Alex Rhodes

Composer | Arranger | Editor

The Chinese Dynamo Project: Week 3

Becoming Harmonious

Week 3 of The Chinese Dynamo Project brings us into an entirely new realm of composition. Previously, we have been introduced to the many traditional techniques and instrumentations that make up Chinese compositions, but this week, we begin to learn about the harmonies that are vital to the overall tonality and aesthetic of the Chinese style. As the purpose of this project is to learn how to incorporate these completely distant styles into modern western film and video game scores, we will be discussing the essentials of harmonies and melodies that make up the majority of Chinese-inspired pieces. Overall, this week allowed me to understand how a composition is typically approached through theory, in order to apply these ideas to instruments that would normally not play these pieces.

For instance, Jack Wall’s score for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (Which we will be examining later on in conjunction with my piece) applies an interesting and complex melding of Asian instrumentations and harmonies with a modern synthesized action style much more akin to what you would expect from video game cues. However, even though Wall’s pieces have that inherent Chinese sound we have been familiarized with, part of the game actually takes place in Singapore and Seoul. So, when we do end up comparing the two sides of composition, it will be more focused on the general aesthetic rather than the traditional methods that we have been discussing regarding classical Chinese compositions. Nevertheless, this won’t be until a future weekly update. This week, I was immersed in learning the use of Chinese harmonies in established composers’ works. 

The Pentatonic Scale

At a fundamental level, Chinese harmony is based off of the pentatonic scale, incorporating five notes starting on a tonic, as opposed to the eight notes of western diatonic scales. There are obvious exceptions and deviations from this primary basis, but for the sake of simplicity and authenticity, we will only be focusing on the pentatonic scale.

The five notes featured in a pentatonic scale based in the tonic are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees from a diatonic scale. So, if we look at a scale in C major, the tones present in the pentatonic scale would be C, D, E, G, and A. Omitting the 4th and 7th scale degrees (in this case F and B) removes lot of dissonance that is possible with any chord that could naturally occur in the C Major diatonic scale. Pictured below is an example of a basic pentatonic scale.

The base pentatonic scale in C Major. Image courtesy of

The base pentatonic scale in C Major. Image courtesy of

You might have noticed each pitch in the scale above has a name: these are the traditional Chinese names of scale degrees in a relative 5-note scale. They are Gong (I), Shang (II), Jue (III), Zi (V), and Yu (VI). The use of these note names is actually very fascinating: think of it as a simple chord. You can write a C Major chord in root position as simply (I). However, when inverting the chord once, the C is no longer in the root, and the chord is now written as (I6). This same idea is used with the scale degree names within a pentatonic scale. In a main tone scale in C Major, the 5 notes begin on a C. However, if you were to begin the scale on the second scale degree, a D, it would become a Shang scale. This pentatonic scale would have the same five notes, but the order would now be Shang (D), Jue (E), Zi (G), Yu (A), and finally, Gong (C). The scale is simply named after the tone it begins at. In a way, these seem to me like modes written in a much more understandable system.

A Brief Case Study

I wanted to study an example of this harmonic analysis within a more modern composition by a Chinese composer who incorporated western elements into their work. I found a composer and pianist by the name of Wang Jianzhong, who was known for writing Chinese compositions and traditional folk songs for solo piano and other western instrumental ensembles. We will be examining a piece by Jianzhong called “Liu Yang River” for solo piano, which I consider a perfect example of what we discussed this week.

"Liu Yang River", composed by Wang Jianzhong. Video courtesy of thenameisgsarci

The first time I listened to this piece, certain qualities immediately stood out to me that made it sound like the same Chinese compositions I had been listening to for a few weeks now, even though it is written for piano. Let’s get right into the analysis:

Excerpt from "Liu Yang River", composed by Wang Jianzhong. Measures 10-13 of page 1.

Excerpt from "Liu Yang River", composed by Wang Jianzhong. Measures 10-13 of page 1.

Even though the harmonies become more complex as they transform throughout the piece’s development, the piece begins in A Major. We’ll start our study of the music on page 1 (page 2 in the video), where the A section starts after the introduction. In order to understand the harmonic progressions being used, we have to know the mode that is featured in the main theme. Based on the melody excerpt pictured above, it makes sense that this section is in a Gong scale, due to the notes matching a pentatonic scale starting on the tonic in A Major. This would include the notes A, B, C#, E, and F#. Just looking at the melody in these first four measures, it is easy to recognize the “root” pentatonic scale. At the same time, the bass of the harmony makes it easy to see that the pentatonic scale is not starting on a different scale degree, as the piece is in A Major. However, you might notice some notes throughout that don’t normally exist in this pentatonic scale: namely, the D naturals in the melody in measure 2 of the excerpt. Although these don’t exist in the pre-determined pentatonic scale that guides the structure of the piece, a lot of modern Chinese composers attempt to break down the strict rules in terms of theory that makes up these traditional themes, especially when incorporating western ideals into their work.

Excerpt from "Liu Yang River", composed by Wang Jianzhong. Measures 17-18 of page 1.

Excerpt from "Liu Yang River", composed by Wang Jianzhong. Measures 17-18 of page 1.

The second spot I want to look at is this short descending section in the melody that essentially leads into a brief B theme before returning to the initial melody again. If you look at the notes, my point becomes evident: Starting on that lower A in the right hand, what follows is an F#, E, A, F#, E, C#, B, and then finally, returning to that lower A in the next measure. This is a perfect example of the core pentatonic scale that makes up this piece, played almost exactly in the melody.


After a fairly concise look into what makes up Chinese harmonies, I feel like I already have a pretty good basis at starting my own work. However, we still have a few more topics to cover in the next update, 2 weeks from now: most importantly, the comparison between Chinese composers and Chinese-influenced western composers. In order to develop a way to incorporate these styles into modern film and video game scoring, I need to know how other well-known composers approach their own works.