Percussion writing in 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’: Can Western instruments become Chinese?

By Lena HENG and WANG Mengqi

Perceptual principles and orchestration

Opening his paper about the psychological constraints on form-bearing dimensions in music, McAdams <1> observes that, from a listener’s perspective, “the existence of artistic form is often intangible, fleeting, fugitive” <2>. Even so, musical form possesses a psychological reality to a listener. The listener has to organize and create a mental representation of the musical sounds they hear in order to comprehend these abstract musical structures. For instance, listeners are able to easily “arrange a sequence of pitches and recognize when it is heard again” <2> and thus pitch organization can be a very important aspect used in musical comprehension. Techniques of orchestration therefore have to take into account the ability and limits of human perception, so as to achieve musical effects that are perceptible and comprehensible to a listener. Orchestration treatises provide strategies for the utilization of instruments in various ways to achieve a desired sonic effect, but researchers such as Sandell <3> and Goodchild and McAdams <4> have demonstrated that these techniques could be guided by perceptual principles. An understanding of these perceptual principles can highlight musical features that are perceptually salient in listeners, and that could be used to explain the effectiveness of certain orchestration techniques.

Orchestration techniques of percussion instruments in a Western symphony orchestra and a Chinese orchestra

There are a few ways in which the percussion section has been traditionally used in Western orchestral scores. One is to simulate march music or to provide an ethnic flavour. The percussion section can also be used to emphasize accents and provide general rhythmic activity. It is also often used in building up to or capping a climax. Dramatic beginnings of pieces of music can also be intensified by percussion instruments, and finally, the percussion section is also used to colour certain pitches or even entire passages by doubling other instruments in the orchestra <5>.

In his orchestration treatise for the Chinese orchestra, Piao <6> observes that Western percussion instruments, even while they may have instances of being soloistic, rarely stand alone outside of their supportive role. In China, on the other hand, the long history of percussion ensembles in folk traditions, as well as the role of percussion in operas, created and developed characteristic featured roles for percussion instruments. Percussion instruments could be used soloistically and to perform melodic or gestural roles. As these instruments became incorporated into the Chinese orchestra, the traditional percussion roles were also absorbed into the orchestral writing, and very different uses of percussion instruments can be seen.

While Chan <7> did not specifically compare the differences between percussion writing in Western and Chinese orchestras, he talked about the characteristic uses of particular Chinese percussion instruments, highlighting similar observations Piao has about the characteristic roles percussion instruments play traditionally.

Percussion writing in 12 Questions

Composed by Zhu Shirui in 2006, 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’ is a single-movement work commissioned by the Youth and Music Festival in Berlin and the Composition Committee of Shanghai Music Conservatory <8>. The Chinese poet Qu Yuan (c. 340 BC – 278 BC) wrote the epic poem Heavenward Questions that questioned the mysteries of the heavens and earth. In the composer’s own words, this piece “should be understood just like Heavenward Questions without being answered if imagination could unify music and words, and there are no essential differences in human nature between the past and the present, the East and the West” <9>.

The piece is written for a Western orchestra and solo dizi, a Chinese transverse bamboo flute. Several Chinese percussion instruments are used in the piece. With this unique combination of instruments, the composer has to utilize different orchestration techniques so that the piece sounds unified. Being a piece with a fundamentally Chinese background in its programmatic content, the composer also has to take into consideration how the predominantly Western orchestra could reflect this content.

Zhu utilized a large number of percussion instruments in this piece and both the Western and Chinese percussion instruments are often used together. The style of writing, however, does not solely depend on whether a particular instrument is a Western or Chinese percussion instrument. A group of Chinese percussion instruments could be used to create effects reminiscent of what is commonly seen in a Western orchestra and vice versa. With the exception of the timpani, most of the other percussion instruments are unpitched or only relatively pitched.

Rhythmic accentuation

Right at the opening of ZHU Shirui’s 12 Questions on “Heavenward Questions”, we can see one of the uses of the percussion section common in a Western orchestra. The timpani are used here to accentuate the beginnings of each two-measure phrase. At m. 11 (Video 1), two Chinese percussion instruments, the tanggu (Chinese drum) and big bass luo (tam-tam) join the timpani. However, even with the addition of these two Chinese percussion instruments, the function of the percussion section here is still to accent the rhythm, and the instruments do not stand outside of this supportive role.

Video 1. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 5–20.

Percussion as a melodic instrument

The bangzi (Chinese wood drums) and bangu (little Peking-opera drum) have very strong associations with the Chinese operatic tradition, and carry strong melodic and dramatic connotations. They are often used to keep the beat for the singer, not only in metered passages but also in metrically freer ones. In many Chinese opera traditions, it is not uncommon to have passages in which the singer (and/or melodic instruments) sings a metrically free passage while the rhythm section keeps a steady pulse. This is often used to heighten the tension and to contrast and/or highlight the emotions of the singer. In addition to these types of passages, another use of the bangu is in mirroring the rhythmic patterns of the vocal and melodic lines. These uses of the bangu and bangzi in Chinese operas can be seen in Video 2 and 3, respectively. In Video 2, although the bangzi appears to be taking on the role of keeping pulse, it has the leading role in the ensemble, and instrumentalists listen to subtle cues by the bangzi to know how the melody is going to progress. With these connotations, listeners who are experienced in Chinese music likely form strong associations with the melodic line upon hearing the bangzi being used in this specific way. Video 3 is an excerpt of instrumental performances of operatic music, with the melodic instruments playing a line similar to one that an actor-singer in Chinese opera might sing; the excerpt has been selected to more clearly demonstrate the roles of the bangu.

Video 2. Bangzi with sheng and dizi playing excerpts from Shanxi narrative drama <10>.

Video 3. Bangu excerpts from Peking opera <11>.

Towards the end of the first question from around m. 21 (Video 4), the percussion instruments start coming into the melodic foreground, transitioning from a supportive role into a more prominent one. While still carrying a rhythmic pattern similar to that of the other groups of instruments, the use of rim strokes makes the percussion lines stand out more and perceptually segregates the percussion section from the other instrument groups.

Video 4. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 20–24.

The entry of the bangzis at m. 27 (Video 5) creates a clear line together with rim strokes on the timpani. Listeners experienced with percussion instruments in Chinese opera will most likely easily associate this bangzi line with a melodic line. However, these associations are not only due to learned connotations by experienced listeners. Perceptual principles also guide listeners’ attention towards this clearly segregated line. Firstly, the sharp and bright sounds of the bangzi and the rim strokes on the timpani increase the salience of this group of instruments. In addition to rim strokes, the set of different bangzis allows for relative variation in pitch, and even though it is not absolutely tuned, some form of timbral-pitch contour can be established. This pitch variation makes it easier to create not only rhythmic variation but also melodic variation, drawing listeners’ attention towards the percussion section as a separate, independent layer.

Video 5. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 25–34.

Gestural role of percussion

There is a wide variety of unpitched metallophones in Chinese percussion instruments, used traditionally in operas, processions, and ritual music. For listeners experienced with Chinese traditional music, the common use of these instruments in these types of settings has created strong associations with particular gestures, and sometimes quite specific ones.

Even though these metallophones are unpitched, each one of them has a unique timbre and their use in combination creates a range of different timbres that can be perceived as a timbral melody. With this range of timbres and the rhythmic combination of them, it is not difficult for even for a listener inexperienced in Chinese music to form associations with gestures and movements. An example is given in Video 6 where the combination of varied percussion timbres and rhythmic patterns vividly evokes gestures and movements, here specifically of the Monkey King <12> wreaking havoc in the heavens.

Video 6. Percussion excerpt from Monkey King <13>.

Although luos (Chinese gongs) are unpitched percussion instruments, a tone that changes slightly in pitch can be produced depending on the angle and position at which the instruments are hit. These pitch-changing tones allow for gestural associations to be made, or an idea of some kind of movement. Wallmark and Kendall <14> believe that metaphorical descriptions of sounds constitute conceptual representations that are “hybrids” of various frames of references. In the sound of the luo, the physical or activity frame of reference appears to dominate, an association that is easily made between the timbre, pitch, and connotations of movement. This type of association, once again, does not require a listener to be experienced in Chinese music or operatic genres.

The first appearance of the metallophones in the capacity of gestural connotation appears towards the end of Question 3, at m. 68 (Video 7). Even though metallophones have been heard before this point in the piece, they have been used more to create a dramatic entrance and less for their gestural connotations. Although only a brief three measures in length, the combination of low brasses with the small and medium luos in this passage creates an impression of a comic character in an opera (丑角[chou jue]) striding onto the scene. Comic characters, in addition to providing humour, can also be used to question philosophical ideas or express moral ideas that may be stilted or wearisome and banal if conveyed by other more serious characters. It seems apt to have such a character in this work that brings up philosophical questions that are being asked in the poem.

Both melodic and gestural elements work in conjunction in mm. 107-18 (Video 8). In addition to the instruments in the percussion section, the harp is also used here in a percussive manner. The entire percussion section and the harp form a stratified layer here, clearly distinct from the rest of the ensemble, and comparable in melodic importance to the solo dizi. The drums, tanggu and set of five paigus (Chinese drums that are relatively pitched), form the basis of the melodic line. In conjunction with the small and medium luos, a lively and animated musical line is created. From m. 115 onwards, the harp is used in a surprisingly percussive way, imitating the sound of the luos.

Video 7. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 68–70.

Video 8. 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’, mm. 107–118.


Percussion instruments are used in a unique way in this piece. The composer orchestrates the percussion in a unique way to convey the aesthetic and a narrative based on Chinese cultural ideas. There are sections in which the percussion writing is clearly in a style usually found in orchestration for Western instruments, and there are other sections in which the percussion is written in a clearly Chinese style. Even though Western and Chinese percussion instruments are used, it is not the tradition of the instrument that dictates the style (whether Western or Chinese) of the percussion writing, but rather the ways in which the music is written at a given moment.

The unique ways in which Chinese percussion instruments are used can be traced back to the traditions of folk instrumental ensembles and Chinese operas, and listeners with prior experience in these genres of music will find it easy to form associations between the percussion sounds and the musical narratives or ideas. However, these connotations are also not arbitrary, and certain aspects of it are based on perceptual principles, such as auditory streaming and segregation principles. This means that, although musical associations with the narratives and musical ideas are learnt from experience, the ways in which musical elements are used and the techniques for orchestrating particular effects are not simply arbitrary.

This piece demonstrates a unique example of how a composer might orchestrate a piece of music that uses predominantly Western orchestral instruments such that they work in conjunction with the sounds of the few Chinese instruments present to create the aesthetics and a narrative based on culturally Chinese ideas. Other techniques might be utilized in different pieces of music, creating varied and diverse effects, but most importantly, the success with which these effects may be perceived by listeners is strongly guided by basic perceptual principles.

The score is published by People’s Music Publishing House and is available for purchase.

<1> McAdams, S. (1989). Psychological constraints on form-bearing dimensions in music. Contemporary Music Review, 4(1), 181–198.

<2> McAdams, S., p. 181.

<3> Sandell, G. J. (1995). Roles for spectral centroid and other factors in determining “blended” instrument pairings in orchestration. Music Perception, 13(2), 209–246.

<4> Goodchild, M., & McAdams, S. (2018). Perceptual processes in orchestration. In E. I. Dolan & A. Rehding (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of timbre. Oxford University Press.

<5> Adler, S. (2002). The study of orchestration (3rd ed.). W.  W.  Norton and Company.

<6> 朴 [Piao], 东生 [Dongsheng]. (2011). 中国民族管弦乐实用配器手册 [A practical guide to orchestration for traditional Chinese instruments]. 人民音乐出版社 [People’s Music Publishing House].

<7> 陳 [Chan], 明志 [Ming Chi]. (2003). 中樂因您更動聽-民族管弦樂導賞 [Chinese orchestral music is better because of you—an appreciation of Chinese orchestral music] (Vol. 1). 三聯書店有限公司 [Joint Publishing H.K. Pte Ltd].

<8> 朱 [Zhu], 世瑞 [Shirui]. (2007). 12 Questions on ‘Heavenward Questions’ [Musical score]. People’s Music Publishing House.

<9> 朱 [Zhu], 世瑞 [Shirui], p. 46.

<10> Musical Map of China 中国音乐地图.瑞鸣 Rhymoi Music. (2021, December 2). Shanxi song-and-dance duet—Five Bangzi 山西二人台《五梆子》中国音乐地图 听见山西 瑞鸣音乐 Rhymoi Music. YouTube.

<11> izzie fcy. (2019, March 1). 范芷芸個人音樂會—京劇曲牌聯奏 (Peking Opera Drums and Songs). YouTube.

<12> Monkey King. (2021, September 23). Wikipedia.

<13> 香港中樂團HKCO. (2020, May 8). 【鼓聲隆隆同抗疫 給自強不息的香港人】第二十五集 – 享負盛名的「八大錘」以京劇打擊樂演繹《鬧天宮》. YouTube.

<14> Wallmark, Z., & Kendall, R. A. (2018). Describing Sound: The Cognitive Linguistics of Timbre. In E. I. Dolan & A. Rehding (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Timbre. Oxford University Press.

Lena HENG is an interdisciplinary PhD candidate in the Music Perception and Cognition Lab at McGill University Canada, under the supervision of Prof. Stephen McAdams. With a background in both psychology and music from Singapore, Heng’s research interests centre around timbre perception, musical meanings, and musical communication. They are especially interested in how prior experiences and knowledge shape the listening experience and understanding of music, and how shared understanding as well as divergent interpretations emerge. This interest began with introspection into their own listening processes and thinking about how their own experience and expertise with classical music and the Chinese music traditions contribute to their understanding of music. Being a performer also ignited their desire in understanding how various aspects of a sound can bring about or highlight certain facets of the music and communicate content to a listener.

Heng’s research has dealt with how timbre functions in the communication of affective intentions, and listeners’ continuous perception of affective intentions over the course of a piece of music. They have looked at how listeners with different musical backgrounds respond differently in perceiving musical affect. In addition, they have also worked on analyses of music, focusing predominantly on aural analyses and on the different ways that a performer and a listener interpret music. They are passionate about encouraging an openness to different ways of listening and greatly enjoy talking and writing about Chinese music. While acknowledging that this is but one musical tradition amongst the many around the world, they do hope that this will spark curiosity, and new ways of thinking about and listening to music.

Mengqi WANG obtained her first doctorate degree in musicology in the summer of 2022 at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, with her thesis “A Study on Three Contemporary French-Language Operas”. Currently, she is continuing her doctoral study at the University of Strasbourg under the supervision of Prof. Pierre Michel. Her main research interests include contemporary French-language operas, feminism and music, and cross-cultural studies.