Japanese Music - Essay Example

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Harvey Mudd College
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Music in Japanese is known as ongaka and when it is directly translated it means a sound for comfort. Currently, the music is known for its pop by the outside world. However, the music is an eclectic combination of various musical influences from all over the global (Howard 2015,). The music Japanese music has an unusual quality to assimilate facets of other cultures, develops them to produce a better quality of such a feature. For example, they are well known to have integrated many of Chinese culture facets- between 1,500 and 800 years ago as well as from last half of the 20th century onward (Howard 2015,). They are also known to have assimilated the Western culture and technology in their music. The contact between Chinese and Japanese brought about Buddhism, written characters, and most of the Chinese advancements occurred during this period. This influence is most felt in their music and other arts.

China is known to have the best influence on music in Japanese during the period of the Tang Dynasty (608-907). At this time, Japan was sending learners, musicians, and monks to China. During a period between 7th and 9th century, the Japanese courts were the ones which looked like Chinese court more than anything else. However, during the same period, musicians from Japanese were in China learning music from East and Central and South-East Asia. Korean and Chinese masters were teaching this music. After the study, they came back with this music, different instruments, and styles of music. To be precise, most of the currents Japanese traditional music instruments originated from China. In fact, from this period, only one kind of music that is still performed the way it was being played since ancient times- Gagaku court music. Since 11th century to date, the Japanese music has been evolving independently, with no influence from China and other Asian cultures.

Japanese Musical instruments

Most of the traditional instruments found in Japan did not enter the country at the same time. For instance, the wogen and the biwa, which are the oldest edition of the koto, entered the nation during Tang Dynasty. In addition, the shamisen entered the country via Okinawa around the 1560s. The characters that are used to note down the names of the Japanese instruments are similar to those in China, but the pronunciations differ. The main Japanese instruments can be described as follows:

ShakuhachiIt is a widely known Japanese bamboo flute. It entered the nation together with other flutes during the period of Tang Dynasty, and it was part of the Gagaku court music. It did not become popular during that period because it was a short and narrow flute with six holes making it a bit difficult to play. It was again revived around the 12th and 13th century a period when it used to be played by blind monks. From this period, it began to be used by other monks as a type of suizen or blowing meditation. In the 17th century, the monks of Fuke sect institutionalized shakuhachi, and it was mainly used by komuso monks who played it while begging in the street. Slowly, other people no-monks started to use the instrument. During this period, the instrument went via various changes as it became an instrument that is used today, but it is currently made of a thick bamboo, consisting of 5 holes (Deschenes 2001).


This is a pear-shaped, 4-stringed lute that is made of wood and it came into the country during Nara Period (553-794 AD). During this period, biwa enjoyed much popularity until the when shamisen was introduced in the country. Since then, the instrument was used by singers, singing key epic stories of essential historical battles, events, and figures. The most famous story is the Heike Monogatari. It is plucked with one plectrum, and this is why it is used as a percussive instrument instead of being used as a melodic instrument (Deschenes 2001). Most of the singers who used this instrument were blind musicians. In the beginning, three types of biwa instrument, but currently, only one type is still in use.


This was a thirteen-stringed table zither but today is made of paulawnia- wood mainly extracted in Siberia. The initial koto was the wagon that consisted of 7 strings and originated from Chinese qin. The Japanese koto evolved from a thirteen-stringed Chinese form that was launched with the Gagaku band. More versions of koto were developed in its history. The current versions of this music instruments was developed in Ikuta School in 1695. In late 17th century, the instruments went through various changes after another major school (Yamada School) was created. In the 19th century, new versions were also created by Michio Miyagi in 1921(Deschenes 2001). Miyagi created a seventeen-stringed bass koto, and most of his life was known as a koto player. In the late 1950s, Tadao Sawai- another koto player became highly popular for modernizing the style of playing koto music instrument.

ShamisenThis is a 3-stringed lute made of a wooden box that is covered by skins on all sides. The skin is mostly obtained from a dog or a cat. These music instruments entered the country in the 16th century from China via Okinawa. During this era, it was covered by a skin from a snake. The Okinawa and original Chinese version use snake skin up to date, but the Japanese version uses either dog or cat skin. The shamisen gained popularity quickly and replaced the biwa among the merchant classes who were increasing in number at the time. This was the instrument that was preferred to entertain the samurai. There are many versions, styles of playing, and singing using the Shamisen (Deschenes 2001) Many version of shamisen are popular today, but Kokyu ( a bowed version of shamisen) is rarely played and learned today.

Musical Forms and Aesthetics

Gagaku is Japanese music played in courts, and it was introduced during the period of Tang Dynasty. Currently, it is played in the same manner it used to be played about thousand years ago. It is a unique form of music that has a slow pace but fills up in the air. It is a very hard to describe this type of music as a person has to listen to it in order to understand it fully. Gagaku uses various percussion instruments such as the sho (mouth organ), large drum (Korean origin), and a small bamboo flute (the shinobue), the hichiriki, the koto and the biwa. Another type of music is Jiuta-Mai music. It was created in the 17th century; the band was initially composed of a kokyu, a koto, and a shamisen. Traditionally, it was sung by the shamisen players. The kokyu is a difficult instrument to play and keep in tune, and that is why it was replaced by shakulachi. The Repertoire of this music was initially those of shamisen pieces that had been rearranged by artists to fit the trio instruments ("Aesthetics of the "Musical Records": Jiang Kongyang 103," n.d.). Usually, the three instruments play almost the same musical lines, whereas the singers sing with a melody of their own. The music is heterophonic hence it not a must for the three instruments to be present continuously for the music to be played.

Lastly, hankyoku music is a collection for solo shakuhachi started by the monks of the Fuke. The monks rearranged pieces from existing music and wrote new ones. The main changes that shakuhachi underwent in the 17th century that it was given a path to the development of the music. The songs were also evolved after the creation of various schools. Every school played the music using different ways, and this made the music to change further, but the lines still conformed to the Buddhist character as well as Japanese influence.

The major Japanese music principle is jo-ha-Kyo, which means introduction, exposition, and denouement or an ending. The principle originates from Gagaku music and shapes all aspects of Japanese music, from a sole to the whole Noh, Bunraku, or Kabuki plays ("Aesthetics of the "Musical Records" n.d.). The music starts with a single note; the music becomes a crescendo, to climax, and finishes with a gradual decay. Also, the principle encompasses musical phrases, sections, segments, and entire pieces.

Culturally and religious significance of the music

Religious music in Japan were characterized by dances and songs, which were sung as an offering to their gods. Also, dances and songs were performed to gods into attendance or to call god. During the 3-7th century (a period is known as Tumulus) dances and songs were performed by virgins who were consecrated to deities. These dances were performed accompanied by tsuzumi and koto. Up to date, these instruments appear in figures of consecrated virgins and the dances and songs are described in many ancient texts such as Kojiki, Nihonshoki, and Fudoki. These songs were incorporated were mostly sung during funerals, feasts, and other similar occasions ("Japanese Culture," 2017).

Kagura is also referred as the music of gods, and it was used to be performed in Shinto ceremonies. The music was originally known as kamiasobi, and it had its roots from the dance and song of old religious services. Kagura is divided into types: okagura and mikagura. Mikagura was performed at the imperial palace while okagura used to be played at local shrines. Mikagura was first performed at Seishodo Palace at the time of Emperor Seiwa of the Heian era ("Japanese Culture," 2017). On the other hand, mikagura was first performed in the Naishidokoro Palace.

Japanese music is an indicator of culture as well as what influences it. Traditional dances in the country date back to the Edo period when customary Odori dance started. Mai- traditional dance originated in the western region of Japan and is traditional dances that depict the dance of culture of Japanese. The music emerged from the famous Kabuki plays. Noh plays, highly influence Mai, and the performers wore intricately carved masks. The music was more intimate and was performed in private space/rooms instead of being performed in big crowds on stage. This shows the culture of Japanese in that they had various songs which were performed in private or in public. Due to the changing culture of Japanese people, Bushi is the present day dance which has its traditional roots ("Japanese Culture," 2017). This music is a combination of traditional movement and modern rock music beat.

Genres and subgenres

Currently, it is hard to explain the genre and subgenres of Japanese music due to much influence from the Western. A review of top forty charts, there is a lot of mix of Western and Japanese artists. The genres of music that are produced by artists and bands with Japanese roots can be categorized as follows. First, J-pop is one of the hardest genres of music in Japanese to describe or classify. A lot of bands have a bubble-gum, cutesy, and pop sound whereas others tend to be influenced by r&b, edgy dance, or funk sound. The members of various bands such as Tanpopo, Morning Musume, Da Pump, and Luna Sea are icons of pop cultures ("Music Genre List," 2017). The icons are so much worshipped such that a death of Japanese rock stars is considered a huge loss to the extent that some youth commit suicide. Second, J-Rock is a broad genre that encompasses a sound that is similar to the rock music of the West. Drum and guitar drive most of the bands. The genre is similar to the music industry of the Europe and U.S, as most of the artists have to work up via the ranks of the indies. This means that bands have to struggle from lesser-known to independent labels ("Music Genre List," 2017). If a band gain great popularity among the youths in Japanese, they are likely to get a major label.

Lastly, J-Synth is a kind of genres in Japanese that has undergone a massive revolution in electronic music. The genre is blending with many other genres, and it has thrived in both Japan and abroad recently. Japanese musici...

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