Mother Tunes and Music Theory
Music Theory can be intimidating but we’ll get through this together, thanks in large part to the excellent discussion in Han 2013.
Understanding the foundation or structure of music can add new layers of enjoyment to your listening experience. Let’s get into the underlying structures that traditional guzheng music uses.
Mother Tunes - Bā Bǎn (八板)(Eight Beat)
The underpinning of traditional guzheng music (and many other genres of traditional Chinese music) is based on a simplified structure of measures and beats that is then customized for each song AND each artist’s rendition of a song. That basic structure is called a “mother tune” or “bone tune”. This is commonly referred to by its romanized name “Baban” (Eight Beat). To explain all this I’ll need to mix in some English terms so Chinese scholars, forgive me.
A Baban tune starts with 68 measures, each with an emphasized beat (bǎn, 板). These are then grouped into 8 phrases (bǎn, 板). That’s not a typo - “bǎn” can mean both emphasized beat and phrase. I don’t know why it is translated as “beat” in the word “baban” but it is.
Phrases #1-4 have 8 measures and 8 beats. Phrase #5 has 12 measures, and then #6-8 are back to having 8 measures. That gets us to the total of 68. Each measure has 1-2 notes, leaving us with 100+ notes in a single mother tune. Here is a Baban mother tune from Han 2013:
Building on Baban
Once you have selected the mother tune you wish to work from, the next thing to do is to modify it by adding, subtracting, or injecting notes. Modern Chinese musicologists call this process biànzòu (变奏) “to vary” or “play with change”. Regional zheng musicians had their own terms for this. In Shandong and Henan it was “To add flowers” (jiāhuā, 加花). In Chaozhou it’s “To make phrases” (zàojù, 造句) and in Hakka traditions it was called “adding characters” (tiānzì, 添字) and “subtracting characters” (jiǎn zì, 减字).
Let’s talk through some examples and show how you can use the same mother tune to create different songs.
Adding Flowers to the Original Beats (yuánbǎn jiāhuā, 原板加花)
A common way to build on a mother tune is “adding flowers to the original beats” (yuánbǎn jiāhuā, 原板加花), a process of putting new notes between the originals in the mother tune, and then shifting or removing the original notes. An example from Han 2013:
The top line is 8 measures from the song “Universal Celebration” (pǔtiāntóngqìng, 普天同庆). The bottom line shows those same 8 measures from a mother tune, which happens to be the same tune we showed earlier. In measure 1 the mother tune shows two 3’s, both eighth notes. In “Universal Celebration” we see an octave pair of 3’s played as an eighth note followed by a fast glissando of 4 higher notes, set as about 32nd notes. The first 3 is captured in that octave, but the second is removed in favor of the glissando.
Measure 2 keeps the first note the same, but replaces the second note in the measure with a lower one. Measure 3 has the same first note but adds a second note one octave higher. And then we get to the fourth measure. Here the song has 1) added additional notes before the mother tune’s own, 2) adjusted the notes from the mother tune one octave higher, and 3) played all of these notes twice as fast to keep them in that 68 - measure structure. All of these changes are fair game. And there are more to come!
Adding Weak Beats (Tiānyǎn, 添眼)
Mother tunes can be lengthened by adding sets of notes with unemphasized beats. A set of notes that do not have an emphasized beat are called yǎn (眼). So, the technique is called Adding Weak Beats, Tiānyǎn (添眼). This lengthening typically doubles or quadruples the length of the original song. To double the length, one yǎn is added after every bǎn. To quadruple, three yan are added after every ban. Both of these patterns have names. When there is one ban for every yan it is called yībǎn yīyǎn (一板一眼) “one ban one yan”. When there is one ban for every three yan it is called yibǎn sānyǎn (一板三眼) “one ban three yan”. Based on a reference by Han 2013 (page 53) I believe you could even add seven yan after every ban (yībǎn qīyǎn, 一板七眼).
Slowing Down the Beat and Adding Flowers (fàngmànjiāhuā, 放慢加花)
In addition to lengthening the mother tune with unemphasized beats (yan) you can change its meter or tempo to really draw it out. Let’s say you added one yan after every ban (yiban yiyan). That would make the song twice as long as the original mother tune. You could then double the duration of every measure or beat, leading to a song that is four times longer than the original. An example from the wonderful Han 2013:
This example is the opening of the song “Han Palace in the Autumn Moon” (Hàngōng Qiūyuè, 汉宫秋月) which is derived from the same baban mother tune we used for “Universal Celebration”. Here we can see that 1) every beat has been doubled in duration and 2) the measures have been expanded to cover two beats. On the time signature side that takes us from the original 1/4 to 2/4 (doubling) and then to 4/4 (capturing two beats in each measure). As you read through you’ll also notice that the other modifications we’ve covered appear here as well - a fast glissando is added in the first measure and various other notes have been replaced or rearranged. Again, you can do a lot with a mother tune.
Subtracting Beats (jiǎnzì, 减字)
The last modification to discuss is the concept of subtracting beats (jiǎnzì, 减字 “subtracting characters”). Beats are typically subtracted after the overall structure has been expanded with fàngmànjiāhuā (放慢加花). This speeds the piece through its progression in a way that Han 2013 refers to as “Contracting beats and/or density”. I must confess, I don’t have a good grasp of this other than to say you remove whole beats and play what remains at a faster pace.
As I hope you appreciate by this time, variation is welcome and appreciated in traditional Chinese music. Variations of the structure of Baban are included in that. Over the years there have been formal variants of baban structure that range from 42 emphasized beats (ban) to 76. That gets us outside the scope of this writing but you are welcome to read Han 2013’s original discussion in footnote 55 on page 50.
And there is your introduction the Chinese Musical theory and the structure of Baban! There is loads more to tell, of course, but we’ll leave this here for now.