Tarim harps; pitch, tones, scales, modes, instruments, and their names

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[This is a guest post by Sara de Rose, responding to requests for more information on the subject prompted by her previous post.]

This post discusses a possible connection between the Mesopotamian tonal system, documented on cuneiform tablets that span over 1000 years (from 1800 BC to 500 BC), and the musical system of ancient China. For a more detailed discussion, see the paper "A Proposed Mesopotamian Origin for the Ancient Musical and Musico-Cosmological Systems of the West and China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 320 (December, 2021) written by myself, Sara de Rose.

Since 1996, twenty-three harps (Chinese: “konghou”) that resemble the angular harp that was invented in Mesopotamia circa 2000 BC have been found in the graves of the Tarim mummies, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area of modern-day, western China. These harps date from 1000 BC to 200 BC (see photo).

According to both Western and Chinese archaeologists, these harps show a direct connection with cultures farther to the West – as far west as Mesopotamia. For example, a 2005 paper, published by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, describes that:

“in Shanshan [an ancient kingdom of the Tarim Basin] graves, bows of Sassanid character, clothes of Shaman traits and skulls of Caucasus race have also been found. All those cultural relics have shown clearly that … cultural communication had already begun between Xinjiang and the areas of Altai, Assyria, and the Black Sea…. [T]he prevalent view of Chinese konghou’s origin [i.e., that the konghou (harp) was invented in China] is questionable.” (source)

The consensus, therefore, is that the angular harp, which was invented in Mesopotamia, made its way to the Tarim Basin around 1000 BC. But at least two further questions remain:

  1. Did the angular harp make its way into the heartland of China?
  2. Was the Mesopotamian music (theory) system transmitted with the angular harp?

Question 1: Did the angular harp make its way into the heartland of China?

Music archaeologist B. Lawergren suggests that the Xinjiang harps had an influence on the design of later Chinese stringed instruments. Specifically, Lawergren proposes that the Xinjiang harps “inspired the shape of the qin” and that this “influence played out over a relatively small space and brief time: in Xinjiang during the first half of the first millennium BCE.”

Lawergren notes a similarity in the shape of the two instruments:

“[Harps] in the Xinjiang region were asymmetrical. Half their bodies were slim like necks, the other half looked like a body with sloping shoulders. This structure is reminiscent of the ancient qin. Moreover, the playing position is horizontal for both instruments. Most likely, the harp inspired the shape of the qin.”

The earliest stringed instrument found in China (a qin) dates to 433 BC, while the Tarim harps are over half a millennium older. This, coupled with the fact that there is abundant evidence for contact between the Tarim Basin and the Hexi Corridor – which is the gateway to the heartland of China – as early as the second millennium BC (see, for example: Guanghui Dong, et al., “Prehistoric Trans-continental Cultural Exchange in the Hexi Corridor, Northwest China,” The Holocene, 28 (4) (2018): 621–628) strongly suggests that stringed instruments, in the form of the angular harp which morphed into the qin, were introduced into China from the west, via the Tarim Basin.

Question 2: Was the Mesopotamian music (theory) system transmitted with the angular harp?

As previously stated, the oldest stringed instrument found in China is a qin, dated to 433 BC. Before that, there is no evidence that stringed instruments were known in China. Instead, it appears that music was played on bone flutes, drums, stone chimes and bronze bells.

The U.S. National Gallery of Art defines the Chinese Bronze Age as the "period between about 2000 BC and 771 BC." Yet, as suggested by many scholars, both Western and Chinese, knowledge of bronze metallurgy was probably introduced into China from points farther west, via the Tarim Basin, during the second millennium BC. If this is the case, then bronze musical bells were cast at a time when east-west contact had already been made.

The earliest bells, dating from around 1700 BC, were simply signaling devices, and not used for musical purposes at all. According to Professor R. Bagley, it wasn’t until 1200 BC that individual bells were being used to accompany music. By the eleventh century BC, sets of bells appear, that were probably played together, as a single instrument – an instrument later referred to as “bianzhōng” – but according to Bagley, these sets were made by collecting individual bells: they were not cast as a single instrument.

Within the next five hundred years, a remarkable advance was made in the casting of bronze musical bells. The most notable example is the bianzhōng set found in the tomb of Marquis Yi (433 BC, the same tomb where the qin, mentioned earlier, was found).

The Marquis Yi bianzhōng set has sixty-five bronze bells, each bell labelled with two pitches (one label at each of the two striking positions) and also with detailed descriptions of how that pitch relates to specific scales. Scholars from both China and the West agree that the Marquis Yi bells play several octaves of a 12-tone chromatic “scale”. The method for mathematically generating this scale is described in detail in a text that dates to about two hundred years later:  the Lǚshì chūnqiū (239 BC).

 The Lǚshì chūnqiū describes the generation of the circle of fifths and the simultaneous moving of the fifths into a single octave to create a chromatic scale. As mentioned in the comments to the LL post “The Musical Origin of the Seven-Day Week”, this mathematical procedure generates the sequence 4,1,5,2,6,3,7 – a sequence found on three different cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia that date between 1800 BC and 500 BC.

According to Oxford Music Online, the Mesopotamians also had knowledge of the circle of fifths. Yet they did not play all twelve notes generated by the circle of fifths as a scale. Instead, seven notes were selected from the twelve to create a seven-note scale that is the direct ancestor of our modern, major scale.

The ancient Chinese also did not use the twelve notes generated by the circle of fifths as a scale. Instead, like the Mesopotamians, they selected pitches to create scales having fewer than twelve notes.  For example, according to the Zuo zhuan (fourth century BC), five-note, six-note and seven-note scales were in use:

“The seven-note scale and the six-pitch scale subordinate to the five-tone scale. [七音,六律,以奉五 聲.]”

As we see from the Zuo zhuan, the pentatonic scale came to have precedence, but it was by no means the only scale in use. The next most used scale was a seven-note scale, identical to one of the Mesopotamian modes.

For example, Wei Zhao (204-273 AD) in writing a commentary on the Guo Yü (fifth century BC) asks: “What are the seven [pitch] standards?” and gives the answer: “The seven [pitch] standards are tuning devices. Huáng Zhōng is used for gōng. Tài Cù is used for shāng. Gū Xiǎn is used for jué. Lín Zhōng is used for zhǐ. Nán Lǚ is used for yǔ. Yìng Zhōng is used for biangong and Ruí Bīn is used for bianzhi.”

As shown in my paper (link given above), the seven-pitches listed by Wei Zhao generate the Mesopotamian mode qablītum (the modern Lydian mode). We can deduce this because the ancient Chinese had twelve names for the twelve pitches in the circle of fifths, and those listed by Wei Zhao are the seven that generate the Lydian mode.

What we see, therefore, is that although the pentatonic scale has become, today, synonymous with Chinese music, in ancient China the twelve pitches that make up the circle of fifths were known. These twelve pitches were the raw material from which scales having fewer notes were constructed. The situation was identical in Mesopotamia.

 Written descriptions of the Mesopotamian tonal system, however, predate Chinese textual sources that describe the Chinese musical system by over 1500 years. These facts, coupled with the recent discovery of harps (konghou) in the Tarim Basin that indicate west-east musical contact as early as 1000 BC, strongly suggest that the musical system of ancient China was transmitted from Mesopotamia, over many centuries of west-east migration.

To learn more, please read my paper, linked above.

Selected readings

(in addition to those referenced in the post itself)


  1. Stephen Jones said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 11:00 am

    My days of studying early music history are long gone, but without at all discounting all the pre-Qin research, and the possible qin links, the, um, Golden Age of konghou seems to have began just before the Tang. Images continued to appear at least until the Ming, whereafter it became rare. All these, of course, refer largely to the imperial courts.
    Lots of Chinese studies of this the 1980s, perhaps starting from the splendid Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷:

    Anyway, worth pursuing into later dynasties, eh! Sorry, I should stick with my Chinese peasants…

  2. Dan Milton said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 11:40 am

    I’m curious about the twenty-three harps. Are musical instruments common grave goods in any culture?

  3. AntC said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 10:21 pm

    Thank you Sara, I won't rehash the discussion from the previous thread.

    These are beautiful, and beautifully-preserved instruments; showing the reverence these cultures held for music.

    2. Was the Mesopotamian music (theory) system transmitted with the angular harp?

    According to Oxford Music Online, the Mesopotamians also had knowledge of the circle of fifths. Yet they did not play all twelve notes generated by the circle of fifths as a scale. Instead, seven notes were selected from the twelve …

    I don't recall from the previous discussion that the Mesopotamians were aware of all twelve; and 'selected' seven — that is, consciously omitted five. I thought they just generated the first seven and stopped there(?) Maybe because it was getting too disharmonious — although we should not presume Western sensibilities of harmony. Similarly for Chinese tuning:

    [six and seven] subordinate to the five-tone scale [quoting Zuo zhuan]

    the pentatonic scale came to have precedence,

    "came to"? If you proceed by tuning up a fifth, down a fourth, you generate the pentatonic scale _first_ — that is, the familiar scale with the spacings Westerners associate with Chinese music. You come to a seven-note scale by continuing another fifth up/fourth down.

    So are you saying Chinese tuning developed a seven-note scale first, then omitted two? The more parsimonious explanation is the pentatonic scale came first; seven notes was an extension. (And that would be consistent with Lawergren's conjecture, quoted in your paper, that it was a rather diluted/simplified form of the Mesopotamian tuning that got to the Tarim basin.)

    I'm interested in the "six-pitch scale" quoted from Zuo zhuan. Was this six tones equally-spaced within the octave ('whole tone scale'), as used in the Hindustani rag Sahera –wow that sounds crunchy!) The equal spacing gives a distinctive 'unmoored' feeling of not knowing where the 'home' key is.

    You wouldn't get to a whole-tone scale by the method of tuning up fifths/down fourths — indeed the fifth and the fourth are exactly the notes you omit. You'd have to generate all twelve, then start dividing by its factors.

    On which thought … Is there any evidence of dividing twelve by four to get a scale of minor thirds equally spaced? This is Bach's diminished seventh 'power chord', as featured in the D minor Toccata.

  4. Sara de Rise said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 7:58 am

    Dear AntC,
    A translation of tablet UETVII74 (1800 BC) is given in my paper. I suggest that you go right to the source, rather than asking me. The general consensus among those in the field is that the construction of the seven diatonic modes as described on the tablet, by consecutively retuning the trigone generates 12 pitches ( or 13, with the return) in circle of fifths order.
    As for Chinese knowledge of the circle of fifths, it’s much more clearly documented, but only from about the 3rd century BC. But there is direct reference to generating less than 12 fifths to create scales with fewer than 12 notes – most notably pentatonic and diatomic. Hope this answers your questions.
    On my website, you’ll find academic papers relating to the Mesopotamian tonal system from various scholars in the field. These contain translations of the four tablets that relate to music theory. I encourage you to look at the translations of those tablets and understand the material from the source.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 8:56 am

    @Dan Milton

    The answer is yes. If something was important to an individual in daily life (books, mirrors, combs, beauty kits, vessels, food…, etc., etc.), they would be likely to take it (or a representation of it) to the grave with them.

    The list of cultures that included musical instruments as grave goods is so long that I won't even begin to enumerate them, but will just name two notable instances that I've documented on Language Log and in a Festschrift for Christoph Harbsmeier (2006):


    "Middle Eastern harps and 'harp' in Eastern Central Asia" (12/10/20) — especially the Appendix on lyres and harps, which is directly relevant to Sara de Rose's long paper in SPP (#320) and her guest posts on Language Log


    “Prehistoric European and East Asian Flutes”, contained in Anderl and Eifring 2006, pages 209–216, for which see Flutopedia, under "The Isturitz Flutes".

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