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TRADITIONAL JAPANESE MUSIC: YOUR COMPLETE GUIDE

traditional japanese music

When you think of Japanese music, your go-to is probably the bubblegum brightness of J-pop, anime scores and the acclaimed Studio Ghibli films, or the huge array of video game soundtracks by talented Japanese composers. Japan’s musical traditions stretch back over centuries, and is a richly diverse tapestry of cultures. Here, we take you through a history of traditional Japanese music and introduce you to a variety of the genres, many of which are still being created and enjoyed today.

Traditional Japanese music is also known as ‘hōgaku, which literally means (home) country music, and usually refers to music from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries. Within this there are many subgenres, including Japanese folk music, court music, Japanese theatrical music and Japanese instrumental music.

Check out our Japanese playlist for tracks using traditional Japanese instruments.

Traditional Japanese Music

  • Japanese folk music
  • Japanese court music
  • Japanese theatre music
  • Japanese Instrumental music:
    • Koto
    • Shakuhachi
    • Shamisen
    • Hichiriki
    • Komabue
    • Sho
    • Biwa

Japanese folk music

Like many other ancient countries around the world, Japan was influenced by cultures outside its borders from its earliest days. During the 6th to the 8th centuries it engaged, politically and culturally, mainly with China and the Korean Peninsula, and Chinese court music in particular made a significant impact.

Up to this point, Shinto rituals and ceremonies were the main arena for folk songs, with music accompanied by dancing and singing. There were many local and regional traditions, and knowledge and performance were passed down through generations.

Japanese folk music is known as min'yō – a compound word bringing together ‘min’ (folk, or the people) and ‘yō’ (song); it’s a word that’s also found in Chinese sources as far back as the 5th century. Many min'yō are connected to specific trades, whilst some accompanying dances are part of religious rituals. As with a lot of Western folk music, min'yō have a regional flavour, with each area of Japan having its own distinct genre.

The original work-based folk songs were sung unaccompanied. Later, instruments including the shamisen, shakuhachi, and shinobue, as well as various percussion instruments were used.

However, as the political system became increasingly centralised, these local music traditions found their way to the capital and were absorbed into court music. Professional musicians and dancers were employed in the Imperial court. These positions were hereditary, ensuring an unbroken line of traditions and repertoire continued for centuries.

Between the ninth and 12th centuries, nobles began to perform music and dance, and learning these skills became an expected accomplishment of those in society’s upper echelons.

A significant shift came when the Tang Dynasty fell in the 10th century. Imperial envoys were abolished and as a result, there was a significant drop in contact with foreign cultures. This led to more distinctively indigenous versions of music and the emergence of popular songs.

To this day interest in folk songs and their history and traditions is strong in Japan, with a number of folk song preservation societies acting as gatekeepers of ‘correct’ performance (many responsible for a single local song), together with regional and international folk-based Japanese
ensembles. However, during the 20th century, many min'yō songs were altered to become increasingly virtuosic, meaning that today, min'yō is studied almost exclusively under professional teachers.

For a modern take on min'yō, check out the Minyo Crusaders:

Japanese court music

The music that became the sound of the Kyoto Imperial court is gagaku (it literally means ‘elegant music’). The oldest form of classical music in Japan, it comprises four categories – kangen (an instrumental ensemble), bugaku (dance music), saibara and rōei (songs) and music for Shinto ceremonies (Kuniburi no utamai). As it was only ever heard by royalty and aristocrats, over time gagaku was imbued with reverential respect among ordinary Japanese people.

Kangen and bugaku’s longest pieces have three movements – introduction (slow), development (breaking), and conclusion (rushing), but the tempo throughout is generally very slow.

Saibara literally means ‘pack-horse driver songs’ – these were, as you’d expect, based on folk songs, but modified to make them more palatable to the refined ears of those at court. Rōei (chanting) contains texts taken from two collections of Chinese and Japanese poetry.

gagaku ensemble is comprised of sixteen musicians, traditionally all men. They use only classic Japanese instruments; woodwinds, strings and percussion. The woodwind includes the sho (mouth organ), hichiriki (double reed flute) and ryūteki (transverse flute), with the koto (the national instrument of Japan), biwa (a lute) and gakuso (13-string zither) in the string section. Percussion is provided by kakko and taiko drums, together with a shoko (metal percussion) and other instruments such as a shaku (a clapper made from a pair of flat wooden sticks).

Gagaku peaked in popularity between the ninth and 12th centuries, after which it entered a slow decline. However, in 1868, the Meiji emperor revived the Imperial court’s mystique, and in 2009, UNESCO placed gagaku on the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list.

Japanese theatre music

Music is central in a much of Japanese theatre. The two main forms are Noh and Kabuki. Noh can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1192); its otherworldly dance-drama performances, passed down through generations, have remained largely unchanged. It uses masks and fantastical costumes, a small number of actors and minimal, stylised movements.

The texts are partly sung by a choir, the jiutai, (leading to some dubbing it ‘Japanese opera’), and the music is provided by the hayashi: three drummers and a nohkan flutist. Noh is still regularly performed today – there are estimated to be more than 70 Noh theatres in the country, and each Noh school has its own permanent venue.

Kabuki is characterised by its highly stylized dancing and singing, elaborate make-up and predominantly all-male cast. It originated in the Edo period (1603-1868), and borrowed elements from existing forms of theatre such as Noh.

The on-stage orchestra for a Kabuki performance comprises several shamisen players, singers and percussionists, all dressed in a type of ceremonial clothing called kamishimo. In addition to this there’s an off-stage orchestra, consisting mainly of percussion instruments.

Instrumental music

One of the key differences between Japanese and Western instrumental music is the way its players approach performance. Traditional Japanese music is characterised by its meditative nature. Similar to marital arts, or arts such as calligraphy and the tea ceremony, the spiritual character of Japanese music requires players to perfect self-mastery and inner strength, rather than simply providing entertainment.

Performances are usually highly ritualised. Improvisation has practically no role in any of the major genres of East Asian music, and the way that performers play is more akin to choreography. We spoke with Taiko Drummer Joji Hirota at Abbey Road Studios who unpacked why being a Taiko Drummer is akin to being a performer.

Koto 

The Koto is a 13-stringed zither with moveable bridges. Sankyoku, or ‘music for three’, is the term for koto chamber music (made up of a koto player, who also sings, accompanied by a three-stringed samisen lute and a shakuhachi flute).

Shakuhachi

This end-blown flute is made from bamboo and has traditionally been played almost exclusively by men in Japan, although this is now changing. The traditional genres of shakuhachi music are honkyoku (traditional, solo), sankyoku (ensemble, with a koto and shamisen) and shinkyoku (composed for shakuhachi and koto, a new form influenced by Western music).

To hear how authentic Japanese instruments can be brought together beautifully with a Western orchestra, check out Jérôme Leroy’s Shifting Perspectives.

Shamisen

Derived from the Chinese banjo-like instrument, the sanxian, the shamisen arrived in Japan in the 16th century. It has a fretless neck, hollow body and three strings, and is played with a plectrum called a bachi, either solo or in ensembles – for example to accompany Kabuki.

Hichiriki

One of the ‘sacred’ instruments, this double-reed Japanese bamboo flute is often heard at Shinto weddings, and its haunting notes sound like a bit like a cross between a clarinet and the high notes of a harmonica. It’s the most widely-used instrument in gagaku and is related to both Chinese and Korean instruments.

Komabue

Similar to the ryūteki, but smaller and with six fingerholes instead of seven, the komabue is a transverse (played sideways) flute. Like the shakuhachi, it’s usually an ensemble instrument.

Sho

The beautiful sho is a free reed mouth organ with seventeen pipes arranged in a circle, symbolising the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth. The pipes are its wings; the wind chamber its body, the mouth pipe its beak, and its sound the bird’s voice.

Biwa

The pear-shaped biwa lute has four or five strings of twisted silk, stretched over four or more frets on a short neck, and is played with a large wooden plectrum. It’s one of the most important string instruments in a gagaku ensemble.

Now you’re familiar with the genres and instruments of traditional Japanese music, if you’re looking for Japanese music to license, our Sounds of Japan albums have everything you need, including fantastic taiko drumming by acclaimed artist Joji Hirota.





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