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SOUNDS OF JAPAN | HISTORY OF MUSIC

A man plays a taiko drum

The history of music in Japan is rich and varied, from its traditional folk music to JPop’s global takeover.

Here’s our overview of the different forms and instruments used in traditional Japanese music.

CLASSICAL JAPANESE MUSIC

Historically, Japanese folk music was strongly influenced by music from China, with some of its forms being imported from China more than a thousand years ago. Many popular Japanese musical instruments originated in China and were then adapted to meet local needs.

TRADITIONAL JAPANESE MUSIC 

Traditional Japanese music usually refers to Japan’s historical folk music. Two forms are recognised as the oldest forms of traditional Japanese music - shōmyō, or Buddhist chanting, and gagaku, or theatrical court music.

Shōmyō is a ritual music sung in a Buddhist ceremony by a group of Buddhist monks – literally translated, the word ‘shōmyō’ combines the characters for ‘voice’ and ‘wisdom’.

Gagaku is the oldest traditional music in Japan and includes dances and songs in two styles – kigaku, which is instrumental music, and seigaku, a form of vocal music.

There are several Japanese dramatic forms in which music plays a significant role. The main ones are kabuki and noh. Kabuki is known for its highly stylised dancing and singing, together with its elaborate make-up (sported by a predominantly male cast).

Noh is a form of classical Japanese musical drama which has been performed since the 14th century. Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature, with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating the story – usually involving a mask being worn.

Noh has been dubbed ‘Japanese opera’ and is a ‘chanted drama’, but the singing is dependent on a limited tonal range. The music has many blank spaces (ma) between the sounds; the negative blank spaces are in fact considered to be the heart of the music.

The accompaniment is provided by a hayashi ensemble of three drummers and a flautist.

INSTRUMENTAL JAPANESE MUSIC

Traditional Japanese music is meditative in character, with highly ritualised performance – sharing much in common with martial arts, and other Japanese art forms such as the tea ceremony and calligraphy. The music often looks to represent natural sounds, and the sounds of life, through percussion, wind and stringed instruments.

An interesting feature of classical Japanese music is its sparse rhythm and absence of regular chords. All of the rhythms are ‘ma’-based and silence is an important part of the songs.

JAPANESE MUSIC INSTRUMENTS

The key instruments used to play Japanese music are:

  • Shamisen
  • Shakuhachi
  • Koto

The shamisen resembles a guitar, with a long, thin neck and a small rectangular body covered with skin. It has three strings, with the pitch adjusted by tuning pegs on the head, like a guitar or violin. It’s played with a large triangular plectrum that’s used to strike the strings.

Two women wearing traditional Japanese dress playing the Shamisen instrument

(Image via)

The shakuhachi is a flute made of bamboo that’s played by blowing on one end.

Sometimes called a ‘five-holed bamboo flute’ in English, it has four holes on the front, and one on the back, and is characterised by its distinctively poignant tone.

A collection of shakuhachi flutes

(Image via)

Historians think the koto was invented around the fifth to the third century BC in China, with the 13-stringed version coming to Japan during the Nara period (710-794).

This large, wooden instrument is played with picks worn on the fingers, and uses movable bridges placed under each string to change the pitch.

Of these traditional instruments, the koto is probably the most familiar and popular. During the New Year holidays ‘Haru no Umi,’ a duet with the shakuhachi, is often piped in as background music, and during the cherry blossom (sakura) season, the popular tune ‘Sakura, Sakura’ is performed on the koto.

Explore these different aspects of Japanese music culture with our shamisen, shakuhachi and koto tracks. 

TRADITIONAL JAPANESE MUSIC ARTISTS

Many of the popular musicians playing traditional Japanese music release albums and tour globally, bringing their music to a Western audience. For a great introduction, have a listen to:

The Yoshida Brothers

Their debut album sold over 100,000 copies and since then they’ve toured the US and recorded an album in Los Angeles, attracting international fans. Their music was also used in the TV commercial for Nintendo’s Wii. Their style pushes the shamisen’s sound from traditional music into jazz, experimental music, rock ‘n’ roll and pop.

The Nenes

The Nenes (‘sisters’ in Okinawan) are four women who sing Okinawan folk songs, performing on traditional instruments and in traditional costumes. Ryuichi Sakamoto recorded with them and took them on a European tour in the mid-1990s, which gave their music global recognition.

Kodō

Kodō are one of the elite taiko drumming groups and have been a major force in the post-World War II revitalisation of taiko drumming, regularly touring in Japan and the United States. Their shows also include other traditional Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen, together with traditional dance and vocal performances.

WHERE TO DOWNLOAD JAPANESE MUSIC

Looking for Japanese music? Audio Network’s Sounds Of Japan series showcases high quality, authentic music from shamisen-based rock to JPop, and delicate yet powerful Japanese instrumental performances.





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