The Role of Ritual Music

music and chanting

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, the hour of day called “Breaking the Quiet”.  As the sun rises and the people in the temple wake up, the sound of a drum calls them to the main altar where they begin their morning ritual.  They chant sacred texts and prayers for peace accompanied by flutes and drums, cymbals and strings.  The sounds prepare them for the day, calming the heart and purifying the mind.  Later, as the sun sets the drum calls them to the altar again where they begin evening chanting.  By beginning and ending the day with sacred music and chanting, the Daoists are following a tradition with over 800 years of history.

Expression of spiritual beliefs through music is a central part of Daoist culture.  Every Daoist ritual has accompanying music, and Daoist priests and nuns learn scripture by chanting it along with musical accompaniment.  Ritual music helps to coordinate intricate rituals.  In many rituals, several Daoist ritual masters (法師 fashi) recite scripture, draw talismans, follow sacred stepping patterns, and form ritual hand gestures.  Ritual music coordinates the different ceremonial actions the Daoist masters, providing a pace for their actions.

Daoist ritual music also serves to inspire followers, to bring a sense of peace and harmony and is seen as a way to speak to the gods.  Reciting scripture is also considered a form of qigong practice because the style of breathing used helps to clear the lungs of impurities.



Daoist ritual music and chanting has had a number of diverse influences.  Originally, there was the ancient shaman (巫 wu) who called the spirits to them through singing and dance.  Regional varieties of folk music have also influenced Daoist ritual music, and Daoist music has left an impression upon these local music styles.  One example of this is the music played by the Dongjing (洞经) played by the Naxi (纳西) minority from Yunnan Province, which shows a striking similarity to traditional Daoist ritual music.

The music of the imperial court and Buddhist chanting influenced Daoist ritual music as well.  The Daoist ritual music tradition is formally recognized as having originated in the Northern Wei Dynasty with Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365-488) who founded the Northern Celestial Masters school of Daoism.  It is said that Kou Qianzhi, as part of his reformation, begin the practice of chanting scripture as a ritual practice.


music style

The use of musical instruments varies from temple to temple. The Complete Perfection school of Daoism (全真道 quanzhen dao) originally used mainly percussion instruments. The Orthodox Unity school of Daoism (正一道 zhengyi dao) uses wind instruments including the flute, the horn, the sheng (a reed pipe). Stringed and plucked instruments include the erhu, the pipa, the Chinese dulcimer, and the three-stringed san xian. Instruments include large drums, bells, wooden blocks, and metal bowls. It is a Daoist belief that musical instruments (法器 faqi) manifest magic power during rituals. In most temples, musical instruments are placed on the shelves of the ritual altars (法壇 fatan) between rituals. In modern time, although there are some differences in music from temple to temple, the styles played by the two schools of Daoism are the same. This is in part because of the Daoist tradition called Cloud Wandering (云游 – yun you) where a Daoist will travel from temple to temple to further their studies, which exposed individual temples to the ritual music being used in other parts of the county. The most common style of Daoist music today is the style called “Ten Directions Tone” (十方韵 – shi fang yun). Originally from the Complete Perfection lineage, this system of Daoist music has become the standard style of ritual music in China. The style of music from Wudang Mountain is known as the “Wudang Tone” (武当韵 – wudang yun). Because Wudang served as  an imperial temple for many dynasties, the mountain’s music shows a strong resemblance to the music of the imperial court.

Traditionally, Daoist music is classified into vocal music sung or recited by the human voice and instrumental music performed with ritual instruments. Vocal music is classified as Yin Tones (陰韻) and Yang Tones (陽韻). Chanting (誦經 songjing) includes both solo chanting and choral chanting. These chants are categorized as either eulogie (頌 song), Odes (贊 zan), Hymns (偈 ji), or Pacing the Void (步虛 buxu). If a ritual requires the recitation of several passages of different scriptures, it may include a variety of chants, with and without accompaniment. Instrumental music is classified into Solemn Tunes (正曲 zheng qu), Playful Tunes (耍曲 shua qu), and Tunes for ritual Implements (法器牌子 faqi paizi).

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