The history of music in Japan is incredibly rich, with some experts classifying traditional Japanese music into over fifty genres. From gagaku to noh and kabuki, many of the genres are characterised by the traditional Japanese instruments that feature in them.
Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments
Traditional Japanese music includes everything from solo music to chamber, court, festival and folk music, together with a variety of theatre 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 also originated in China and were then adapted to meet local needs.
The Earliest Music in Japan
Japan’s earliest classical music style was imported via monks who had been sent to China to study. Gagaku – meaning elegant or refined music – entered Japan around 589 (the term was first recorded in 701) and became popular in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Up until the 10th century, the music was adapted to Japanese tastes, and new pieces were composed. But since then, the repertoire and the style of performance are almost exactly the same today as they were a thousand years ago.
A Gagaku ensemble has three types of instruments – percussion, wind and string. The percussion section features different sized drums, together with gongs and cymbals. The wind section includes the sho (a mouth organ), three different transverse flutes and the hichirikai, a short, double-reed instrument like an oboe. There are three main stringed instruments, the wagon, a 7-stringed table zither, the gaku-biwa, a 4-stringed lute, and the gaku-so, a 13-stringed table zither that’s a precursor to the koto.
Three of today’s best-known traditional Japanese instruments date back to that time – the biwa, the koto and the shakuhachi.
Traditional Japanese Stringed Instruments
The most popular Japanese stringed instruments are the koto, the biwa and the shamisen.
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 the most popular in Japan – it’s regarded as the country’s national instrument. 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.
The biwa – a short-necked lute with a pear-shaped body played with a large plectrum – has many variations, but typically has three to five strings, and four to six frets. This is another instrument whose origins are Chinese, and it’s mainly used to accompany narratives and storytelling.
The taisho-goto is a uniquely-shaped type of koto, similar to a guitar, invented in 1912 when a Japanese musician, Gorō Morita, travelled overseas to perform and study. He was inspired by the variety of Western instruments, while the idea for adding buttons to change the pitch was taken from looking at typewriters! The taisho-goto uses metal strings, strummed with a pick, whilst pressing the key buttons.
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, but without frets. It’s played with a large triangular plectrum that’s used to strike the strings.
‘Sanshin’ translates as ‘three strings’ and the instrument’s ‘male’ string, middle string and ‘female’ string produce the lowest, middle and highest notes respectively. The sanshin is often compared to the banjo, but it’s a plucked instrument. Made with snakeskin and originating in Okinawa, the sanshin is often played at graduations or other special ceremonies there.
Traditional Japanese Percussion
Taiko drums are seen at many summer festivals in Japan, and come in a variety of sizes. The most dramatic are the oo-daiko, which are the large drums positioned at the back of a taiko ensemble.
It’s said that taiko or wadaiko were used by feudal lords during war times to command troops and raise morale – the drums create an incredibly powerful sound.
Contemporary composer and taiko drummer Joji Hirota says that, ‘I love the range of the sound dynamics of the taiko drums – it goes from very delicate to really loud! There aren’t many comparable instruments. It’s partly to do with the leather they’re made from; it’s very durable. The resonance hits you directly; it’s able to deliver a lot of energy to the listener.'
Traditional Japanese Wind Instruments
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. Shakuhachi music was originally used by Zen Buddhists as a spiritual tool for meditation practices known as ‘suizen’, ra-ther than public performances.
Used during noh performances, the nohkan is a transverse flute which creates a unique sound that produces a feeling of tension. It’s used to accompany the historical figures and deities in noh theatre who are ‘not of this world’ when they appear on the stage – the nohkan’s high-pitched sound changes the atmosphere for the audience.
The shinobue is another transverse flute, which plays an important role in noh and kabuki theatre music, together with Shinto music and traditional Japanese folk songs. There are two types of shinobue, the Uta or ‘song’, which is suited to solo and ensemble playing and the Hayashi or ‘festival’, which is more often used for festival or folk music, as it’s louder and higher-pitched.
One of the key instruments used in gagaku, the sho is a bundle of seventeen bamboo pipes, fifteen of which are fixed together with a metal reed. The instrument produces sound when air is inhaled or exhaled, causing the reeds to vibrate.
Its sound has been described as ‘a light shining down from heaven’, and it’s said that it also imitates the call of a phoenix, especially as the shape of the sho resembles a bird with its wings raised.
Performing Traditional Japanese Music
In common with martial arts and other traditional Japanese art forms such as the tea ceremony and calligraphy, performing Japanese music has a spiritual character, and so the music is highly ritualised. The musician’s self-expression is minimized, which is the most obvious way in which Japanese performance differs from Western music.
Only a few genres in Japanese music are purely instrumental – most are songs with an instrumental accompaniment. However, even if there’s more than one singer, all vocal music only has one melodic line, and most songs are accompanied by a single type of instrument.
Modern Music with Traditional Japanese Instruments
Various contemporary artists bring traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen and taiko drums into their music, giving them a whole new life. Often fusing them with Western instruments to give their tracks a unique personality, these are the bands to check out:
The Yoshida Brothers
The Yoshida Brothers have brought shamisen music up to date – their song Kodo was used in Nintendo Wii ads in the US. Their style pushes the shamisen’s sound into jazz, experimental music, rock ‘n’ roll and pop by combining it with more modern instruments.
Elite taiko drummers Kodō (prospective members spend two years in training before joining) regularly tour in Japan and the United States, spending around a third of the year travelling the globe. Their shows also include other traditional Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen, together with traditional dance and vocal performances.
The Japanese band play rock music including electric guitar and bass fused with wagakki (traditional Japanese instruments), such as shamisen, taiko, koto and shakuhachi.
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