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, many of which are showcased in our Sounds Of Japan collection.
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 - shōmyō, or Buddhist chanting, and gagaku, or theatrical court music.
Shōmyō & Gagaku
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 of Japan's musical traditions and includes dances and songs in two styles – kigaku, which is instrumental music, and seigaku, a form of vocal music.
Kabuki & Noh
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:
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. The shamisen makes some of the best japanese violin music.
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/1284233442
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.
Photo Credit: https://corneliusboots.com/
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.
Traditional Japanese Artists
Many of the popular musicians playing the traditional music of Japan 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 (‘sisters’ in Okinawan) are four women who sing Okinawan folk songs, performing on traditional instruments and in traditional costumes and reflecting the history of Japanese music.
Ryuichi Sakamoto recorded with them and took them on a European tour in the mid-1990s, which gave their music global recognition.
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.
We have a wide variety of Japanese music in our catalogue – from the traditional to the contemporary sounds of J-pop. One of our featured composers and artists is Joji Hirota.
Born in Hokkaido, Joji is a multi-percussionist, shakuhachi player, singer and Taiko drummer.
He founded Joji Hirota and the Taiko Drummers and was awarded the Ambassador’s commendation award by the UK Japanese Embassy for his contribution to musical activity outside of Japan in recognition for his achievements in a three-decade long career.
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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