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Ancient Japanese Music

Maya Pillai
Though the Japanese enjoy various types of modern and contemporary music, the charm of their traditional music has not been lost. Even today, traditional musical forms of Japan are performed during various religious and social gatherings.

Did You Know?

While not much is known about how indigenous Japanese music started, there have been proven links between ancient Japanese music and the more complex Chinese and Korean music.
The Japanese are known to be proud of their culture, and rightfully so. They possess a unique heritage, most of it being indigenous, while including adaptations (often musical) from other parts of Asia. There is not much of information available today about Japanese culture in pre-historic periods.
However, evidence suggests that music was given importance during the Yayoi and the Jōmon period. During the late Yayoi period, many tombs of poets and musicians were built. Historical records show that popular songs and legends were recorded in the chronicles 'Kojiki' and 'Nihon Shoki', during the reign of Emperor Temmu.
By that time songs and poetry were already a part of traditional Japanese music. In the recent decades, Japanese traditional music compositions were showcased throughout the world. The Japanese are known to take pride in all their historic culture, including music.
This is the biggest reason for finding direct links between modern Japanese music to the earlier forms.

Common Japanese Musical Instruments

These were the traditional Japanese musical forms during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 - 1603). During this period many new musical instruments were introduced. The shakuhachi was played by Buddhist priests. This form of ancient Japanese music got its name from the instrument itself, and was performed during religious festivals and ceremonies.
Shamisen music is a form of Japanese music that had vocals and the musical instrument shamisen. It was primarily composed by the Ikuta school. This form of ancient music is used for both narrative and melodious singing. Another traditional Japanese instrument is the koto. Music composed on the koto is known as sōkyoku. It gained significance during the Edo period.

More About Ancient Japanese Music

Although Japan has unique culture and traditions, quite a few ceremonies and music were borrowed from other countries. The Imperial state of Japan used not only the Chinese language, but also imported some facets of its culture, including traditional music.
A traditional form of music dominated the courts of kings during the Nara (A.D. 710 to 794) and Heian (A.D. 794 to 1185) periods. Other forms of traditional Japanese music were Noh, shakuhachi, koto, and shamisen. A point worth mentioning here is that vocals play an important role in Japanese music.


Japanese court music, known as gagaku, was mostly developed at the courts of upper class people and powerful nobles. This form of music gained significant popularity during the Heian period (794-1185 AD).
Gagaku is classified into three categories - original foreign music, pure Japanese music, and music composed in Japan under the influence of neighboring countries. Gagaku actually has its origin in China, Korea, and other Southeast Asian countries.
The form that originated from China is known as togaku, and the one that has its roots in Korea is known as komagaku. Both these forms of traditional music use the orchestra and do not have any vocals in it. Modern gagaku is performed in two ways. One is kangen, which is concert music with wind, string, and percussion instruments without dance.
The other is bugaku, which involves dance and excludes stringed instruments. Some of the popular instruments that were used in this form of music include the mouth organ, flute, drum and zither.

Noh and Kyōgen

This traditional Japanese musical form became popular during the Muromachi period (14th century). Both Noh and kyōgen have their roots in the ancient theatrical art of sarugaku, which itself is an evolved version of the even older sangaku.
Noh tends to use more serious and somber human emotions. Kyōgen uses lighter elements that make people laugh. Kyōgen can actually be said to be the true evolution of sangaku, because sangaku relied heavily on comedy. Both Noh and kyōgen share the same stage, while they are directed towards audiences of different classes.
The Meiji Period saw the merging of Noh and kyōgen into one art form called nohgaku.


Another traditional Japanese music that gained significance during the Heian period was the shōmyō. This is a vocalized form of music that was used in Buddhist temples at the time of prayer services.
Shōmyō is basically Buddhist melodic vocal chanting. It is considered to be one of the original Japanese vocal arts, and is given a lot of importance. It involves male voices merging together without any instruments, to create a kind of unusually unique melody. It can be a powerful tool to gain mental focus and calm.
Today, shōmyō is a part of a very expressive performance art. Although it has come a long way from being the religious ceremonial music of ancient Japan, its roots are still very much apparent.


Jōruri is a style of narrative music, intended for the bunraku puppet drama. The lyrical style gives more emphasis on the melodic pattern of the music, but the lyrics themselves always hold utmost importance. Its origin is considered to be derived from a romantic tale from the 15th century, Jōrurihime monogatari, with Lady Jōruri as the lead character.
Jōruri was mostly created by the then-impoverished samurai class who were simply looking for a more colorful way to live. The puppet theater then started evolving jōruri into its most sophisticated form, gidayu, and then branching jōruri into styles like tokiwazu and kiyomoto.


Nagauta developed within the Kabuki theaters in Edo. 'Nagauta' literally means 'long song', and is actually a combination of several smaller songs. It is predominantly a lyrical style supported by any size of musical ensembles.
Nagauta is singly the most important style of Kabuki music; it is employed in almost every type of kabuki play. As the kabuki styles became more and more elaborate, the accompanying nagauta music evolved in composition. Although the length became longer, the lyrical style remained the same, and a long section was simply divided into smaller pieces.
Towards the early 19th century, an increasing number of amateurs and performers started playing nagauta music. This led to another branch of nagauta that was completely independent from the kabuki theaters.
Folk songs are also a part of traditional Japanese music. These songs are mostly associated with religious ceremonies or with daily chores. Though not much is known about Japanese music of the prehistoric period, Japanese traditional music gained significant importance later. Even today, many people around the globe enjoy it.