China is the home of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and is also home to the earliest musical scale in recorded human history. During the 20th century, a 7000 year old xun, or globular flute, was unearthed in China. The instrument was designed around the minor third interval, which is still one of the organizing principles of Chinese music. As a result, preference for minor third and major sixth intervals masks the semitones of the Chinese scale, giving it the distinctive tone that's often difficult for the Western ear to discern even today.
This continuity of aesthetics has been remarkably constant throughout the history of Chinese music, and it's understanding is crucial to comprehending Chinese music. The ancient Chinese defined, by mathematical means, a series of 12 frequencies (called the lü-lü) from which various sets of five, or six, or seven frequencies, pentatonic and heptatonic tones, were selected to make the major scale familiar to people the Western ear, But the Chinese aesthetics prefers to use interval rather than scale. The 12 lü approximate the frequencies known in the West as F, G flat, G, E flat, and E.
The ancient Chinese system of tuning encompasses the closest approximations to the just intervals. Depending on the melodic progression, scale pitches are selected from 23 different steps within the octave so that each principal interval in the progression is just.
Chinese musical compositions also utilize a system of intervals, built upon both thirds and fourths.
Orchestral, ensemble and solo instrumental music of China are considered some of the highest art forms in the world. Multi-part formal design dominates these categories of Chinese music. A four-stage development is often used in melodic and harmonic design: qi (introduction), cheng (elucidation of the theme), zhuan (transition to another viewpoint) and he (summing up).
These aesthetic principles came into their fullest flower during the Pre-Qin period (770-476 BCE). This was the age of Confucius, an unprecedented period in human civilization when talents and human resources were put to use in the most important creative endeavors. Major principalities in China competed to attract artists, scholars, diplomats, and engineers and, of course, musicians to adorn their courts. The rise of the science of acoustics supported the ever-increasing advancements in the art of music making.
Art music was at the center of the Chinese musical system. Music for the court and dance as an art were a minor part of this philosophical mainstream. Chinese classical music was at its peak during the time of Ji Kang (223-262 CE) at the tail of the Han period. Kang was one of the great poets, musicians and philosophers of China. His writings and musical compositions are still studied today.
Chinese classical instruments from this period were classified by type in a system known as the "eight sounds": silk (stringed instruments), bamboo (flutes and reed instruments), wood (woodblocks and similar percussion instruments), stone (stone instruments hit with mallets), metal (gongs and bells), clay (the ocarina-like xun), gourd (various free-reed mouth organs), and hide (large drums).
Pre-Qin Bronze bell chimes were important orchestral instruments until they vanished from history 2,000 years ago, about the period of Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and after this era, Chinese classical music gently declined except for an extended blip during the Tang period. The decline of art music started in the Wei-Jin periods (220420 CE), and the music was gone by the second part of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE).
However, the theatrical forms collectively known as "Chinese Opera" began their rise during the Tang Dynasty, under Emperor Xuanzong (712-755 CE), who founded the "Pear Garden," the first known opera troupe in China. Today there are over 300 different styles of opera in China, the most well-known being the Beijing Opera style.
With prolonged Western contact in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, China was exposed to many new forms of music, and while many foreign forms have found a niche there, the old classical forms still persist alongside them. So that today music in China can be classified into classical music, folkloric music and movie and popular music. Sinyan Shen