Things to Know about Traditional Music in Japan

The History of Traditional Japanese Music

All cultures and people of the world certainly have their own form of music. Whether they are pre-colonial or pre-modern, it is certain that these kinds of music are unique and one of a kind. However, the development of trade and travel have created a significant influence on the development of cultures in different parts of the world. This is why there are bits and pieces of a certain culture in another country.

For instance, the majority of the sounds heard in what is now known as ”traditional Japanese music” are strongly influenced by the earlier forms of Chinese music. This influence is evident in a number of aspects which include even in instrumentation, citations, scaling, and vocalization. Along with the spread of religion, came the spread of culture. With this, music was one of those unexpected importations.

There are rituals and celebrations which have been brought about by religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism to Japan. Along with these rituals are the music – be it with instruments or simply chanting. Through the years, this kind of music intertwined with a core of the country’s culture.

In the Japanese culture, traditional music is known as Ongaku. This word directly translates to “comfort”. Classical Japanese music is supposed to be relaxing for its listeners – which is why traditional Japanese music is today connoted with Zen Buddhism.

Some examples of traditional music in Japan would be the min’yo in Buddhism. This is a collection of songs which could be used for a variety of purposes – they could be for celebrations, weddings, funerals, and even religious activities. Another kind of Japanese traditional music would be the yukar from the Ainu people. This is the kind of story telling intertwined with songs and music.

Traditional Japanese Music Theory: The Different Kinds

Court Music or Gagaku

Also known as the ancient imperial court music, gagaku is the type of music that is played in the Imperial Courts of Japan. There are different kinds of Gagaku and it all depends on what occasion or ritual is being performed. According to history, this kind of music was imported from China. However, it was given its own flare as it employs what is known as the yo scale (or pentatonic scale). This is a progression of five ascending scale tones.

In Gagaku, there are three major types of instruments used and it is no ordinary set of traditional Japanese instruments. Wind instruments include the mouth organ, an oboe, and panpipes. On the other hand, stringed instruments include the lute, harp, and zither. Percussion instruments include small gongs, hourglass-shaped drums, and clappers.

Since Gagaku is known to be the oldest form of traditional Japanese music, it is understandable why it has gained a wide variety. One variant is known as the Shomyo, and it is the kind of music that is played and sung by traditional Buddhist Monks. Another is the Joruri, which is a narrative kind of music which could be dated back more than a century. Its popularity rose during the Edo period. There are kinds of Joruri music which are played in kabuki dances – there are songs which are upbeat and others which are solemn depending on the story being told by the performance.

Another variant f the Gagaku is the Nagauta which is a kind of traditional music largely influenced by the Shamisen. This kind of music is most commonly used in kabuki. Another would be the Sokyoku, which is a kind of traditional music which is likened to traditional Chinese music.

Theatrical Music for Noh and Kabuki

Traditional music played a very important role in the production of classical Japanese plays. During the earlier times, when sound effects and music were not yet influenced by high technology, an entire performance relied on how well the music goes. Japanese theatre is all about the music, the dances, and the costumes.

Noh is a popular kind of Japanese traditional music and is often characterized as classical theatrical music. Usually, it is accompanied by a traditional instrument ensemble known as the hayashikata. On the other hand, when music is paired up with dancing, singing, and acting this becomes what is known as the kabuki. This is the most popular type of Japanese theatre and is still performed up until today.

Details of Traditional Japanese Music

Traditional Japanese Music Artists

Yoshida Brothers – Two performers, brothers in real life, known as the Yoshida brothers probably are the most popular traditional Japanese music artists in the country. Their style is known to be Tsugaru-Jamisen, a genre known to historically originate from the Northern Islands of Japan. Their musical style shows them simultaneously playing the Shimasen but playing rather different rhythms – a combination sure to create interesting traditional harmonies.

They debuted in 1999 and since has sold more than 100,000 copies of their records. They are also one of the traditional music groups that have gained an international audience, making them a celebrity in their own right. Among their most popular creations would be the remake of the song “Nabbed” from the Disney album, a Nightmare Revisited. This was their traditional take on the modern track.

Rin – This is a three member pop group which has traditional Japanese music influence. Rin’ is actually a pop music group which has gained popularity for their interesting take on mixing pop and traditional music. They have successfully mixed together pop, metal, and rock with traditional Japanese musical instruments.

Rin’ is an all-female trio consisted of Fine arts and Music graduates from the Tokyo National University. The members play a variety of instruments from koto, sangen, and jushichi-gen to Shakuhachi and Biwa – creating a mini orchestra of their own. What makes their group even more special is that all three members have vocal capacities. However, the group disbanded in 2009 after more than five years of making music that is recognized internationally.

Yamato Ensemble – This group is a full-on traditional musical group whose genre focuses on folk and country music. Unlike Rin and the Yoshida brothers, the Yamato Ensemble does not combine modern with traditional music. However, they are still quite an internationally popular group. The ensemble is a collection of vocals, Shamisen, Shakuhachi, koto, and Jushichigen, they are also invited to play with the Japanese Orchestra.

Listening to this musical ensemble may feel like being taken back through time – listening to the music that the Japanese of the earlier centuries enjoyed. They play classical and folk music which is commonly heard in traditional Japanese theatre like the Noh and the Kabuki.

Osamu Kitajima – Just like Rin and the Yoshida brothers, Osamu Kitajima combines modern influences of Electropop, new-age, rock, with traditional music. He is a one-man band being a multi-instrumentalist in his own right. He has gained popularity in the US after he released an album combining New Age music with traditional Japanese musical instruments.

He has been active since the 1960s and is known to be one of the first traditional musicians to combine classical folk music with modern sounds. Up until today he composes and produces music even though he does not release albums under his name anymore.

Traditional Japanese Music Instruments

Biwa- A popular Japanese string instrument, this is a short fretted lute which is used to play harmonious music. It is believed to have originated from the Chinese instrument known as the pipa. It is believed to have arrived in Japan in the early 7th century and has evolved eventually to what is known as the modern biwa.

This kind of music is often heard in the Kyushu region but almost all Buddhist temples have ritual music which needs this lute. Next, to the Shamisen, this is one of the most popular traditional musical instrument in Japan.

Shamisen – Also a string instrument, this is a three-stringed ukulele type of instrument. It has a long neck and has frets as well. What makes this special is that it is a common instrument to be played by traditional geisha of Japan. It is a popular one-instrument entertainment which thrived during this time. Sometimes, if the geisha plays music from the shamisen, the Maiko dances to entertain the guests. This is commonly correlated with the Okinawan musical instrument known as Sanshin.

Along with a gong, it is one of the most popular oriental musical instruments that have gained popularity and recognition all over the world.  Just like many Japanese traditional music instruments, the shamisen was derived from a Chinese stringed instrument known as the sanxian.

Yu – An interesting percussion instrument, this is more common to be seen in Chinese temples than in Japanese temples. It is a percussion instrument which is shaped like a tiger. Known as a mouth organ, it has 27 teeth found at the back of the tiger. A wooden stick is then used to strike these “teeth” to create interesting music.

Taiko – A percussion instrument, this is also one of the most commonly seen and heard when talking about traditional Japanese music. It is a large single drum which was made from wood and cloth. It is believed that this kind of drum had been used as early as the 6th century. There is evidence to point as well that it has been historically introduced to the Japanese by the Chinese or the Koreans.

Traditional Japanese Music Genres

As discussed there are different forms of traditional Japanese music – the gagaku, the noh, and the kabuki. All these kinds of music have been in existence since the earlier Japanese times and are brought to Japan with the influence of the Chinese (sometimes, the Koreans).

Where to find Traditional Japanese Music

Traditional Music Fairs

There are a number of ensemble and orchestra performances that focus on showing traditional Japanese music. People who also enjoy watching Japanese Theatre like Noh and Kabuki will have a very clear familiarity with Japanese traditional music.

What is interesting about this is that in every Japanese celebration, traditional Japanese music can be heard. Other than seeing geisha and maiko performing to the sound of the shamisen, or watching a kabuki performance, traditional musical instruments can be used in Matsuri parades and rituals. There are tea houses that play traditional Japanese music for those who wish to quietly enjoy sakura flowers during the hanami festival.

Summer festivals in Japan also have a number of parades, shows, and performances that feature traditional Japanese music. These kinds of festivals start during the months of June and last until the months of August and September.

Traditional Japanese Music on Spotify

For those who wish to enjoy traditional oriental music, not just classical Japanese music, there are a number of libraries on Spotify that are easy to follow and download. These kinds of musical libraries are made available so that people all over the world will learn what makes Japanese music so special. Also so that Japanese migrants in different parts of the world will have easy access to their traditional music.

Traditional Japanese Music in the Modern Times

Although much of this traditional music have disappeared through time, there are still some strong influences in today’s music. In fact, modern Japanese musicians have found ways to incorporate traditional instruments and musical influences in their products to create a much more unique vibe.

On top of that, a lot of modern artists, musicians and bands try to play classical or folk music from Japan. There is a long list of individual musicians and groups that have internationally acclaimed songs and albums.

One of the main reasons why traditional Japanese music can still be heard in Japanese arts and music is the fact that the older generations make sure that the younger generations have an appreciation for their traditions. Although the times have changed and technology has pushed through modernization in Japan, the Japanese people still value their culture quite highly.

However, it is not common to see individuals in Japan who are familiar with playing these traditional instruments. Not only would the instruments be costly, receiving specialized tutorials for these can be expensive as well. However, Japanese parents still try their best to involve their kids with traditional music.