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Japanese traditional music


Gagaku Gagaku is the oldest music in Japan, and it is based on the music for ceremony from old China, Korea or southern Asia. It is formed by the 10th century.
Now Gagaku is played at all ceremonies of Emperor's family, and we can sometimes hear the Gagaku at Shinto shrine.

Gagaku is the music played by an orchestra of Japanese oldest instruments without a conductor. The sound has magical harmony and is quite different from western music.
Sometimes a dance or a song is added.

About Gagaku : From the homepage of Imperial Household Agency

Instruments of Gagaku

The instruments used in Gagaku are three types like western orchestra.
They are wind instruments, string ones and percussion ones.
In western orchestra, string instruments like violin are main parts, but wind instruments are main in Gagaku.

Wind instruments

Commonly there are 3 players for each instrument.

  • Shou : It's an instruments bundled 17 pipes of bamboo which have different lengths. This plays the harmony of music.
  • Hichiriki : It's a small recorder. This plays the main thema.
  • Outeki : It's a flute. There are 3 kinds of Outeki. These support the sound of Hichiriki.

String instruments

Commonly there are 2 players for each instrument.

  • Biwa : It has 4 strings, and resembles a guitar. Usually a plectrum is use to play.
  • Koto : It's a Japanese harp. Some strings are set on a lying board.

Percussion instruments

Commonly there are 1 player for each instrument.

  • Kakko : It's a small sideways drum. This player sets the tempo of music.
  • Taiko : It's a large drum. It is hung in a frame.
  • Shouko : It is a metallic round board like bowl.


Hougaku means all kinds of Japanese traditional music.
Usually we use this word except Gagaku and modern Japanese pop songs.
So Hougaku contains very various musics. The music played in Kabuki, Noh, Kyogen and Bunraku are also contained in it.

Many music have songs. Some songs are sung with chorus, but it is a small-group. And they are mostly sung in unison.
Additionally the accompaniment is played only a few instruments.
Of course, there are the music for only instruments.

Usually when a song is sung, the voice takes the melody line of the music, and the accompaniments only supports the voice.
Singers chant a words rather than sing a song. So the melody of Hougaku is ambiguous.

The musical scale is basically considered D,F,G,A,C in major mode and E,F,A,B,D in minor mode.
And in Okinawan music, it is C,E,F,G,B, so it has tropical mood.

Popular instruments of Hougaku

The popular instruments of Hougaku are the followings.

  • Shamisen : It's a plucked string instruments. It has a drum-like rounded rectangular body, and a thin and long neck without frets. It has 3 strings and is played with a plectrum.
  • Shakuhachi : It's a recorder made of bamboo. It has no reed, so how to play it is like flute.
  • Koto : It's a Japanese harp.
  • Outeki : It's a flute. We usually say it with an easy word "fue".
  • Tsuzumi : It's a portable drum. Player can beat on the both sides.
  • Sanshin : It's an Okinawan shamisen. Snake skin is used on the body. It is essencial to Okinawan music.
Tsuzumi, Shamisen Shakuhachi Creating Sanshin

Japanese folk songs

There are many folk songs all over Japan. It is one category of Hougaku.
Since a long time ago, people has been singing in each regions.
Japanese folk songs are mostly sung with only voice, but accompaniment is sometimes added on a show.

Famous folk songs

The famous folk songs are as follows.

  • Sooran-bushi : Southern Hokkaido. It's a song of herring fishing.
    "Yaaren sooran sooran..."
  • Tsugaru Jongara-bushi : Western Aomori prefecture. It has virtuoso performance of playing shamisen.
  • Saitaro-bushi : Miyagi prefecture. It's a song of great catch of fish.
    "En'yaatotto, en'yaatotto..."
  • Aizu-Bandaisan: Aizu region in Fukushima prefecture. Bandaisan is a volcano, and it's a song of promise of harvest.
    "Aizu-Bandaisan wa takara no yama..."
  • Sado-okesa: Sado Island in Niigata prefecture. It's a song of melancholiness as an outlying island.
    "Sado e, Sado eto, kusaki mo nabikuyo..."
  • Yagi-bushi : Tochigi or Gunma prefecture. It's a most rhythmical and cheery folk song in Japan.
    "Choito demashita, sankaku-yarou ga..."
  • Tokyo-ondo : For Bon-odori in Tokyo it is composed in 1932.
    "Odori odoru nara Tokyo-ondo..."
  • Kiso-bushi : Southern Nagano prefecture. It's a song for Bon-odori of the region in the deep mountains.
    "Kiso no naa, nakanori-san..."
  • Yasugi-bushi : Shimane prefecture. It has much song, but it is famous as a song of humorous dance for catching loachs in the mud of rice field.
  • Konpira-funefune : Kagawa prefecture. It's a song of the god of sea, and "fune" means ship. It's a rhythmical song and endless.
    "Konpira-funefune, ofune ni ho kakete..."
  • Yosakoi-bushi : Kochi prefecture. It's a song of a pleasure for adults.
    "Tosa no Kochi no..."
  • Kuroda-bushi : Fukuoka prefecture. It's a song of a heavy-drinker.
    "Sake wa nome, nome. Nomunaraba, ..."
  • Otemoyan : Kumamoto prefecture. It's a song of a newly-married girl. She already bosses her husband.
    "Otemoyan! Anta konogoro..."
  • Asatoya-yunta : Okinawa prefecture. It's a love song, but there are various songs which have different words. The melody is beautiful.
    "Saa, kimi wa nonaka no ibara no hana ka? ..."

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