Chinese Instruments and Music - Music in Ancient China answers questions
Upgrade /Log in
Options /Log out
Early Europe
Central Asia
Islamic Empire
Native Americans
S./Central America
American History

Ancient Chinese Music

A Chinese musician playing a qin

The first people who came to China, about 50,000 years BC, brought their music with them from Africa. These people certainly clapped their hands and sang songs, and probably they brought drums and bone pipes with them to China.

Chinese instrument
(Metropolitan Museum, New York)
Chinese trumpet
A Chinese trumpet (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Chinese tradition says that a man named Ling Lun, perhaps during the Zhou Dynasty, about 1000 BC, invented the earliest musical instruments in China, bamboo pipes that imitated the sounds of birds. But really people were certainly playing drums and pipes as early as the Shang Dynasty, about 1800 BC.

The philosopher Confucius, about 500 BC, said that music should be a way of calming people down and making it easier for them to think. Many later Chinese composers agreed with Confucius. Because of this, people respected official music much more than popular music.

Under the Chin Dynasty, about 200 BC, the Chinese emperors established an Imperial Music Bureau to oversee all kinds of music. Perhaps around this same time, the qin, a Chinese stringed instrument like a zither, was invented.

The Han emperors, beginning about 100 BC, told the Imperial Music Bureau to work on court music and military music, and also to keep track of folk music. They were especially interested in keeping track of political protest music, and sent music officers out to listen and collect popular music. They tried to stop revolts by controlling music.

During the T'ang Dynasty, about 700 AD, musicians wrote a lot of new music for the qin. With the rise of the Silk Road, Central Asian music became a strong influence on Chinese music. People began to use a bow to play stringed instruments, which was a Central Asian idea.

Find out about African music

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese music:

Egyptian music
More about music
Ancient China home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

Help support! (formerly "History for Kids") is entirely supported by your generous donations and by our sponsors. Most donors give about $10. Can you give $10 today to keep this site running? Or give $50 to sponsor a page?

'Tis the season: read all about the history of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas. Who invented Christmas trees? Who were the Maccabees? When was Jesus really born? How did people celebrate Hanukkah in the Middle Ages? Plus, some great gift ideas.