How To Read Chinese Music

While western children are looking at the treble clef staff and learning that "Every Good Boy Does Fine", many Chinese children are learning 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. The difference is in the notation - how the music is written down.

This is my friend, Emma, singing out of a music book we found at the Guangzhou Library. She's reading Chinese sheet music, which looks very different from the five line, four space staff we are used to seeing. She was kind enough to explain the process to me.

There are many differences in Chinese sheet music and Western sheet music, but as you will soon see, there are a lot of similarities as well. 


The Tragedy of Chinese Folk Music

     In my experience seeing a few schools in China and talking to a number of Chinese music students and educators, I have seen something sadly consistent in their approach to teaching music. When I ask children some “old songs from China” that they sing in music class they sing me “Frere Jacquez” in Chinese. When I asked about any Chinese birthday traditions they sing The Happy Birthday Song in Chinese. Both children and adults I have talked to say that they do not use Chinese folk music in schools and that "only old people sing those songs." In most music classrooms, instead of traditional Chinese folk songs they use all Western music that has been brought over by Western teachers. I love our Western folk songs and I'm so glad that they're being spread across the hemisphere, but as a result of their spreading the bulk of Chinese folk music is being lost. 

     As a music educator this trend is very disturbing to me. There is something almost eery about such a huge part of a culture being lost generation by generation - especially when the music being lost is so interesting to listen to, and so fascinating to study.

Although the folk tradition appears to be being lost, the written musical notation seems to still be widely used outside schools in private lessons or group classes. Not every Chinese student I have taught knows it, but a fair number of them do and now as I teach I try to make connections between the two systems. I think they work together nicely, especially if the Chinese system is used first and then transitioned over to notes on a staff.  

And so, here is the quickest way to start reading Chinese music. You might even find that it is more easy to read than our Western notation!!

This is how it was explained to me by my musician friend, Emma, in China.

Chinese Music Notation:The Basics


If you remember from this post, melody is how the high and low pitches of a song are pieced together. When we read music, we use alphabet names: ABCDEFG and put those alphabet letters on the staff. The higher the notes on the staff, the higher the pitch. The lower the notes, the lower the pitch.

  • Solfege: Do you remember the song from The Sound of Music, “Do, a deer, a female deer”? She’s singing through the solfege scale. The solfege scale assigns every pitch in a scale a syllable. Thus, we get Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do.

  • Numbers: Numbers do essentially the same thing, except instead of assigning the pitches in the scale a syllable, they assign a number. So in that case, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 is the same thing as do re mi fa sol la ti.


Also in this post was a quick word on rhythm. Rhythm is how music happens in time. Rhythms can be elongated over lots of time, or shortened to happen very quickly.

  • Flags: When we write rhythm in music, we add stems to change the rhythmic value. An eighth note (one flag) is half of a quarter note. A sixteenth note (two flags) is half of an eighth note. A 32nd (three flags) is half of a sixteenth. Each flag cuts the rhythmic value in half.


The Simple Guide to Reading Chinese Music

  • Numbers are sung as solfege. So even though you see the melody written 1 2 3, you would sing do re mi unless singing the actual lyrics of the song.

  • A dot above the note means that it should be sung in a higher octave.

  • A dot above the number means that it should be sung in a lower octave.

  • A number without a line under it is a quarter note.

  • A number with a line under it means to divide the rhythmic value in half (like our stems on 8th notes).

  • Two lines under make it divide it into fourths (like our stems on 16th notes).

  • Dashes after a number mean to hold the note out for one beat.

  • A dot next to a number adds half of the rhythmic value (just like our dots do).

  • A 0 is a rest.

  • The key signature and time signature are given at the beginning of each song.

  • Bar lines are used to show the groupings of steady beats (just like in Western notation).


**Remember that this would be sung, do do sol sol la la sol, fa fa mi mi re re do and not 1 1 5 5 6 6 5 unlessyou're singing the lyrics.

Notice how star, are, high, and sky are all held longer than one beat, so they have a dash that elongates them. None of these pitches go outside of our scale range so we don't need dots underneath or above any numbers. None of our rhythmic values are lower than a quarter note so we don't need lines underneath or dots to the side. This makes for a fairly straightforward example. 

This song is slightly more complicated when we look at it. We've added a few things here: there are dots below the some numbers which means they should be sung in the low octave. There are dots next to numbers which elongates the rhythm. There are lines beneath some numbers which show us the change from quarter notes to eighth notes. And we've added a 0 which means that there is no sound on that beat.


Eastern vs. Western Music Notation: My Thoughts

I love that Chinese notation focuses so much on aural skills. The whole system is built around using a singable scale which contributes a lot to building listening skills along side reading skills. The note name and the note sound are the same. American children learn the alphabet names of the lines and spaces on the staff so we can play them on instruments, but we very rarely sing these letters. That makes it a little more difficult to sing what we play and play what we sing. Perhaps American schools could do more to develop the ear as well as the eyes. 

 In my opinion, where the Chinese music notation system excels in developing aural skills, it lacks helpful visual elements. When we look at the lines and spaces on the staff, we use high areas and low areas to show high and low pitch. We can literally see the melodic couture in front of our eyes. In the Chinese system everything is linear. There is not shape to any melody that a reader can look at and imitate. For visual learners I suspect this might be a hang up when learning to read Chinese music.

And there you have it: Your quick start guide to reading Chinese sheet music. With the knowledge of this system I was able to spend several happy hours browsing the Guangzhou library and (quietly!) singing through song after song that reflected valuable parts of the Chinese musical heritage. Stick this skill-set in your back pocket - you never know when you'll have the opportunity to explore a bit of musical culture yourself!

Keep singing,

- Victoria