Music in Cantonese Opera (Yueju)

Music and Speech in Cantonese Opera

Music is an important aspect in Cantonese opera. In terms of performance modes, music in Cantonese opera includes singing and instrumental accompaniment. Singing, in the field of Cantonese opera, is regarded as cheunghong (literally, singing cavity); while instrumental accompaniment is regarded as paakwo (literally, beating and harmonization).
Music in Cantonese opera is rich. The playwright often selects and employs different kinds of music according to the plots. In general, music in Cantonese opera can be categorized as: aria type, fixed tune, narrative music and percussion music.

Aria Type

The aria type can be categorized into bongji and yiwong. In the profession, bongji is called sigung and yiwong as hoche. According to different textual systems and requirements, the aria type employs the approach of yiji hanghong (literally, deriving the melody according to the linguistic tones) to develop the melodies. It emphasizes the close relationship between musical tones and the linguistic tones of Cantonese. Collaborating together, the melody and the rhythmic system generate different kinds of aria types in Cantonese opera.

Fixed tune

Fixed tunes in Cantonese opera can be categorized into: 1) melodies from other Chinese xiqu genres, such as the paiji from Kun opera; 2) specific new melodies created from aria types by specific artists who modified previous aria types and included their personal interpretation, such as the jaitaaphong, which was derived from faansin yiwong maanbaan; 3) adoption of Cantonese tunes and other melodies from China and overseas, and 4) specifically composed melodies. Compared with aria types, the fixed tunes possess stable and fixed melodies. Since the fixed tunes are existing melodies, the playwright has to “fill in” the lyrics to suit the melodic tones.

Narrative music

Narrative music in Cantonese opera includes naamjam, mukjyu, lungzau, baanngaan, and jyuau. These kinds of music were largely spread over the Cantonese communities in Guangdong province. These genres possess their own musical structure. For instance, in naamyam, mukjyu and lungzau, there are three parts, namely, heisik (introduction), jingman (main part), and sousik (conclusion). Since the 20th century, the narrative music has been broadly employed in Cantonese opera. However, playwrights usually adopt parts of these genres in order to contrast with other types of music in Cantonese opera.

Percussion music

Percussion music in Cantonese opera is known by the filed as lohgu (literally gong and drum) or “Chinese music”, which are different from the melodic music which are known as yamngok (literally music) or “Western music”. In recent years there are three types of percussion music, namely, gobin lohgu, man lohgu, and ging lohgu. The first two kinds were found in traditional laihei (literally routine play) and paaicoenghei (literally fixed form play). The ging lohgu was introduced from the Peking opera in early 20th century. The differences among these three types of percussion music lie not only on the combinations and usage of different percussion instruments, but also on the different contexts, moods and styles. Thus the performers employ different types of percussion music based on these reasons. During the performance, percussion music not only functions as providing basic pulse, rhythm and tempo, but also guides, heightens and supplements the whole performance, especially in those fighting scenes in which percussion music is in a leading role.


Speeches in Cantonese opera can be categorized into two main types: with and without instrumental accompaniment. Speech types with instrumental accompaniment mainly include sibaak, baaklaam, haugu, lohgubaak and longbaak. The first four types are accompanied by percussion music while the last one is accompanied by melodic instruments. The speech type without instrumental accompaniment is haubaak. It is close to daily dialogues in a free structure and interpretation.

Instrumental Accompaniment

The Chinese term of instrumental accompaniment is paakwoh, which means to beat and to reply to the singing through instrumental playing. The instruments mainly imitate the vocal melody, and served as the role to guide, heighten and fill up the gap between the phrases with supplementary melodies by instruments, which particularly emphasis on the improvisation and interaction between the singing and accompaniment. It differs from the western concept of harmonized accompaniment.


There are two sections of the instrumental group, namely, percussion group and the melodic group, each with a leader. There are normally a leader with 2 players in the percussion group playing different percussion instruments, while a flexible number of melodic instrumentalists in the melodic group. The melodic group may include the following instruments: violin, gaohu, and erxian (played by the leader), dizi, dongxiao, saxophone, erhu, zhonghu, zhutiqin, yehu, sanxian, pipa, guzheng, zhongruan and cello etc. It should be highlighted that some western instruments were introduced to the accompany ensemble, such as the violin, saxophone and cello since the mid-20th century in Hong Kong by some eminent artists including Xue Juexian (or Sit Goksin in Cantonese). However, the ways of playing these western instruments has been localized in order to suit the musical characteristics of Cantonese opera. For instance, the open strings of the violin has been changed from G, D, A, E to F, C, G, D in order to suit the vocal range and the modes of Cantonese opera.