Ancient Music

August 16, 2006

by Konishi Yuji

Breathing life back into


Japan’s traditional ensemble music

Gagaku in Goh shrine in Kyoto

Gagaku is a form of Japanese ensemble music derived from the Arabic peninsula. As the music migrated toward and through the Asian continent, absorbing each region’s styles along the Silk Road, the influences and figures of this ensemble music mixed in China and Korea, eventually coming together in the 6th and 7th centuries with native Japanese music. And then, for more than one thousand years, right up to today, gagaku has largely maintained its styles, becoming the oldest form of orchestral ensemble in the world. It is certainly a rich cultural heritage and can be seen to represent Japanese music, reflecting in its long, slow patterns — as in its players’ elaborate silk costumes — the grace and elegance of distant times.

In the ancient era, Japan was a small, developing, subordinate kingdom following the Chinese system and culture. Japanese noblemen, for example, could read and write the actual Chinese language and modeled their own way of life on Chinese New Year culture, architecture and music. However, the size of a gagaku orchestra was then much bigger than it is today, and while the small Japanese government needed to form an official court orchestra for political reasons, the original formation was not suited to the Japanese lifestyle, with its space restrictions for ceremonies and its limited ability to meet the cost of organizing, training and supporting a large company of musicians. Consequently, the ancient Japanese reformed and Japanized various types of other ethnic music. This is what we now call gagaku, and it has a lot of world music aspects.

What lived and breathed as modern music back in those ancient days, however, is almost petrified today. Nevertheless, gagaku shares the same musical scale common to other Asian genres of music, and is historically very valuable. Even so, it stands in an awkward position. Nowadays, gagaku is only played on special occasions and is actually a very unfamiliar ritual element for modern Japanese, in part because traditional Japanese music in general (such as music for Noh and Kabuki, and old local folksongs) have been neglected and ignored in the big wave of westernization. Yet Japanese do not have an identity in today’s pop music. Compare, for instance, Japan’s modern music scene with India’s, where musicians still often play the traditional sitar and tabla, which are characteristic of India. Not only are the more obscure gagaku instruments (mouth organs, transverse flutes) and their music abandoned; even instruments such as the shakuhachi and shamisen, until recently much more familiar to ordinary people, are seldom used in today’s contemporary music.

Gagaku instruments

Shoh: mouth organs

To begin modernizing gagaku, it is necessary to increase the number of players and listeners, and hence the occasions for gagaku music. By contrast, the Imperial Gagaku Orchestra, today’s only professional ensemble, has appeared in public only very occasionally, almost never. There was a time when this popularization of gagaku almost happened. From the Meiji era (1868-1912), beginning in the mid-19th century, ordinary Japanese people finally started to get in touch with gagaku via non-professional orchestras. But as the era of modernization proceeded, this proved to be a false start. Gagaku certainly continued to represent Japanese music, but it was never truly handed down from nobles to civilian culture. Blocking gagaku’s path to becoming modern Japanese music were the western songs that came to Japan in the Meiji era and laid the foundation for what became Japanese popular music. After World War Two, Japanese music education, in classes from kindergarten through university, has been taught mostly as western music, with western methods, score, scales and instruments. Japanese traditional music is therefore hardly able to be modernized into the actual Japanese lifestyle, nor can it develop within, or outside of, the music market.

Precisely speaking, Japanese arts have basically been taught by tradition (formerly through guilds), so it is much more difficult to teach them to beginners than with the western methods. In gagaku, there are scores used as a teaching aid, but the difference between these and the western scores is that gagaku scores are for practicing singing the lines of the songs.


Download sample: gagaku.mp3


The singer pats the table to count the verses of the song for hichiriki, an oboe-like wind instrument. This tapping expresses quite well how Japanese feel as they punctuate sentences and traditional music. Thus traditional Japanese literature and music are mutual and strongly bonded. In fact, the Chinese characters and dots on the score you see in the picture above are guides to pronouncing the lines, and it is quite natural to put actual poems to music. However, the scales, hertz of notes, instruments and every component of traditional Japanese music are completely different from western music and cannot be accurately re-created in western teaching methods, and it is this adopted learning system which makes us stay away from gagaku.

Today, there is no Iemoto system* in the gagaku scene, but it has nonetheless been a very closed society. Basically, gagaku was played by noblewomen with poets reading just for fun, and gradually it became an element of aristocratic culture. The Imperial court and nobles in the ancient era organized professional orchestras, and usually devoted their playing to formal ceremonies. On one occasion, gagaku ceased, owing to the Onin War in Kyoto (1467-77). Nobles and officials, including musicians, desperately escaped from Kyoto as the war intensified. Gagaku players scattered, though they probably kept playing privately, and the official orchestra was lost until the Edo Period (1603-1867). In the long blank period, musicians split into different groups, and the close-knitted bonds within families grew tighter. Even today, many private associations are teaching gagaku to students, but they tend to hate each other and scramble to take away one another’s students. In addition, they do not let students leave without permission. These circumstances are also holding gagaku back from being modernized.

The traditional gagaku art structure doesn’t match today’s lifestyle and it is isolated from developing in the Japanese music scene and westernized Japan. While it is very important to protect the old style of gagaku, it’s also true that traditions have always been preserved and improved by innovation. Gagaku, sado (tea ceremony), kimono, etc… these must not be mere cultural artifacts, just as Kyoto must not become a mere museum. Historically, Kyoto has provided many cutting-edge technologies and cultural forms, but now it needs to step forward to create modern Japanese culture again.

*In the rigid Iemoto system, masters of an art or craft pass down their specialty to disciples, following the teachings of the masters who preceded them.


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