According to tradition, yayue was created by the Duke of Zhou under commission from King Wu of Zhou, shortly after the latter's conquest of Shang. Incorporated within yayue were elements of shamanistic or religious traditions, as well as early Chinese folk music. Dance was also closely associated with yayue music, each yayue pieces may have a ceremonial or ritual dance associated with it. The most important yayue piece of the Zhou dynasty were the Six Great Dances, each associated with a legendary or historical figure - Yunmen Dajuan (雲門大卷), Daxian (大咸), Daqing (大磬, or Dashao 大韶), Daxia (大夏), and Dahu (大濩), Dawu (大武).
The Book of Rites records a number of situations where yayue might be performed. These included ceremonies in honour of Heaven and Earth, the gods or the ancestors. There were also detailed rules on the way they were to be performed at diplomatic meetings. Yayue was also used in outdoor activities, such as aristocratic archery contests, during hunting expeditions, and after the conclusion of a successful military campaign. Yayue was characterised by its rigidity of form. When performed, it was stately and formal, serving to distinguish the aristocractic classes. It was sometimes also accompanied by lyrics. Some of these are preserved in the Book of Songs.
With the decline of the importance ceremony in the interstate relations of the Spring and Autumn period, so did yayue. Confucius famously lamented the decline of classical music and the rites. Marquess Wen of Wei was said to prefer the popular music of Wey and Zheng to the ancient court music, listening to which he may fall asleep.
Much of the yayue of the Zhou dynasty continued into the Qin dynasty. However, some pieces appeared to have been lost or were no longer performed by the Han dynasty, and the content and form of yayue was modified in this as well as the succeeding dynasties. During the Tang dynasty components of popular music were added to yayue. However, the dominant form of music in the Sui and Tang court was the entertainment music for banquets called yanyue (燕樂), and the term yayue became reserved for the music of Confucian rituals used in temples of the Imperial Family and the nobility as well as in Confucian temples.
During the Song dynasty, with Neo-Confucianism becoming the new orthodoxy, Yayue was again in ascendancy with major development, and a yayue orchestra in this era consisted of over 200 instrumentalists. Two important texts from the Song dynasty describing yayue performances were Zhu Xi's Complete Explanation of the Classic of Etiquette and Its Commentary (儀禮經傳通解) and Collection of Music (樂書) by Chen Yang (陳暘). In 1116, a gift of 428 yayue instruments as well as 572 costumes and dance objects was given to Korea by Emperor Huizong upon request by the Emperor Yejong of Goryeo. As a result, elements of Song dynasty yayue music such as melodies are still preserved in Korea.
A short excerpt of a historical recording of yayue c. 1925 used in a Confucian ritual before such music disappeared from mainland China.
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Some forms of yayue survived for imperial ceremonies and rituals until the fall of the Qing dynasty when the imperial period of China came to an end. Yayue however was still performed as part of a Confucian ritual in China until the Communist takeover in 1949 when it completely disappeared. There has been a revival in yayue in Confucian ritual in Taiwan since the late 1960s, and in mainland China since the 1990s. A major research and modern reconstruction of yayue of the imperial court was initiated in Taiwan in the 1990s, and in mainland China a performance of yayue music in 2009 by Nanhua University's yayue music ensemble in Beijing also spurred interest in this form of music. There are however questions over the authenticity of these revived and recreated yayue music and dances, especially the use of modern forms of instruments and various substitutions rather than the more ancient and original forms, nonetheless some argued that such music and dances have always changed over time through succeeding dynasties, and that any changes introduced in the modern era should be seen in this light.