Music Lessons

Wu Dao-Gong, Treatise on the Hexagram

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In his Treatise on the Hexagram, the Chinese musician Wu Dao-Gong proposes the adoption of a music notation system alternative to the pentagram. The idea is very ingenious, let us see how it works.

To develop his hexagram Wu Dao-Gong starts with a simple observation: by adding a staff below the bass clef, or a staff above the treble clef, one obtains a hexagram (six lines) that somehow ‘adds up’ the two clefs of treble and bass.

How the hexagram works

For example, in the treble clef the notes in the spaces are F A C E, in the bass clef A C E G. If I combine the two keys as Wu Dao-Gong proposes, I get the five notes F A C E G.

The same thing happens with the notes on the lines: E G B D F in the treble clef, G B D F A in the bass clef. If I add a line above the treble clef, or below the bass clef, the result is a hexagram with the notes E G B D F A. Again, it is as if the two bass and treble clefs were merged into a single, larger staff.

Normally, bass and treble clefs are joined to form the endecagram, i.e. the double piano stave. Well, by pairing two hexagrams in a similar way, we obtain a key with thirteen lines (including middle C) in which, however, the two parts, the one above and the one below, are completely symmetrical.

In the hexagram, the first note with the ledger line is always C, regardless of whether it is above or below the musical staff. The middle note, the one in the third space, is also always C.

The system proposed by Wu Dao-Gong is therefore very simple and intuitive; a drawing easily shows how it works.

Esagramma di Wu Dao-Gong

In addition to the undoubted advantage of reading in a single clef instead of the two bass and treble clefs, the hexagram would greatly reduce the use of ledger lines, which are always an obstacle for those learning to read music.

In the pentagram we can in fact write only 9 notes, five on the lines four in the spaces. The hexagram adds two, bringing the total to 11. If we pair two hexagrams as happens in the piano stave, the available notes increase from 21 to 25, thus reducing the need to use notes outside the staff.

The premises of Wu Dao-Gong’s system

In proposing his system of writing music, Wu Dao-Gong starts from a premise: the pentagram of European origin is the most effective form of musical writing that has been invented and perfected until now. Therefore, in developing his hexagram, he has kept the classical European system almost intact.

The shape of the notes, the musical values and even the basic principle of the pentagram would be maintained, so as not to abandon the tradition entirely.

In addition to practical reasons, Wu Dao-Gong bases his system on elements of Chinese philosophy: the concept of the whole, the concept of the unity of opposites, the theory of the centre, the symmetrical pattern.

Jianpu, pentagramma, Gongche
Three different notation systems compared: Jianpu, Pentagram, Gongche

Wu Dao-Gong’s proposal is enticing. His Treatise on the Hexagram expresses the author’s great passion not only for this revolutionary idea of his, but for all music.

There would be many good reasons for adopting this system, and after all, a line has already been added to the staff system once: when the four-line tetragrammaton was changed to the modern pentagram.

However, this aim of innovation in music writing is probably condemned to failure. Good ideas do not always succeed in supplanting what has been consolidated over centuries of history.

Although the hexagram-based system is simpler and more functional than the current one, using it would require the commitment of at least a couple of generations of musicians, ready to take on the burden of learning a new reading system, without being able to abandon the previous one. How long would it take to transcribe all the music with the new system?

Treatise on the Hexagram, final remarks

Wu Dao-Gong’s Treatise on the Hexagram shows how the notation system we are used to considering eternal and perfect, could actually be much improved. For a musician, continuing to question music theory and how we think about music is always stimulating and useful.

Wu Dao-Gong’s Treatise on the Hexagram can be downloaded free of charge from the musician’s website and an Italian translation exists.

If you found out about the existence of the Hexagram through this review of mine and have decided to read Wu Dao-Gong’s treatise, please come back to this page after reading and write to me with your thoughts. Thank you!

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