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History of Traditional Japanese Music

Traditional Japanese music is very diverse. While music was once primarily confined to live concert performances and operas, the introduction of the radio, and later television helped bring it into the homes of the public.

There are essentially two basic types of traditional Japanese music, namely folk music and art music. This article mainly focuses on the art form of music. Art music has many different styles, each being established in different periods in Japanese history. These time-honored styles have been well maintained by the Japanese over the years with only a few modifications. In the history of music, vocal music has always played a very important role, more so than instrumental music. Apart from this, the music was developed as a part of drama like Bunraku, Noh, and Kabuki.

Gagaku

The first significant development that took place was during the Heian Period (794 – 1192 AD). This is the period in which music that was popular amongst the common people was being sophisticated. All the different types of music from various other Asian countries were assimilated and then modified to acquire certain distinct Japanese characteristics.

Gagaku was the type of music that was performed at the court and was popular with the upper classes and nobility. There are three categories of Gagaku: pure music, original foreign music, and the music that was composed in Japan by using foreign musical influences. Gagaku was not only performed at the court, it was also performed in temples and shrines. Apart from Gagaku, another very important musical style is the Shomyo. Used in many Buddhist sources, this vocal music is the origin of the Japanese vocal music that developed years later.

Noh

Right from the Kamakura Period (1192 AD – 1333 AD) till the Muromachi Period (1338 AD – 1573 AD), there was a remarkable growth in the world of theatrical arts, which would include everything from the peasant rice-plant dances to the shrine ritual plays. By the turn of the century, the Japanese traditional music scene witnessed the development of the Noh drama with its own special form of music, Nohgaku.

Noh is a highly symbolic and stylized form of drama and is generally performed by a couple of male musicians and actors. Nohgaku has two main elements – the instrumental one and the vocal one. The vocal part is the Utai and is performed by a chorus of eight singers and the actors. It usually tells a story. Derived from the Shomyo form of music, it includes speech and singing. Nohgaku was patronized by the higher military class that was considered to be the most powerful level of society in Japan in those days.

Shakuhachi, Shamisen, and Koto

Another very important part in the history of the Japanese traditional music is the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Shakuhachi was formerly played as a small part of the Zen services and was at that time considered to be the favorite instrument amongst the Buddhist priests.

The music for the Koto is known as Sokyoku, which is played, composed and transmitted purely by the blind girls and women in the wealthy merchant classes and the higher military classes. The Shamisen is generally used for accompaniment of two basic types of vocal music: narrative singing and melodious singing. Melodious singing developed in two separate directions – Nagauta and Jiuta. Jiuta has ever since been enjoyed as pure music while Nagauta is an accompaniment for dancing in the traditional Kabuki dramas.

Till date, the development and preservation of these classical, traditional forms of Japanese music is not neglected by many modern composers and musicians.