More on Transcription

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the very few voices that cast doubt on the veracity of these transcriptions. In his entry on "musique" in Diderot and d‘Alembert‘s Encyclopedie–the summation of Enlightenment thinking that was to comprise all areas of knowledge–Rousseau wrote facetiously:

One will find in all these pieces a certain conformity of modulation with our music, which may, for some, be cause for admiration of the quality and universality of our rules, and may perhaps raise suspicion in others as to the fidelity or intelligence of those who have transmitted this melody.

And in fact, when we carefully examine the transcription of Moo Lee Chwa (or Mo Li Hua, as it is more commonly transcribed nowadays) we notice that the top note of the song is consistently notated as a major seventh–an interval just short of the octave, which would correspond to Chinese pentatonic music. It is impossible to know whether this transcription is the result of a slightly flat rendition of the song, perhaps because that note exceeded upper end of the vocal range of the singer. But the consistency with which this faulty interval appears is remarkable.

The transcription of this "original" Chinese song is a picture-perfect demonstration of the dichotomy that all transcription straddles between the poles of individual performance and systematic structure behind the rendition, the fraught relation between the "is" and the "ought." Despite the protestations to the contrary, the music has been greatly transformed from the Chinese original.


Find out more about:

Enlightenment Music Theory and Chinese Music (Alexander Rehding)

Chinese Music Theory (Jonathan Service)


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