Many East Asian cultures consider the number 4 to be unlucky, because their words for that number are highly homophonic to the word for death. Quite often you will see companies skipping the number 4 in their product numbers to avoid being unlucky and many buildings do not have a 4th floor (akin to how many Western buildings do not have a 13th).

When I listen to Chinese music, I hear groups of 4 beats, which seems funny given their attitude towards 4. The literature I find considers their music to be "duple," a category that includes both 2/4 and 4/4 time in Western terminology. It occurred to me the other day that the groups of 4 might be in my head, as a Westerner, as I apply my own structure to their music.

Do Chinese composers and musicians count their music differently, perhaps counting in groups of 2 or 8 instead?

  • The same homophone exists in the Japanese language (since both words are derived from the Chinese words), so I wonder the same about traditional Japanese music now. Apr 2, 2015 at 2:27
  • Possibly informative: teachervision.com/china/resource/8575.html Apr 2, 2015 at 12:57
  • @CarlWitthoft Thank you for the link. I had come across it, but it certainly is the closest to a definitive answer I have identified so far. It does suggest that counting was done in groups of 2.
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 2, 2015 at 16:12

1 Answer 1


One way of expressing meter in traditional Chinese music is in terms of ban and yan - 'beats' and 'eyes'. The 'ban' represents the main beat, or the pulse of the bar, while the 'yan' (eye) represents a weak beat. Some common meters were

  • One ban followed by three yans : ban - yan - yan - yan - ban - yan - yan - yan
  • Alternating : ban - yan - ban - yan
  • Constant strong beat : ban - ban - ban - ban

You can probably see the similarity of the first one to a time signature involving the dreaded unlucky number you mentioned - but expressing it in this way, we've been able to avoid mentioning it!

refs: The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music
SOAS lesson on Chinese music
World Musics in Context

Of course if expressing your meter through western time signatures, you have to use the appropriate number, putting your superstition on one side. Superstitions are like that : they can't be too impractical. I'm sure most cars in China have four wheels!


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