We see here some of the instruments used in this ritual. Some of the instruments pictured are the bronze bells, hand drums, and the zither. Music is an integral part of Confucian ritual, serving not only as a counterpart to ritual, but also representing the sonic embodiment of human heart/mind.

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Music as Sonic Embodiment

"Music! O music! Does it mean no more than bells and drums?" Analects

Bronze bells from the temple in Beijing

For Confucius, music was more than pleasant sound. In addition to being the counterpart of ritual, music was considered the sonic embodiment of human heart/minds (xin). How music gained such significance is illustrated in the famous story of Confucius learning to play a piece for the seven-string zither.

Having learned the notes of the piece, Confucius continued practicing. Shi Xiang, a music master of the state of Lu, told Confucius that he had learned the piece and could begin learning new works. Confucius, however, refused to learn new pieces, saying that he had only mastered the sounds, but had not fully comprehended the piece. After a period of continued practice, Shi Xiang told Confucius that he had comprehended the structure, but again, Confucius believed that he understood the piece’s intention. Confucius continued his tireless practicing until he realized that the piece sonically embodied King Wen. This understanding that each piece of music is the sonic embodiment of something is critical to the understanding of the role of music in Confucian ritual.

Traditionally, there are six fixed songs and three dances that have been chosen for this ritual. These songs and dances have been carefully selected as sonic and choreographic embodiments of specific ritual meanings during the worship of Confucius.

Music During the Ritual

Music is present throughout the entire ritual, with the exception of during the reading of the prayer after the first offering. Music is used during the ceremony to denote the structural points of the ceremony—the drum announces the beginning of the ceremony, the hymns mark the ritual stages, and the music accompanies the carefully choreographed dances.

The songs performed during the ceremony are incredibly standardized in their form. Each phrase of a song begins with the bell-chimes and ends with stone-chimes. The song is sung in phrases of four words because proper music was expected to have proper accompanying text and the text should be shaped into the correct classical four-word phrases.

Musical Instruments

Jade chimes from the temple in Beijing

Like all other aspects of Confucianism, a large component of music is its ability to be balanced and harmonious, particularly in respect to yin and yang. Accordingly, the instruments used in Confucian ritual are selected for their tonal and physical qualities. The jade chimes are the yin component because they symbolize earth, while the the bronze bells are metal and symbolize yang. Because the bronze bell is yang, the bronze bell initiates the beginning of a song or measure, while the yin jade bells concludes a measure or song. The sequence of yang and yin reflects the order of yin and yang in the world; the male yang initiates things in the universe, while the female yin receives and completes all things.

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