Guqin Concert: Harmony between music and physics

On April 19th, 2023, as part of a special cultural event associated with the 2023 DKU Library Book Fair, Mr. Zhou Tongsheng (周通生), a Guqin performer and instructor, and Professor Paul Stanley, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, delivered a wonderful interdisciplinary sharing session on the Guqin, one of the oldest plucked musical instruments in China.

Encounter with Guqin

Mr. Zhou Tongsheng, originally from Nantong, Jiangsu, had worked in a trading company for a long time. While working in the UK, thousands of miles away from home, he occasionally listened to a Guqin music tape, which planted a seed in his heart that he would like to learn Guqin someday when he returned home. 

Later, after completing his work in the UK and returning to China, he sought out Mr. Wang Yongchang, a highly reputable Guqin performer and the national cultural heritage inheritor of Guqin, to formally learn the instrument, following the traditional practice of “拜师学艺” (paying respects to a master and learning the art). At that time, Mr. Zhou was already in his 40s, relatively “old” compared to other students. However, he devoted many hours to practice and could not be without his Guqin for a single day. Wherever he went, he always carried his Guqin with him, even on business trips to other countries. After more than 20 years of learning and practice, Mr. Zhou has become a skilled Guqin performer and teacher.

Dr. Paul Stanley had his own remarkable journey with the Guqin. He is a physics professor who has directed the U.S. physics team for over a dozen years. His research focuses on the intersections of nonlinear dynamics, acoustics of Asian musical instruments, and mathematical physics. While teaching physics in Hong Kong as a visiting faculty member, he had the opportunity to meet a Guqin teacher in Guizhou. Driven by his interest in this ancient Chinese musical instrument, he flew from Hong Kong to Guizhou regularly to learn Guqin. Subsequently, he conducted extensive research on the tuning of the Guqin from the perspective of a physics scholar.

Guqin Concert with Physics Insights

What would happen when a Guqin performer encounters a physics professor and an inheritor of Chinese heritage meets a foreign scholar? During the event, Mr. Zhou performed a series of Guqin music pieces and introduced the history of the Guqin, which spans over 3,000 years. The Guqin holds a significant position among the “qin, qi, shu, hua” (music, chess, calligraphy, painting) four arts of ancient Chinese literati. 

He also showed to the audience how to read Guqin music’s notation, “jianzi pu” 减字谱. It is a unique notation method for Guqin music by selecting essential elements of characters and combining them into one character notation. These character notations convey the plucking techniques.

Illustration of “jianzi pu”

Professor Stanley complemented the event by providing explanations of physics and acoustics principles related to the Guqin. He introduced three playing styles for the Guqin: San Yin (scattered sounds), Fan Yin (harmonic sounds), and An Yin (pressing sounds). Additionally, he delved into topics such as string vibrations, resonance, and sound wave propagation.

Mr. Zhou generously brought three Guqins for the audience to practice and experience during the event. This great opportunity allowed many attendees to try their hand at playing this ancient instrument for the very first time. People enthusiastically began learning how to read Guqin’s music sheets, displaying a keen interest in practicing the instrument.

The event was a fascinating demonstration of a seamless intersection of music, culture, and physics. The two hosts offered a unique artistic-scientific event that was both entertaining and educational.