zhao Fei), I have also created several more using this structure, but have not yet developed them as much as these four. I have enjoyed very much playing along with my recordings of these melodies, and think this structure has a lot of potential for making interesting music.

However, I have not yet found anyone with whom to play any of these. Doing this properly requires not just sitting down once or twice and experimenting, but playing together many times so that a sort of dialogue can be formed. And since I also enjoy very much what I normally do, i.e., reconstruct and play ancient melodies, it will probably take some further outside impetus to get me to focus more on the blues.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Silkqin Blues
"Blues" (see Wikipedia article) in Chinese is also written phonetically as 布魯士 , with "12-bar blues" translated as "十二小節布魯斯 shi'er xiaojie bu-lu-shi". Another possible term in Chinese is 哀歌 ai ge ("sad song"); ai ge may be more descriptive of the mood, but does not suggest the traditional 12-bar structure. As this type of music becomes more well-known in China the term 藍調 landiao (literally "blue melody") is apparently becoming more prevalent. Here the word "silkqin" is used to emphasize that in my music I use only qins with silk strings; in China almost everyone uses the new metal/nylon string qins. It may well be that for playing this music with other instruments I may have to switch to metal/nylon, as it is much easier to amplify than silk. (Return)

2. Silk string qin with piezo pickup
The instrument is a standard modern guqin made in the 1990s by Tong Kin-Woon; the strings are silk. The pickup, made by Rick Turner, was added by Paul Hostetter, a luthier near Santa Clara, California. He embedded the black vinyl strip with the pickup in the top of the bridge, raising it slightly, with the electronics in the body behind the bridge, covered underneath by a metal plate.

The instrument has a good sound acoustically and in some circumstances this can be amplified with an external microphone. However, it is difficult to play together with other loud instruments as a mic in front of the qin will pick up the sound of the other instruments better than it will the quiet sound of the qin in front of it. The piezo pickup can make the qin as loud as the amplification system allows, but it gives a completely clean sound devoid of guqin color. Occasionally I have been able to balance this by using the two systems together.

3. Improvisation
In this article I will use the terms "free improvisation" and "structured improvisation". It should be emphasized, though, that these are two extremes that can never completely be achieved. Completely structured would mean the music is no longer improvised. Completely free would mean the musician has forgotton everything. The difference between the two is discussed in an article by 李祥霆 Li Xiangting entitled 古琴即興演奏藝術 Guqin jixing yanzou yishu (translated as "A Study on the Extemporizing Performance Art of Qin"). The article is included in his recording 唐人詩意, the English title of which is Collection of Extemporizing Works of Qin and Xiao (POLO NMS-10021-2; Beijing, Poloarts, 2002). Li's own improvisition tends to be very free. My improvisation aims to be more structured.

4. Tentative translations are 文人濫調 China Scholar Blues and 鳳凰濫調 Lovebird Blues. Recordings of these and others are on my website, linked from http://www.silkqin.com/06hear/new.htm.

5. Deep emotional content in qin music
This statement obviously goes counter to the traditional expression, 琴禁也 "Qin stands for restraint." However, an examination of the qin repertoire clearly indicates melodies with strong emotional content, and from early times qin music was praised when it was 悲 bei. This word bei, though often translated simply as "sadness", could also refer to the emotion one felt when something was so beautiful that it brought tears to the eyes. My understanding of this meaning for bei comes from an article by the American professor 艾朗諾 Ronald Egan, "The Controversy over Music and 'Sadness' and Changing Conceptions the Qin in Middle Period China" (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 57, #1, June 1997, pp.5-66). This is discussed further under Mozi Bei Ge.

6. For more on heterophony see online resources such as the article in Wikipedia.

7. In addition, during the 20th century the improvisational aspects of traditional Chinese music gradually became weaker. Since the 1920s, when the first Chinese orchestras were formed by taking traditional Chinese ensembles and patterning them after the Western orchestra, and particularly in the 1950s, when Russian advisors were dominant in Chinese conservatories, much of the traditional improvisational skill was lost; it was not regained when the Russians departed. In conservatories today the emphasis seems to remain on composed music. I have met a number of Western jazz musicians who have become frustrated trying to work with conservatory-trained Chinese musicians who cannot improvise. The exposure of Chinese music students to Western music is mostly confined to 19th century music and pop music. If Chinese conservatories began teaching jazz, perhaps there would be a renewed interest in the Chinese tradition of improvisation.

8. The classical musics of a number of Asian cultures, including Arab, Turkish, Iranian and Indian, are based on improvisation within known structures, and the most common form of East-West improvisational music is between Indian and Western music. Classical Indian music is structured into ragas and talas. The raga determines which notes can be used and also defines a number of note patterns. The tala is the rhythmic structure. A basic understanding of ragas and talas allows non-Indian musicians to improvise together with classically trained Indian musicians.

9. Inspiration
More specifically, in 1994 I was offered a recording contract from a producer inspired in part by the affinity he felt between the qin melodies I sent him (we didn't agree on terms, but the music became the CD Music Beyond Sound) and one-string blues as he had heard them. Then in 1997, when I met guitarist John McLaughlin after a concert in Hong Kong, I asked him whether he had ever considered working with Chinese musicians (I was then arranging programs for the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts). He said he could easily work with traditional Indian musicians because of the rhythmic (tala) and melodic (raga) structures in their music. He knew of no such structures in Chinese music.

10. A general discussion of music theory is beyond the scope of this paper. The main terms used here will be "tonic", "dominant" and "sub-dominant". Briefly speaking, Western music analysis shows that melodies usually end on the main note, or on a chord based on that note. This note is the tonic, indicated by the Roman numeral I. When tonal centers change, they usually go up a fifth, to the dominant (V), or down a fifth to the sub-dominant (IV). In the Western major mode I is usually the relative pitch do within the diatonic scale do re mi fa so la ti Do, in Chinese usually written 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 . Do and "1" are often said to be the same as "C", but in fact they can have any pitch.

11. My analysis of Ming dynasty modal structure is on my website (http://www.silkqin.com/08anal/mode.htm).

12. By "problems" I am referring to two factors. One is that idiomatically I am used to playing the traditional notes on the qin, so it is harder to remember the finger placements for unusual notes. The other factor, not necessarily a problem, is the apparent fact that melodies using the major blues structure sound less like traditional Chinese music. This may cause additional problems when playing with traditional Chinese musicians.

13. My first blues composition was China Scholar Blues, discussed further below. For that I took a variety of qin music motifs and tried to put them in a 12-bar blues structure. However, when I then added lyrics the result was 13-bar sections. This done, I took a some actual melodies I had reconstructed, 古風操 Gufeng Cao and 雉朝飛 Zhi Zhao Fei (both from 神奇秘譜 Shen Qi Mi Pu, 1425), and altered their melodies to fit the 12-bar blues structure. The mode of the original melodies is 6 - 3, and when I played my new arrangements for some Chinese friends they did not realize that these were not old qin melodies. However, when I next did 文君操 Wen Jun Cao (based on a melody originally in 風宣玄品 Fengxuan Xuanpin, 1539), the original of which is in a 1 - 5 mode, the result was music that was more clearly outside the early qin modes, not to mention traditional Chinese music as known today.

14. From standard tuning (in which the seven strings have the relative tuning 1 2 4 5 6 1 2) raise the fifth string half a tone, giving 1 2 4 5 7 1 2. Since the fifth string is played as the main note, this is transposed to 2 3 5 6 1 2 3.

15. The friend, Stephen Darbyshire, lives in England. He took the sound track off my website, then added guitar and harmonica.

16. Introduced on my website; see Wenjun Melody.

Appendix One: China Scholar Blues, Section 2 (also as .pdf: appendix 1) (return)

Return to China Scholar Blues commentary

Appendix Two: Lovebird Blues, Page 1 (also as .pdf: appendix 2) (return)

Return to Lovebird Blues commentary


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