Enlightenment Music Theory and Chinese Music

by Alexander Rehding

The Enlightenment was fascinated by all things Chinese. There were some differences in the reception of Chinese culture in the urban centers of Europe, to be sure, but there was lively interchange among European intellectuals: the mighty tomes compiled by the Jesuits Abbé Du Halde in the first half of the eighteenth century and Père Amiot on Chinese culture in the latter, both originally published in French, were swiftly translated into other major western languages and were eagerly discussed by men of letters throughout Europe.

Just like their philosopher colleagues, Enlightenment musicians were fascinated by the materials that were sent from China. The learned Jesuits tracts contained some important information on music and music theory in China, which were eagerly read by intellectuals and musicians such as Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Pierre-Joseph Roussier. Each of them used the same material to come to very different conclusions, reflecting the intellectual framework within which they operated.

Rameau wrote repeatedly about the phenomenon of Chinese music in his treatises on music theory. He first misunderstood the principles of scale derivation and arrived at a construct that is effectively a whole-tone scale, a scale that is unknown in traditional Chinese music. (This may well be the first time that the whole-tone scale was theorized in the west. It was not until the age of Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy in the late nineteenth century that this scale made its entrance into western music.) Later Rameau corrected his error and reconstructed a scale that corresponds to the pentatonic (five-tone) scale that is central to music in China.

Rameau believed that triadic harmonies were dictated by acoustical relations and therefore given by nature. Consequently, he was a firm believer in the universality of music, and more specifically, in the universality of tonal triadic music, such as was common in eighteenth-century Europe. Viewed through this lens, the pentatonic scale of Chinese music could be seen as a smaller subset of the diatonic scale used in the west, and Rameau proceeded to propose idealized harmonizations for the Chinese pentatonic scale, just as he had done for western diatonic scales. These harmonies are unknown in traditional Chinese music, but from Rameau’s perspective, this was a necessary consequence of what he believed to be the universal nature of music.

Rameau’s follower, the amateur music theorist and scholar Roussier, took this line further. In his most important work on music theory, he tried to relate the music of various ancient cultures to each other. He argued that Chinese pentatonic music was the “missing link” that completed his pre-history of modern music, stretching from ancient Egypt, via ancient Greece and ancient China, to the modern music of the west. Disregarding historical and geographic factors, Roussier fitted the theory of Chinese music into an evolutionary pattern relegating it to an earlier developmental stage that would, in his view, eventually lead to European music.

There were only few voices at the time that cautioned restraint, Jean-Jacques Rousseau chief among them. It was the firm belief in the universality of music that encouraged theorists such as Roussier and Rameau to look for purported similarities and to overlook differences between Chinese and European music. The strong basis in mathematics that is found in both European and Chinese theoretical speculation supported this universalizing view.


Alexander Rehding is the Fanny Peabody Professor of Music, and Chair of the Department of Music at Harvard University.


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