Music of East Asia: Scales, Themes, Instruments & Characteristics

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  • 00:00 East Asian Music
  • 00:44 Scales & Notes
  • 2:16 Characteristics
  • 4:08 Instruments
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the musical traditions of East Asia and discover the musical scales, characteristics, and instruments of this regions. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

East Asian Music

Take a listen to this (available in the video).

East Asian music

What culture is that from? That's called the Oriental riff. It's a stereotypical Asian-sounding melody actually composed by Western musicians in 1847 who needed something that sounded 'oriental' and exotic for a theater production. The point is, we all know that the music of East Asia, the region including China, Japan, and the Koreas, is different than what we are used to in the West. Western music is built on certain rules and expectations and East Asian music has rules of its own. Now, that's an oriental riff.

Scales & Notes

Let's start at the most basic question of what makes East Asian music sound East Asian. Now, I should preface this by saying that China, Japan, and the Koreas each have their own distinct musical traditions, so these rules do not always apply to all of East Asia. However, in general, East Asian music is based on a pentatonic scale, a musical arrangement of an octave with five notes.

In Western music, we have a heptatonic or seven-note scale. See this scale?

East Asian music

The lowest note is a C, and the highest note is a C. That's an octave. In Western music, there are seven different notes in an octave. In East Asian music, there are five; that's the pentatonic scale and one of the main reasons that East Asian music sounds different to us, since the relations between notes in a scale are different than we're used to.

East Asian music

Like Western music, the East Asian pentatonic scales are actually based on mathematical formulas, in which the distance between notes is decided by ratios of pitches. Also like in Western music, the scale is based off of the first note. So, similar to how our C major scale starts with a C major note, or an A minor scale starts with the A minor, pentatonic scales start with a single note, then add the other four notes in relation to that.


Aside from the use of a pentatonic scale, East Asian music shares three general characteristics.

The first idea is linearity, the emphasis on melody. In Western music, we have instruments that play the melody, or the main musical theme, then other instruments that play harmonies, supporting chords and notes. East Asian music is all about the melody. Harmonies are very rare and when used at all, aren't really part of the tension or release of the music. They're just there for a little extra color.

The next major characteristic of East Asian music is transparency, the focus on individual instruments. No matter how big the orchestra is, each instrument has an individual role and is meant to be heard playing its own melody. Again, since harmonies are rarely used, instruments aren't meant to provide background texture. They each carry their own melody and so you want them all to be heard. This does mean that instrumental groups tend to be pretty small.

The third of the major characteristics of East Asian music is word orientation, which just means a very low use of abstraction in music. What I mean is that music is not just for music's sake. Traditional Asian music has a title or lyrics, and that is exactly what the piece is about. Think of it this way. What is the subject of a symphony entitled Concerto in D major? Now, what is the subject of the Chinese song Moon Over the Cascade? Don't worry, that's not a trick question. It's about a moon over a cascade! Eastern Asian music is generally focused around an event, place, or mood that dictates the feel of the piece.


Okay, there's one last important thing to talk about here. What sort of instruments are we using to play this music? East Asian instruments are often sorted into one of eight categories originally developed by the ancient Chinese.

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