"Clear" and "turbid" in Chinese phonology, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Sara de Rose]

I am currently writing a paper outlining the similarities between the Mesopotamian and ancient Chinese tonal systems, which will be published in Sino-Platonic Papers.

I have a question for those of you knowledgeable in ancient Chinese music. It concerns the terms "clear" (qīng 清) and "muddy (zhuó 濁), which were discussed a few days ago on Language Log:  "'Clear' and 'turbid' in Chinese phonology" (11/29/20). Before I pose my question, here’s a quick synopsis of what is known about the Mesopotamian tonal system:

Cuneiform tablets translated since the early 1960s show that, for over a millennium, from at least 1800 BC onward, the Mesopotamians used seven diatonic modes – scales that are closely related to the Western, seven-note major scale.

The Mesopotamians had specific names for the intervals between the notes of the scale. The intervals they described are not – as one would expect – between, the 1st and 2nd notes, and the 2nd and 3rd notes, etc. Instead, the intervals listed are between the 4th and 1st notes; the 1st and 5th notes; the 5th and 2nd notes; the 2nd and 6th notes; the 6th and 3rd notes; the 3rd and 7th notes; and the 7th and 4th notes. Why? Because each of these intervals is a fifth and therefore easy to tune (by ear or by harmonics). In other words, to tune a diatonic scale, all the Mesopotamian musician needed to know was how to tune a fifth. Very simple!

To be more precise, though, not all of these intervals are fifths. In fact, in every mode (there are seven diatonic modes, one of which is the major scale), one interval has to be one semitone smaller than a fifth (today, we call this size of interval a tritone). Why does one of the seven intervals have to be a tritone? Because, when this is the case, all seven intervals, together, will span an exact octave (note: a fifth is seven semitones and a tritone is six semitones, so six fifths + one tritone = 48 tones, which is a multiple of twelve, and therefore an octave multiple).

The Mesopotamians called any tritone interval “not clear”. Conversely, they called any fifth interval “clear”. To re-tune from one mode to another, all the musician needed to do was make the “unclear” interval “clear” – by increasing the size of the tritone interval by one semitone. This was done by raising the pitch of one of the notes that bound the interval (i.e., tightening one of the strings: each string played one note) by one semitone. The result was that a tritone interval would then appear in the new mode – but located between a different pair of strings (either the 4th and 1st; 1st and 5th; etc…). One particular tablet (UET VII 74, dating from 1800 BC) describes the process of re-tuning to all seven diatonic modes, during which twelve distinct pitches are created – in the order of the circle of fifths. The evidence, therefore, suggests that not only did the Mesopotamians use the seven diatonic modes, they were also aware of the circle of fifths.

As those of you familiar with the ancient Chinese tonal system know, the ancient Chinese “up-and-down principle” generates twelve distinct pitches using the intervals of the fifth and the octave. These twelve tones – the Shí-èr-lǜ (十二律) – were used to create scales having fewer than twelve notes, most notably pentatonic and heptatonic scales. The ancient Chinese heptatonic scale, which was used predominantly in the North of China, is virtually identical to one of the seven diatonic modes used by the Mesopotamians.

Now, for my question:

Two people have mentioned that the terms "clear" (qīng 清) and "muddy (zhuó 濁) refer (with respect to ancient Chinese music) to raising or lowering a pitch, possibly by one semitone:

1)      “To heighten/lower a note by one semitone, respectively” (unnamed respected scholar)

2)      “normal vs. flatted musical pitch” (David Prager Branner)

And Wolfgang Behr said that the two terms refer to “the balancing of the tones on a pentatonic scale (wuyin 五音), the tuning of pitchpipes, the equilibrium sough in singing, etc., and as a metaphor for political and cosmological "harmony", or even the selection range in divination. Clear and muddy are, so to speak, "negative polarity items" opening a space from which the ear has to make a selection to produce well-tuned music — and the ruler to produce "well-adjusted political measures.”

If you read the description of the Mesopotamian tonal system (above), you’ll see that, if the Chinese did, in fact, use the two terms to mean “to raise and lower a pitch by one semitone”, respectively, then the Mesopotamian use of the terms “clear” and “not clear” is virtually identical.

So, my question is this: Does anyone know of a text that states that the terms "clear" (qīng 清) and "muddy (zhuó 濁) were used, in the context of ancient Chinese music, to mean “raising or lowering a pitch” – possibly by one semitone?


Selected readings

Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, "The Musical Instruments from Ur and Ancient Mesopotamian Music", Expedition Magazine, 40.2 (1998): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 1998 Web. 30 Nov 2020 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=5425>  For Pages Numbers please consult the PDF version.

Maude de Schauensee, Two Lyres from Ur (Philadelphia:  distributed for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

"Transcendent Tonality" (11/5/15)


  1. martin schwartz said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 10:04 pm

    While I'm not at all an expert in such matters, and certainly cannot address the Chinese situation, it may be interesting to look into the
    Mesopotamian connection of the 7 tones with the seven canonical "planets" and the connection of both to the musical theory
    attributed to Pythagoras. Perhaps, if the Chinese took over the
    musical framework of the Mesopotamians, we would expect not only
    a similarity in realia but also reference to the canonicity of 7.
    A sa separate (?) matter, what do Sinologists propose for the chronology of the systems of linguistic tones. I, a total outsider to such matters, have found it odd that Cantonese, which preserves
    more of the old final stops, should have more tones than Mandarin.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Chris Button said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 11:00 pm

    Presumably this is connected to the whole 律呂 notation?

    律 and 呂 share an interesting etymological link in terms of representing things in series.

    律 has a sense of "(follow) a law". Meanwhile the graph 呂 depicts a series of rooms (although I'd personally go with tents due to military connections with 旅) and evolved into representing anything in a series (e.g., pitch pipes, bones in the spinal column, etc.). Incidentally, Laurent Sagart (2014) actually takes the spinal bone sense and then tries to link 律 as the counterpart of 呂 to a Proto-Tibeto-Burman word for bone, but personally I'm not convinced by the strained semantics or the phonology of the coda.

  3. Chris Button said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 11:48 pm

    To be clear, by "律 and 呂 share an interesting etymological link in terms of representing things in a series", I don't mean they are etymologically related to each other, but that they share similar semantics.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    December 5, 2020 @ 12:49 pm

    what do Sinologists propose for the chronology of the systems of linguistic tones. I, a total outsider to such matters, have found it odd that Cantonese, which preserves more of the old final stops, should have more tones than Mandarin.

    Late Middle Sinitic had 8 tones; Mandarin has undergone more mergers than Cantonese. The collapse of the finals in Mandarin has not led to new tone splits.

    Those 8 tones were originally an allophonic split of the 4 Early Middle Sinitic "tones" (rather 3 tones + absence of tone), depending on whether the syllable initial was (slack-)voiced; this is still allophonic in Shanghainese.

    Those 4 "tones" come from Old Sinitic final consonants (or their absence).

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