When I was a young child experimenting on the piano, I found myself instantly drawn to the sound of the black keys. I could bang on them all I wanted, and play little random lines on them and everything came out sounding great. To me, they sounded extra beautiful and sort of Chinese – based on who knows what, as I hadn’t actually heard any real Chinese music as a Jewish kid in Washington, DC.

Yes, when anybody wants to fake Chinese music, they go for the black keys on the piano (just think of the stereotypical riff in “Kung Fu Fighting”). Putting aside the belittling of one of the oldest and musical cultures in the world, the fact that they use those black keys shows how famous and instantly recognizable the characteristic notes of Chinese music are to those ignorant of the actual material.

Most Western music, including pretty much everything from pop to R&B, gospel to classic, usually uses a scale based on seven notes at a time (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) or something like it, AKA, the white keys of the piano. Chinese music, like Irish music (think “Danny Boy,”) many African traditions, and a whole lot of country fiddle tunes, uses a pentatonic scale of five notes at a time. Notice that the little black keys on a piano come in repeating sets of twos and threes? Those five distinct keys make up a five note scale, and a very unique one as well.

Today, we’re going to hear the pentatonic scale put to real use on perhaps the most common of traditional Chinese instruments, the erhu. This two stringed fiddle sings like a human voice when played well. The song that Ma Xiao Hui is playing is called “Birds Singing on a Desolate Mountain” and it was written by Liu Tan Hua, perhaps the best known of all erhu composers. Let’s listen.

A little more sophisticated than “Kung Fu Fighting,” right? Throughout the song, the composer Liu uses the same five note, pentatonic scale that people already assume sounds “Chinese” but pulls as much melodic variety out of it a good Western composers do out of seven or more notes in a scale.  Also, as is common in music from China, Korea, and Japan, the music contains literal references to nature. The free-floating strings of the erhu allow Ma to slide her fingers and create actual birdsongs withing the music. Do you have a favorite erhu song, or another kind of pentatonic music that moves you? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg