The Eight Notes of Hakka Music

In the traditional classification of musical instruments, the Eight Notes (Bayin) refers to the eight materials used to make instruments, namely metal, stone, string, bamboo, fruit shell, earthenware, animal hide and wood. During their migrations in China and eventually to Taiwan, the Hakka assimilated and combined music from different regions into their own music and gradually developed a special style called the Eight Hakka Notes. Music featured prominently in ceremonies (deity and ancestor worshipping), guest greeting and banquets. The formats are mainly divided into ceremonial and orchestrated music with suonas (double-reeded horn) as the lead instruments.

There are the big and the small ceremonial music. The former uses big suonas as the lead, accompanied by gongs and drums. The latter is led by small suonas and complemented by string and bamboo instruments and gongs and drums. The numbers performed include traditional melodies, northern Luantan melodies and other local tunes.

Orchestrated music is also divided into two categories. The first is concerted music played mostly with string and bamboo instruments at ceremonies. The other uses suonas as the lead and string and bamboo instruments for accompaniment to perform folk tunes, traditional extravagant melodies, Luantan Fulu and Xilu tunes, and songs from Hakka tea-picking operas and singing operas.

Originally a type of small wind-percussion band performance, the Eight Notes went through changes in time, expanding in functions and transforming from background music for ceremonies to entertainment at auspicious occasions as well as funerals today. During the progress, the types of instruments were diversified and opera and mountain song singing were also added in. In the ever-changing musical environment, the Eight Notes exhibited its enduring popularity and adaptability in its absorption of content and performance from other types of music. After appropriate adjustment and modification, it assimilated these contents with its own unique music style remaining intact.

The most amazing part of the Hakka Eight Notes performance culture is not only its suona techniques but also its adaptability. Instruments and melodies of all kinds can be brought in the range of the Eight Notes for a harmonious combination. This phenomenon demonstrates the strong vitality of the Eight Notes. The continued endurance of traditional music is also a profound revelation in modern days: Traditional music is not just worth preserving; it is still moldable and capable of further development. In today’s changing environment, musicians of the Eight Notes are displaying their artistry in dynamic new traditions, as opposed to intractable old conventions of the past.