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Qin Tunings, Some

Theoretical Concepts

With Special Reference to Shen Qi Mi Pu


Introduction2
This article covers some theoretical concepts and mathematical calculations. For basic
qin tuning none of this is necessary. One just follows instructions such as those given
under Tuning a Qin. However, it is also interesting to consider the theoretical
possibilities of various systems of musical tuning (temperaments).
The three most commen tuning systems are:
1. Pythagorean tuning (sanfen sunyi: cycle of fifth tuning; compare meantone
tuning);
2. Just intonation tuning;
3. Equal temperament tuning.
Pythagorean tuning was clearly the standard for tuning the qin, but it seems most likely
that notes actually played did not strictly follow this system: if nothing else, the
common tendency to bend notes is evidence for this. Meanwhile, just intonation tuning
was also clearly used, most specifically in harmonics played at the 3rd, 6th, 8th or 11th
hui, something generally avoided in pieces developed during the Qing dynasty. As for
equal temperament, although it seems likely that it was first theorized by Zhu Zaiyu, a
prince who lived 1536 - ca. 1610, there is no evidence for its use in pre-modern Chinese
music, let alone qin music. Specific mathematical differences between these three are
discussed below in Comparing different tuning systems; the systems primarily
considered for qin tuning, Pythagorean and just intonation, are compared in a footnote.
Qin music today is largely pentatonic. And although SQMP is flavored with many other
notes, its music still remains pentatonic at its core. Western and Chinese pentatonic
scales are basically the same, as they are both the first five notes generated by going
through the cycle of fifths (do so re la mi):
Table 1: Pentatonic scale

1. Numbers

1'

2'

3'

5'

6'

1"

2. Names

Zhi

Yu

gong

shang

jiao

zhi

yu

gong'

shang'

jiao'

zhi'

yu'

gong"

3. Solfeggio

So

La

do

re

mi

so

la

do'

re'

mi'

so'

la'

do"

4. Letters

c'

d'

e'

g'

a'

c"

The first two lines use Chinese terminology, the other two use Western; the first three
give relative pitch relationships, the fourth implies absolute pitch, a common standard
for today's a' above c' (middle c) being 440 vibrations per second (see details). Qin
music is written in tablature (finger positions and stroke techniques), and the tuning

varies, so my own transcriptions into staff notation maintain this sense of relativity.
Thus, although on my recording Music Beyond Sound the first string is consistently
tuned to about 58 vib/sec (approximately the Western A# two octaves below middle c),
this is variously considered as Do, Re and So (depending on the mode), and my
transcriptions notate it as C, D or G. Since the range of the qin is more than four
octaves, making the lowest note two octaves below c this the only way to include all the
notes without the addition of a lot of octave-change markings. And writing the music
with c meaning do (rather than absolute pitch) means there are fewer accidentals in the
transcription than there would be from any other method.
The qin (see illustration under Tuning a Qin) has seven strings, with the standard tuning
being 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 , often played as 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 . The first string, with the lowest pitch,
is the one furthest from the player; with silk strings it is often tuned to slightly above A
= 55 vib/sec. Thus the note names in the charts and transcriptions, it must again be
emphasized, indicate relative pitch only. The actual tuning depends on such variables as
the size of the instrument and the consequent string length (varying from about 40 to
45" [100 to 115 cm]); the quality of the strings; and the climate where the instrument is
played. With metal strings the tuning can be higher without the strings breaking.
Harmonics and the positioning of studs on a qin
The qin is marked with 13 hui (inlaid studs, usually flat) running along the far side of
the first string and marking the harmonic nodes: when harmonics are played the string
must vibrate on both sides of the place where the left hand lightly touches the string,
which means a clear harmonic sound can be gained only if the ratio of the vibrating
length of the string on one side of the finger to that of the vibrating length on the other
side is a simple fraction. Thus the divisions are in half (1/2), half again (1/4 and 3/4),
then half again (1/8, 7/8 -- 3/8 and 5/8 are omitted); in thirds (1/3 and 2/3), then this is
halved (1/6, 5/6); and finally in fifths (1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 4/5).
The following chart shows the relative positions of the studs on the qin as the player
faces the instrument. The fractions show the ratio of the string length plucked by the
right hand (i.e., right of where the left hand touches the string) to the whole string
length. The fractions are then shown divided into 120, to indicate more clearly their
relative distances from each other (if the string were 120 cm long, the first stud would
be at 15 cm, etc). The next row shows the resulting number of vibrations per second if a
harmonic is played in these positions on a string with a basic (i.e., open string)
resonance of 80 vib/sec; and the final row shows the equivalent note with 80 vib/sec
taken as do (arbitrarily selected to simplify the letters and numbers, but quite close to
what I use for my third string):
Table 2: Relative positions of studs on the qin
Stud number:

open

13

12

11

10

Fraction of string:

7/8

5/6

4/5

3/4

2/3

3/5

1/2

2/5

1/3

1/4

1/

Division into 120:

120

105

100

96

90

80

72

60

48

40

30

Vibrating Frequency:

80

640

480

400

320

240

400

160

400

240

320

40

Relative note equivalent:

Do

do"

so'

mi'

do'

so

mi'

do

mi'

so

do'

1. Comparing different tuning systems


The basic tuning systems are Pythagorean, just intonation and equal temperament. As a
preface to the following comments, here is a comparison of these three standard note
relationships in terms of vibrations as well as fractions.
A. Pythagorean note relationships
These relationships can now be used to generate notes according to what is
usually called in English the Pythagorean system, which derives notes based on
the cycle of fifths: the fifths interval results from the ratio of three over two, and
the octave interval from two over one.
The cycle of fifths derives notes as follows (take x vib/sec = 1 , then multiply by
3/2):
1 (do) -- 3/2 (so) -- 9/4 (re') -- 27/8 (la') -- 81/16 (mi")
Bringing these within one octave by halving them whenever necessary changes
this to:
1 (do) -- 3/2 (so) -- 9/8 (re) -- 27/16 (la) -- 81/64 (mi)
Ordering these in ascending sequence, gives:
1 (do) -- 9/8 (re) -- 81/64 (mi) -- 3/2 (so) -- 27/16 (la)
To extend the system downward two notes, divide sol and la by 1/2, thus
lowering them each an octave. This gives the following seven note sequence,
which is the standard qin tuning:
3/4 (So) -- 27/32 (La) -- 1 (do) -- 9/8 (re) -- 81/64 (mi) -- 3/2 (so) -27/16 (la)
If do' is 320 vibrations per second (Western d'#), the figures for this sequence
are:
240 (So) -- 270 (La) -- 320 (do) -- 360 (re) -- 405 (mi) -- 480 (so) -- 540
(la)
This same result can be achieved by the Chinese sanfen sunyi sequence (see
relevant footnote)
B. Just intonation
Harmonic notes played at the third, sixth, eighth and 11th positions express mi
by a simpler fraction: 5/4 (see Table 2: mi'/do' = 400/320 = 80/64 = 5/4). If la is
a fifth above this (5/3, from 5/4 x 4/3, which is 80/48 instead of 81/48) the
resulting scale is said to use just intonation. The above seven note pentatonic
sequence is then:
3/4 (So) -- 5/6 (La) -- 1 (do) -- 9/8 (re) -- 5/4 (mi) -- 3/2 (so) -- 5/3 (la)
If do' is again 320 vibrations per second, the figures for this pentatonic sequence
are:

240 (So) -- 266 2/3 (La) -- 320 (do) -- 360 (re) -- 400 (mi) -- 480 (so) -533 1/3 (la)
C. Equal temperament
The twelve notes of the scale can also be organized into equal temperament
tuning, by which all 12 semitones in an octave are generated using a logarithm,
making them equidistant. The earliest known publication of this system was by
Zhu Zaiyu in 1584, but it was in the West over the next several centuries that it
was incorporated into the tuning of music instruments. Equal temperament
semitones are measured as 100 cents, so the three relevant pentatonic scales are
as follows:
Table 3: Comparing intervals in the three tuning systems
Do

Re

Mi

So

La

Pythagorean system

204

204

294

204

294

-- from Do

204

408

702

906

1200

Just intonation

204

182

316

182

316

-- from Do

204

386

702

884

1200

Equal temperament

200

200

300

200

300

-- from Do

200

400

700

900

1200

Equal temperament was never used on the qin: it is mentioned here by way of
introducing cents. Also of note is the comma, which is the difference between a
Pythagorean third and a just intonation third, typically 22 cents.
2. Tuning the qin
The standard method of tuning the qin leads naturally to the Pythagorean note ratios.
The first step is usually to make the harmonic played on middle of the seventh string
have the same pitch as the harmonic played on the 9th (or 5th) position of the fourth
string. There is some disagreement about which note to change if the resulting notes are
not the same. With good strings in a constant low humidity the strings hold their tuning
quite well. In this case when re-tuning you might re-tune the top string first because its
pitch is most likely to have changed since the last tuning. However, when the weather
becomes more humid it is usually the thicker strings which change the most.
The following chart may give the impression that the starting place for generating the
tuning of the seven strings is the third string, since that is given the ratio 1/1. This is
simply done for ease of comparison and doesn't affect the relative relations. The chart
also shows the first string tuned to 60 vib/sec, perhaps suggesting absolute pitch. Again
it must be emphasized that it does not seem to have been part of the tradition to begin
this sequence by testing against an absolute pitch (see further comment on Absolute
pitch).
The full sequence for standard tuning is explained below, after the chart.
Table 4: Standard tuning (1st string played as sol; if A=440, the actual pitch is
between B flat and B)

- note for line 5: 101 is actually 101.25; 506 is 506.25; and 304 is 303.75
String/pitch/fraction of do

11

10

60

300

240

180

120

re'

so'

67.5

337.5

270

202.5

135

mi'

la'

3. (do [ 1 ]) = 1 (64/64)

80

400

320

240

160

so'

do"

4. (re [ 2 ]) = 9/8 (72/64)

90

450

360

270

180

la'

re"

5. (mi [ 3 ]) = 81/64 (81/64)

101

506

405

304

202.5

ti'

mi"

6. (so [ 5 ]) = 3/2 (96/64)

120

600

480

360

240

re"

so"

7. (la [ 6 ]) = 27/16 (108/64)

135

675

540

405

270

mi"

la"

1. (So [5]) = 3/4 (48/64)


2. (LA [6]) = 27/32 (54/64)

open

13

12

Intervals in cents:
From each other:
204-294-204-204-294-204
from So:
204-498-702-906-1200-1404
A harmonic at the ninth position is a fifth interval above one at the seventh position
(row 7: 405/270 = 3/2), and the 10th position is a fourth interval above the ninth
position (540/405 = 4/3 [down a fifth then up an octave is 2/3 x 2]). So harmonics at the
seventh, ninth and 10th positions (or their mirrors at the fifth and fourth positions) can
be used to determine string tuning precisely according to the Pythagorean note
relationships:
1. Seventh position on seventh string equals ninth position on fourth string,
so the fourth string must be a fifth lower than the seventh string.
2. Ninth position on seventh string equals 10th position on fifth string,
so the fifth string must be a fourth lower than the seventh string.
3. Ninth position on sixth string equals 10th position on fourth string,
so the sixth string must be a fourth higher than the seventh string.
4. Seventh position on sixth string equals ninth position on third string,
so the third string must be a fifth lower than the sixth string.
5. Seventh position on fifth string equals ninth position on second string,
so the second string must be a fifth lower than the fifth string.
6. Seventh position on fourth string equals ninth position on first string.
so the first string must be a fifth lower than the fourth string.
Various other equivalencies between strings can then be used to check the tuning.
3. Incorporating just intonation intervals
Today harmonics at the just intonation studs (third, sixth, eighth and 11th) are avoided
because of the dissonances which result when the Pythagorean and just intonation
systems clash, but early qin music often uses harmonics in these positions. The Shen Qi
Mi Pu piece Yi Lan (Flourishing Orchid), for example, actually begins with the apparent
dissonance of (see Table 4) the 11th position on the first string [300 vib/sec] followed

by the ninth position on the fifth string [303.75 vib/sec]). Although Table 4 has the first
string as 5 (sol), since Yi Lan is in shang mode the first string is considered as 1 (do),
and this is the main note in this mode. Thus 300Hz is a just intonation third over the
main note, the latter is a Pythagorean third over the main note. How does one account
for this?
When I first encountered such dissonances in my reconstructions I tried to see if they
could be avoided by re-tuning the qin. The problem was that removing a dissonance in
one place always brought a different one elsewhere. An account of such efforts is in a
section called Problems with just intonation tuning, with especial reference to SQMP.
To sum up what is in the linked article, I have not yet found any qin pieces, except
perhaps very short ones, in which I can use a form of just intonation tuning to avoid
dissonances caused by harmonics played at the just intonation studs. This is not to say
that such tuning was never used, only that I haven't found that in any one piece it
succeeds in making all the sorts of harmonic note pairs described above (plus open
strings) match. My own feeling is that, after in some cases making minor tuning
adjustments so that clashes are minimized, these dissonances are really an interesting
coloration of the sound
4. Indicating the pitch of stopped sounds: comparing the old and new systems
The present decimal system (see row New below), in use since the 17th century (see its
origins), can indicate finger positions with mathematical precision: 7.6 and 7.9 mean
respectively 6/10 and 9/10 of the distance between the 7th and 8th positions (hui). In
theory this system can be used to indicate very precise tonal differences, e.g., 10.7 for a
slightly sharpened E.
Since there is no indication in the literature or the tablature itself that this sort of
precision was ever needed, the system used in SQMP (row Old) was in theory just as
precise as the contemporary one. Thus the decimal position 7.6 was in SQMP almost
always written 7 8, meaning "the correct place between the 7th and 8th positions"; 7.9
was rounded off to 8; and 7.3 was written 7-. When SQMP deviated from this system,
using values found in row Alt., it was usually on slides (see explanation below the chart,
since I could not fit all the various Alt figures within that one row).
Other early handbooks may be less precise. In particular, Zheyin Shizi Qinpu, although
in pieces copied from SQMP it also follows that system, in pieces not in SQMP it
normally used the values in row Alt., which can lead to much confusion. Thus, in
pieces, or versions of pieces, occurring for the first time in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu, 7.6 may
be written as 7 8, but it is more likely to be 8+ (above 8), 7 1/2, or even 7- (below 7),
with perhaps all three occurring on the same page.
Table 5: Standard positions on a qin string tuned to C (items marked * have
comments in the notes)
C

C#

D#

F#

G#

A#

c#

d#

New 0 (13.9*) (13.5*) wai* 12.3 10.8 10 9.4

8.5 7.9 7.6 7.3

6.7 6.4 6.2 5.9 5.6

Old 0 (wai*) wai* wai* 12


Alt

11

10

13*

->

f#

g#

->

5.3

->

5-

->

5-6

a#

910

8-9

9-*

d'#

7-* 7-8

6-7 6-*

6+ 5-*

g'#

b'

c"

4.8 4.6 4.4 4.2

3.7 3.4 3.2 2.9 2.6 2.3

1.8 1.6 1.4 1.2

5+ 4-5 4-5

4+ 3-4

2+ 1-2 1-2

2-3

2-

a'

6
a'#

5-6

g'

f'

f'#

3-

e'

7+ 6-7 6-

c'#

4-

d'

8-*

7-8 7-

c'

4-* 4-*

1-

Notes:
1. in the modern repertoire wai is always 13.1; old handbooks usually call 13.1
wai, but may also call it 13, then use wai for 13.5 and even 13.9; but there is no
consistency, so this is somewhat speculative. Sometimes a distinction between
13 and wai seems to occur in passages at 13.1 over several strings, with notes
played by the 3rd finger using 13 and those by the 4th finger using wai. Could
this be an example of a transcriber who may not have known about temperament
or "correct" positions giving his impression of where the player seemed to put
his fingers?
2. "9-10" = "between 9 and 10" (9, 10 jian); likewise for "8-9", "7-8", "6-7", "5-6",
and "4-5". SQMP quite consistently uses these Old positions as indicated, but
other early handbooks (Zheyin in particular), generally use an Alternate figure,
only one example of which is given in row Alt. Thus, in addition to expressing
the modern 9.4 as "9-" (below 9, or 9 xia), it also indiscriminately uses "10+"
(above 10, or 10 shang) and "9 1/2" (half 9, or 9 ban), all to mean this same
position. The same variants are available for all the other "belows" on this line.
Sometimes 8+ is even used for New position 7.9.
3. All these three alternatives (as well as the Old figures) can also be found for
positions between 8 and 9, 7 and 8, 6 and 7, 5 and 6 and 4 and 5.
4. Positions higher than 4.0 are extremely rare, except when playing harmonics.
5. Although SQMP is generally rather consistent about using the Old system, see,
for example, Gao Shan, measure 33 of my SQMP transcription, where 8+ clearly
means 7.9, but plain 8 is used for 7.9 in the rest of the piece.
6. "7-" = "below (i.e., to the left of) 7" (7 xia);
7. "7+" = "above (i.e., to the right of) 7" (7 shang);
8. Ban (half), is particularly popular with sliding sounds. For example, pieces in
which the modern 7.6 is written as 7-8 for fixed positions will often for slides
write 7 ban.
9. It is perhaps the inconsistent usage of the Old and Alt systems which led to the
change from the potentially precise Old system to the more potentially precise
New decimal system.

Assuming this table refers to the 3rd string, tuned to C, and that the 4th string is D, then
G is 9.0 on the 3rd string, 10.0 on the 4th. Using the "now" figures, 10.8 on the 3rd
string is Pythagorean E. If, as in the article Problems with just intonation tuning, Table
4, the 3rd string is tightened so that the harmonic at 11 becomes the Pythagorean E, then
the stopped G on the 3rd string must be adjusted down to about 9.1 or 9.2 to give the
same note as stopped G (10.0) on the 4th string. The modern system in theory has the
precision to indicate this, but not the old system: "above" and "below" were almost
exclusively reserved to indicate half tones, not commas.
In addition, the apparent precision of any of these systems can be somewhat misleading.
For example, in actual play if you sound the octave harmonic by lightly touching the 7th
position (7.0), then right away push the finger down to form a stopped sound you will
find that the pitch is slightly sharp, the degree of sharpness varying with the height of
the bridge and the tension of the strings. Thus, it would be very confusing if the persons
writing the tablature judged finger positions by eye rather according to theory. Although
that was generally not done, my experience is that corrections to tablature may have
occasionally been done by eye, sometimes leading to confusion.
5. Influence of the transcription process on tuning
Did qin tablature describe the way someone played a piece or prescribe the way one
ought to play it? The apparent precision of writing 7.9 to indicate a position implies a
somewhat idealized prescription because, for the reason given in the previous
paragraph, the actual stopped position is usually somewhere between 7.9 and 8.0.
Traditionally one didn't learn a piece from tablature, one learned from a teacher, perhaps
referring to the tablature when the teacher wasn't present. Since melodies are more
easily remembered than finger strokes and positions, the function of the tablature was to
remind the player of certain details, not to directly indicate a melody.
As for the Pythagorean versus the just intonation third, although the position 10.8 may
imply a precise Pythagorean third, the position one actually plays is usually closer to
10.9, and so the old 11 is not in turn a precise indication of the just intonation third. At
the 11th position the difference is usually very small, but at the 6th position, where 6.0
should be the just intonation third and 5.9 the Pythagorean third, on an instrument with
a relatively high bridge or using somewhat tight stringing the actual position to achieve
a Pythagorean third may even be as low (to the left) as 6.1.
Old qin tablature is generally thought to depict the actual performance of a piece by a
master. Either the initial transcriber might indicate, or a later editor might revise, a
position based on where they played the note on their own instrument rather than on the
theoretically correct positions. This also brings up two other issues: qin construction and
the origin of the melodies.
Qin makers did not always succeed in placing the studs precisely in accord with the
harmonic divisions. A transcriber or editor making reference to a qin with studs placed
imprecisely might give a position that was only correct on this particular instrument.
And an editor in particular might make a change in one part of a document without
making sure it was consistent with the other parts.

Some qin music originates with a qin player him- or herself, some was adapted from
melodies already in existence. Someone adapting (or creating) a melody might find that
only a tuning which includes some dissonances would allow the melody to be set to the
qin. Efforts might then be made at the sorts of re-tuning described above -- with the
same problems -- but the results published anyway. To understand this fully one should
see if a melody like Yilan can "improved" by playing it in a way which avoids
harmonics at the just intonation studs.
6. Standard and non-standard qin tuning
"Standard" tuning is 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 (also considered as 1 2 4 5 6 1 2 ) regardless of
whether it is Pythagorean or just intonation. "Non-standard" tunings are derived by
altering the tuning of one or more strings by a half tone, except in manshang mode,
which lowers the second string a whole tone.
Today almost all qin pieces use standard tuning, the main exceptions being two
melodies that use ruibin tuning, in which the fifth string is raised a half tone. In
constrast, early qin music had a great variety of different tunings. For example, Shen Qi
Mi Pu (1425) used seven non-standard tunings, Xilutang Qintong (1525) used thirteen.
The qin tunings found in Shen Qi Mi Pu are outlined in a chart at the top of Modality in
Early Ming Qin Tablature. Xilutang Qintong tunings are outlined in a separate chart.
7. Conclusions
The above discussion has concerned tuning, not mode. In SQMP the word diao is used
for both, and writers are not always clear in their distinction between the two. For
standard tuning there are different modes, distinguished by their main and secondary
notes. In SQMP non-standard tunings seem also to define the mode (with the exception
stated for huangzhong). In some other Ming dynasty handbooks more than one mode
seems available for some non-standard tunings.
On the issue of the Pythagorean system versus just intonation tuning one must keep in
mind the distinction between qin tuning and qin play. Did a player who tuned the qin
according to just intonation or the Pythagorean system use these intervals consistently
throughout the piece? The old way of transcribing qin music does not have the precision
to delineate this, and there are no classical writings I know of directly addressing this
issue. In addition I don't know of any modern studies done to determine if modern qin
players, in addition to using Pythagorean tuning, also generally follow Pythagorean
intervals throughout.
As a qin player whose repertoire is almost exclusively my own reconstructions from
15th and 16th century handbooks (about 120 melodies so far) I have not waited for
definite answers on either tuning or intonation before proceeding, instead proceeding
according to my own assumptions. (See Historically Informed Qin Performance for a
discussion of my approach: trying to copy my "teachers" [the tablatures] as faithfully as
possible, making conscious changes only after recording my understanding of their
music.)

My relevant assumption here has been that tuning followed the Pythagorean system
with perhaps slight adjustments if an interval played at the just intonation studs was too
harsh. I appreciate most of these sounds for their special color, though I also think they
sometimes may have resulted from music being transferred from other instruments
without regard to the resulting dissonances.
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)
1. This page concerns mathematical relationships between positions on the seven qin
strings. Basically it explains why the tuning methods () described under
Tuning a qin result in the desired relative tuning ().
2. Background: Modern standard note frequencies in Hertz (Hz [= vib/sec])
Note the following approximate modern concert pitch levels of a chromatic scale
beginning one octave below A = 440 Hz. Some qin players today insist that the first
(lowest) string on a qin should be tuned to this modern concert C (262 Hz on this chart).
However, there is no historical evidence to support this claim.
Pitch A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
Hertz 220 233 247 262 277 294 311 330 349 370 392 415 440
In standard tuning I generally tune my lowest string to between modern A# and B. This
is about as high as they can be tuned without causing the strings regularly to break. With
silk strings this can be a bit higher when the humidity is low; strings break more easily
in high humidity, especially when the humidity is constantly changing. The actual pitch
also depends on the quality of the silk strings, but often the first string has a pitch of
around 60 Hz, which lies between the modern A sharp and B. 60 Hz is also a figure
convenient for the discussion here. This makes the sixth string 120 Hz and the harmonic
played on the seventh position (another octave higher) 240 Hz.
On a separate page there is some discussion of how this affects playing with other
instruments.
(Return)
3. "Sanfen sunyi" method compared to "Pythagorean" method

Sanfen sunyi literally means "thirds-divide subtract-add"; the Pythagorean method is


also called the "cycle of fifths method". However, both of these systems are based on
the same mathematical relationships: 2/1 for the octave and 3/2 for the fifth interval; and
both seem to give the same overall results. The mathematical relationships themselves
can be considered in terms either of frequency (vibrations per second) or of wave
length: the results are reversed (2/1 gives an octave higher, 1/2 gives an octave lower),
giving in one case ascending pitch and the other descending, but the relations remain the
same. As will be seen below, there might also be differences in starting point, but in
practical terms once again the results are the same.
The earliest statement of sanfen sunyi is said to be the following from the book of
Guanzi, Chapter 58 (it follows a discussion of ">note associations; translation from W.
Allyn Rickett, Guanzi; Princeton U. Press, p. 263):

To create the sounds of the five-note scale, first take the primary unit and multiply it by
three. Carried out four times, this will amount to a combination of nine times nine (or
eighty-one), thereby establishing the pitch of the huang zhong () tube in the
lesser su scale and its gong note. Adding one-third (27) to make 108 creates the
zhi note. Subtracting one-third (36) results in the appropriate number (72) for producing
the shang note. Adding one-third (24) is the means to achieve the yu note (96).
Subtracting one-third (32) results in the appropriate number (64) for achieving the jiao
note.
This can be summarized as follows:
81=gong, 108=zhi, 72=shang, 96=yu, 64=jiao.
Two things should be pointed out about this derivation. One is that it is generally
considered to be a later insert into the original book; the other is that it begins its
calculations with yi (add), not sun. A similar calculation by sunyi instead of yisun can be
summarized as follows:
81=gong, 54=zhi, 64=jiao, 72=shang, 48=yu.
The only real difference between these two is that in the first one gong is the middle
pitch of the series, in the latter one gong is the lowest (i.e., longest in wave length).
Another way of stating this sanfen sunyi sequence is by practions, as follows:
1 x 2/3 = 2/3; x 4/3 = 8/9; x 2/3 = 16/27; x 4/3 = 64/81
Multiplying this sequence (1 -- 2/3 -- 8/9 -- 16/27 -- 64/81) by 405 gives:
405 - 270 -- 360 -- 240 -- 320
Rearranging this in ascending order gives:
240 -- 270 -- 320 -- 360 -- 405
which is identical to the first five notes of the sequence resulting from the Pythagorean
calculations, summarized in Section 1.A. by giving the following sequence, based on do
being 320 vibrations per second (approximately Western d#):
240 (So) -- 270 (La) -- 320 (do) -- 360 (re) -- 405 (mi) -- 480 (so) -- 540 (la)
In sum, whichever way pitch is analyzed, "Pythagorean tuning" (or "cycle
of fifth tuning") seems to be no different from sanfen sunyi. Some aspects of the
processes used may be a bit different but the end results seem to be the same. There is
some evidence that the Chinese were aware of note derivation through the cycle of fifths
earlier than was the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (6th. BCE). Perhaps this is one
reason that some analysts of Chinese music do not like to use the term "Pythagorean
tuning". It is not clear to me on what basis some people claim that the two systems give
different results.
For a Chinese comparison of sanfen sunyi with Pythagorean tunings see
. The sanfen sunyi calculations for note origins are said to date back
at least to book of Guanzi , Chapter 58:

There is a complete translation of Guanzi by W. Allyn Rickett, Princeton University


Press.
(Return)
4. Meantone tuning (sometimes written "mean tone"; )
Another tuning system, often used in early Western music, follows what is called
meantone temperament (), in particular quarter-comma meantone. This and
the other tunings described here all try to resolve the tuning/intonation problems that
occur when playing harmonic or polyphonic music. As a soloist who in the traditional
repertoire would never play more than two notes simultaneously, the qin player did not
usually have to deal with such issues.
(Return)
5. Just intonation tuning ()
For just intonation (sometimes also called natural tuning) the Chinese term is
chunl ("pure tones"). Section 1.B. outlines its basics.
(Return)
6. Equal temperament tuning ()
"Equal temperament" is translated literally, pinjun l or shi'er
pingjun l. Equal temperament, though apparently discovered by the Ming prince Zhu
Zaiyu, was never used on the qin. However, Section 1.C. has some explanation.
(Return)
7. Actual intonation used in early qin melodies
If one compares the old and new systems, it is easy to see that the lack of precision in
the old system would have prevented precise indications of mictrotones; on the other
hand, until modern times there seems to have been nothing written about the potential
for the decimal system to indicate microtones. Thus Tse Chun Yan's analysis of variant
intonations, as with my own comments, must depend exclusively on examining the
tablature itself, not on reading theoretical documents.
(Return)
8. Differences between Pythagorean and just intonation tuning
The following chart shows the mathematical differences between notes organized
according to the Pythagorean relations and according to just intonation; as mentioned
above, equal temperament was not used on the qin. Do (1) can be any note; the number
of vibrations per second (v/s) of any note on the chart is then the number resulting from
multiplying the number of v/s for do by the fraction indicated. The Adjustments row
shows how much mi, la and ti are lowered to give the simpler fractions of just
intonation.
Note
Pythagorean

Do

Re

Mi

Fa

Sol

La

Ti

Do'

9/8

81/64

4/3

3/2

27/16
(81/48)

243/128

80/48

240/128

5/3

15/8

Adjustments
Just Intonation

80/64
1

9/8

5/4

4/3

3/2

Both the Pythorean and just intonation systems reflect the apparent fact that the human
ear finds consonance in sounds which are related to each other by simple mathematical

relationships. The simplest of these are 2/1 and 3/2. The ratio of vibrations per second
necessary to form what we call an octave is 2/1, and for a fifth is 3/2. Thus if A (the
"main note": fundamental note, here called tonic) is 440 vibrations per second (v/s), A'
(A up one octave) will be 880 v/s and E (a fifth higher) will be 660 v/s. B (a fifth higher
than E) will then be 990 v/s; to bring this E back into the octave of A to A' you divide
the vibrations by half, giving 445 v/s.
Related to this, to the human ear the closest sound to, for example, an A is not a G sharp
or B flat but A an octave higher or lower; the next closest sound is a fifth. This may
explain why in both Western music and Chinese music when the tonal center changes it
most often seems to change to the fifth (see the summary chart in the article on mode).
In fact, these intervals seem fundemental to almost all music systems around the word,
the major exceptions perhaps being tuned-percussion ensembles such as those in
Southeast Asia.
The cycle of fifths takes this ratio of tonic to fifth and extends it through the octave.
Thus, if you make C the tonic, then start the cycle at F (a fifth below C), the first seven
notes will appear in the sequence F to C to G to D to A to E to B . Adjusting notes which
have gone outside the octave C to C', and putting them in order, gives for the first five
notes C D E G A, the common pentatonic (five note) scale; adding the last two notes
makes the sequence C D E F G A B, the common heptatonic (seven tone) scale, also
called diatonic because it includes half tones.
The "Pythagorean" line in the chart above gives the relationship of notes derived
through the cycle of fifths. The sequence in Pythogorean order would be as follows
Note

fa

Fa

Do

Sol

Re'

Re

La

Mi'

Mi

Ti

Fractions

2/3

4/3

3/2

9/4

9/8

27/16

81/32

81/64

243/128

As can be seen, some of the fractions are very complex. For this and other reasons the
ratios were changed to the closest simple fractions, as shown on the chart line Just
Intonation. Still later (the Ming dynasty prince Zhu Zaiyu was apparently the first to
work this out) the notes were adjusted so they increased one by one according to a
logarithm which made them equal intervals from each other. In the West this equal
temperament made it possible for large numbers of instruments to play together on
harmonic melodies which often changed key. (See also Comparing different tuning
systems.)
(Return)
9. "Harmonics" and "Overtones"
In both English and Chinese there is some inconsistency in the use of these terms. Thus
in the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (1978) the word "harmonics" has a similar
definition to the one given here, but the word "harmonic" is said to be the same as what
are here called "overtones". Here only two terms are used, as follows:
1. "Harmonics": in music practice a sound produced by lightly touching a string
while either bowing or plucking it is what is here called a "harmonic".
2. "Overtones": in acoustic theory every musical sound has a fundamental pitch:
for example, the fundamental pitch of the note called "modern concert A" is said
to have a frequency of 440 Hz (vibrations per second). However, this frequency

actually describes a pure tone that can only be produced scientifically. In nature
each note is colored by a series of extra frequencies that are related in some
manner to the fundamental. These extra frequencies are what are here called the
"overtones".
The main reasons for the confusion between these terms are probably as follows. First,
the two concepts are related mathematically but are used differently in different
contexts; this is briefly discussed below. Second, precise definitions of overtones divide
them into two types, "harmonic overtones" and "inharmonic overtones". An additional
factor may perhaps be the fact that although on the qin extended passages in harmonics
are very common, in Western music such passages are quite rare.
Harmonics and overtones: a brief discussion of their mathematical relationships.
1. Harmonics
In music a harmonic is produced by lightly touching a string while either bowing
or plucking it. With a stopped sound only the part of the string between where it
is stopped and the side where it is plucked vibrates. With a harmonic the whole
string vibrates. This means that to produce a harmonic the string can only be
touched in those places where doing so still allows the whole string to vibrate.
These places are the "harmonic nodes", located in places that divide the string
into simple fractions. The 13 studs (hui) on a qin mark the places that divide the
string into the following fractions of the overall string length: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5,
1/6, and 1/8. The markers at 2/3, 3/4, 2/5, 3/5, 4/5, 5/6 and 7/8 duplicate the
above sounds. Thus, harmonics played at 2/3 produce the same pitch as those
played at 1/3: in both cases the string is vibrating in 3 equal segments ("loops");
likewise 3/4 is the same as 1/4, 7/8 the same as 1/8, and 2/5, 3/5 and 4/5 all the
same as 1/5. Note that the basic (fundamental) sound is 1: the sound of the open
string.
2. Overtones
As mentioned above, in nature each note consists of a fundamental frequency
plus a series of extra frequencies that are related in some manner to the
fundamental. For practical reasons these extra frequencies are here simply called
"overtones". As described more precisely in the Wikipedia article "Overtone",
An 'overtone' is a partial (a "partial wave" or "constituent frequency")
that can be either a harmonic or an inharmonic. A harmonic is an integer
multiple of the fundamental frequency. An inharmonic overtone is a noninteger multiple of a fundamental frequency.
By this definition the "first harmonic" is related to the fundamental by the
multiple 1x1, so they are the same. The second harmonic is 2x1, third harmonic
3x1 and so forth. This mathematical relationship of the harmonic overtones to
the fundamental sound is same as the mathematical relationship of the string
divisions that produce the harmonics played on a qin. This can be seen by
inverting the six fractions listed above as defining the divisions of the string that
produce harmonics: 2/1, 3/1, 4/1, 5/1, 6/1 and 8/1 (note that the other seven
fractions duplicate these six). Overtones whose frequencies have mathematical
relationships other than these are called "inharmonic". The difference between

the harmonics played on a qin and what are called "harmonic overtones" is that
the qin harmonics are discreet sounds, while the harmonic overtones all occur
together in one note.
10. The main problem with the old system was that it was often used imprecisely and
there were inconsistencies. These problems seem to increase towards the end of the
Ming dynasty. Thus, for example, the handbook Zhenchuan Zhengzong Qinpu usually
indicates all the intermediate finger positions with the word "half" ( ban). If one
assumes the melodies are idiomatically similar to those described in earlier tablature,
then this is not a problem. However, it also makes it difficult to do research into such
issues as whether there were in fact modal developments taking place at that time, or if
there were regional (or personal) differences in intonation. (It should be noted that the
decimal system can only be useful for this if it used precisely according to theory; in
this regard see a comment above.
11. Wai, 13.1 and 13
There is a clear example near the end of Section 2 of Shuixian Qu (my transcription
m.67).
.