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In Ancient Traditions

In ancient Chinese tradition, music is said to have been invented by Ling Lun, a member of the court of the Yellow Emperor.[1]

The musical tones are one of the key things said to emanate from the Emperor, as part of his role as the source of civilization, and as maintainer of proper cosmic order. Ritual music (yǎyuè) performed as part of Imperial sacrificial offerings to Heaven & to the Imperial ancestors, in particular, had to be performed in the correct tuning; this was essential to performing the ritual correctly, and legitimating the Emperor as the rightful Son of Heaven.

Music, especially as played on the qin, is also considered one of the four accomplishments of the cultivated Confucian gentleman, alongside calligraphy, poetry, and games of strategy.

Music has sacred significance in ancient Japanese traditions as well. The Kojiki relates that various forms of music and dance were first invented by the gods when they performed raucous entertainments in order to lure the Sun Goddess Amaterasu out of the cave into which she had withdrawn.

Nara and Heian Periods

Chinese yǎyuè was adopted into Japan as gagaku, being formally adopted as the chief mode of official court music in 701. The gagaku repertoire consists of two types of music: Tôgaku ("Tang music") adopted from the Tang Dynasty Chinese court, and komagaku, adopted from Koryo Korea. Gagaku continues to be practiced today, both within the court, and more widely, and incorporates a number of instruments, including biwa (lute), a variety of flutes including the shô, ryûteki, hichiriki, and komabue, and a variety of drums, including the kakko and tsuridaiko, as well as bells, gongs, and occasionally koto. Performances are often accompanied by masked & costumed dances, including bugaku.[2] As Japan adopted its governmental structure from China as well, the ritsuryô court also included a Bureau of Music (Uta-ryō 雅楽寮), and Doctor of Music (On Hakase 音博士).

Koto music was also popular among the court aristocracy as early as the Nara period, when the instrument was first introduced from China.

Kamakura and Muromachi Periods

The biwa employed in court music (gagaku) came in the Kamakura period to be adopted as the instrument of choice by traveling storytellers known as the biwa hôshi. These blind men used the biwa to accompany themselves as they recited epic narratives, most famously the Tale of the Heike, which originated as an oral tradition and was only written down later.

The Noh theater, which developed out of sarugaku in the early 15th century, employs a chorus (jiutai) and musical ensemble (hayashi) consisting mainly of flute (nôkan) and several types of drums (ôtsuzumi, kotsuzumi, shimedaiko), with no string instruments. These instruments form the core (with the addition of shamisen) of the musical accompaniment for the kabuki theatre as well, which emerged in the Edo period.

Edo Period

The Okinawan sanshin was introduced into Japan in the mid-16th century, and by the end of the century had developed into the three-stringed banjo-like instrument known as the shamisen. Shamisen music and nihon buyô (Japanese dance), both as performed in kabuki and ningyô joruri theatre, and by geisha and courtesans, developed together over the course of the period. Shamisen music and buyô also spread widely among the townspeople at this time, both through private lessons and networks of cultural circles. Shamisen music proliferated in the period, with numerous styles and schools emerging over the course of the period. The tokiwazu, tomimoto, and kiyomoto schools of nagauta, emerging out of kabuki; gidayû-bushi, as performed in the puppet theatre; and kouta forms were among the most prominent. A number of styles which have largely fallen out of the theatre and dance repertoires are today known as kokyoku ("old pieces").[3] Much of these musical forms, though originating in the major cities of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, spread quickly throughout the realm as people traveled, whether on pilgrimage or sankin kôtai; as traveling artists, scholars, or merchants; or for other reasons.

The shamisen and koto were often accompanied in this period by the kokyû fiddle, in a three-piece ensemble known as sankyoku; today, however, the kokyû is most often replaced by the shakuhachi.

Meiji Period

Many musical forms considered "traditional" today were formalized in the Meiji period, as the modern Japanese "nation" coalesced. Throughout the arts, the Meiji government and Japanese people worked to establish the traditional culture of their new nation, both for promoting Japan as a great and ancient culture with worthy traditions, and in order to identify those arts most worthy of protecting and maintaining. These included gagaku and various schools of shamisen and koto, as well as Tsugaru jamisen, a tradition involving a heavier, deeper shamisen than the urban theatrical and dance forms.

Meanwhile, Western music entered into Japan, and was adopted by urban elites interested in this exotic culture and eager to consider themselves "modern." A music school was established in Tokyo by the Meiji government in 1879, alongside schools of fine arts, as part of the move towards modernization.[4]


  1. K.C. Chang, Art, Myth, and Ritual, Harvard University Press (1983), 2, 42.
  2. Gallery labels, Metropolitan Museum of Art.; Gallery labels, Tokyo Imperial Palace.[1]
  3. McQueen Tokita, Alison. "Music in kabuki: more than meets the eye." The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. p247.
  4. Plaques on-site at the Symphony Hall of the Tokyo Music School.[2]

See Also