Guzheng music used to be passed down by ear. Teachers would have their students listen to the teacher's rendition, sing the song, and then play it themselves. Songs were not codified instructions, they were templates. Each player would play it a little differently so there was no need to record every specific detail. Then the 20th century happened.
Musical reforms in the mid 20th century were heavily influenced by the idea that the music and instruments of China needed to compete with the music and instruments of Europe. This led to the formation of specialty schools and a desire for standardization.
Nowadays guzheng music is written in two systems: the western staff notation you are probably familiar with and the Chinese 简谱 (jiǎnpǔ). We know 简谱 in English as Cypher Notation or Numeric Notation. This article focuses on 简谱.
简谱 (jiǎnpǔ) or Cypher Notation represents notes with numbers. The duration of notes is indicated by lines and dots around each number. Further marks are added around each note to tell the player which technique to use and which ornamentations to add.
Numeric or Cypher notation gets its name from the use of numbers to represent notes. Each number represents a note in a key. Unlike staff notation, an individual number could represent one of several notes. The player needs to know the key the music is in to identify which note is represented by which number.
Guzheng music in cypher notation is usually written on a Movable Do scale. This means that while "1" is always referred to as Do the pitch of the note depends on the key the song is in. 1 will be the same note as the name of the key. Songs in the key of D use 1 to represent D. Songs in the key of G use 1 to represent G and so on. Pitch increases with number. A 6 is higher than a 1.
Any number 8 or higher is referring to the physical string on the instrument, not a note. A 0 indicates a rest. If you see letters in place of numbers you have stumbled onto koto notation.
Guzheng are typically tuned so that unmodified or "open" strings produce notes on a pentatonic scale. For that reason the five open strings of an octave are notated as 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. A 4 is played by pressing a 3 string with the left hand to raise the string's pitch by a half step. A 7 is played by pressing a 6.
A typical guzheng is tuned to include notes in 5 octaves. Octaves are distinguished by placing dots above or below a note. A number without a dot is a note in the home octave, the octave that is physically the most comfortable to play. The home octave changes for every key. In the Key of D the home octave is strings 11, 10, 9, 8, and 7. In the Key of G the home octave is strings 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5.
Going back to the Key of D the lowest string on the guzheng, string 21, is marked as 1 with two dots below it - the second note in the image above. The highest note on the same instrument is 1 with two dots above it - the sixth note in the image above. Since guzheng music is usually notated with Movable Do the highest and lowest notes of an instrument and their notation change depending on the tuning. In the key of G, for example, notes range from a high of 5 with one dot above it to a low of 5 with three dots below.
An unmodified note is a quarter note. Adding a line halves the note's duration. This is the same as adding flags to notes in staff notation. One line indicates an eighth note, two lines indicate a sixteenth, and three lines indicate a thirty-second.
Adding a dot extends the note by half of its duration. This functions the same as it does in staff notation. A quarter note with a dot lasts the combined length of a quarter and an eighth note. A sixteenth note with a dot lasts the combined length of a sixteenth and a thirty second note.
Notes that last longer than a quarter note are indicated by horizontal dashes that replace every subsequent note until you reach the desired duration. A whole note is indicated by a note followed by three dashes. A dotted half note is a note followed by two dashes and a half note is indicated by a note followed by one dash.
For those familiar with staff notation or western music more broadly you may have a sense that something is a little bit strange. Let me help you. Think about the guzheng and the piano. An extended note on the piano means you are actively touching the instrument, holding down a key. The same with bowed instruments like cellos - an extended note means you are actively bowing. For the guzheng it is the opposite - every note sounds for as long as it wants unless you silence it. Truly resonant instruments can sound notes for 10 seconds or longer. This notation reflects that. The note indicates when you touch the instrument while these dashes are telling you to wait. That's why there is no need for special notation for anything longer than a quarter note. Every note is sustained by default.
Some techniques act as exceptions to this rule; see the Finger Techniques page for more details.
A rest is represented by a 0. A rest means the instrument is silent. This can require the player to manually silence the strings with a finger, hand, or both hands. Rest durations are indicated by the same line modifiers as regular notes. It is more common to see two rests of different durations in sequence than it is to see a dotted rest but both can be understood.
Cypher notation borrows heavily from staff music symbols. Ties, slurs, triplets, and various other indicators and articulations are used the same way they are in staff notation.
This deserves its own article! With close to a hundred known techniques to choose from guzheng scores often include symbols that help the player understand how they should be playing particular notes or sections. There's a lot to dig into so go on over and get reading. In the future there will be a Technique Notation page for more detailed information on common symbols.