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Gagaku (雅楽 gagaku?, ancient imperial court music and dances,[1] lit. "elegant music") is a type of Japanese classical music that has been performed at the Imperial Court in Kyoto for several centuries. It consists of three primary repertoires:

  1. Native Shinto religious music and folk songs and dance, called kuniburi no utamai
  2. A Goguryeo and Manchurian form, called komagaku (named for Koma, one of the Three Kingdoms)
  3. A Chinese and South Asian form (specifically Tang Dynasty), called tōgaku.[1]

Gagaku, like shōmyō, employs the yo scale, a pentatonic scale with ascending intervals of two, three, two, two, and three semitones between the five scale tones.[2]

History of gagaku[edit]

Jingu-Bugaku at Kotaijingu (Naiku), Ise city, Mie Prefecture

By the 7th century, the gakuso (a zither) and the gakubiwa (a short-necked lute) had been introduced into Japan from China. Various instruments, including these two, were the earliest used to play gagaku.

Gagaku, the oldest classical music in Japan, was introduced into Japan with Buddhism from China. In 589, Japanese official diplomatic delegations were sent to China (during the Sui dynasty) to learn Chinese culture, including Chinese court music, Gagaku.

Komagaku and togaku arrived in southern Japan during the Nara period (710-794), and settled into the basic modern divisions during the Heian period (794-1185). Gagaku was played by musicians who belonged to hereditary guilds. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), military rule was imposed and gagaku was performed in the homes of the aristocracy, but rarely at court. At this time, there were three guilds, based in Osaka, Nara and Kyoto.

Because of the Ōnin War, a civil war from 1467 to 1477 during the Muromachi period, gagaku ensembles ceased to perform in Kyoto for about 100 years.

In the Edo period, the Tokugawa government revived and reorganized the court-style ensembles, the direct ancestors of the present gagaku ensembles

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, musicians from all three guilds came to the capital and their descendants make up most of the current Tokyo Imperial Palace Music Department. By that time, the present ensemble composition had been established, consisting of three wind instruments – hichiriki, ryūteki, and shō (bamboo mouth organ used to provide harmony) – and three percussion instruments – kakko (small drum), shōko (metal percussion), and taiko (drum) or dadaiko (large drum), supplemented by gakubiwa.

Gagaku also accompanies classical dance performances called bugaku (舞楽), and both are used in religious ceremonies by the Japanese new religion Tenrikyo and at a few Buddhist temples.[3]

Today, gagaku is performed in two ways:

  • as kangen, concert music for winds, strings and percussion,
  • as bugaku, or dance music, for which the stringed instruments are omitted.

Komagaku survives only as bugaku.[4]

Contemporary gagaku ensembles, such as Reigakusha (), perform contemporary compositions for gagaku instruments. This subgenre of contemporary works for gagaku instruments, which began in the 1960s, is called reigaku (伶楽). Twentieth-century composers such as Tōru Takemitsu have composed works for gagaku ensembles, as well as individual gagaku instruments.

Instruments used in gagaku[edit]

Wind, string and percussion instruments are essential elements of gagaku music.


  • Hichiriki (篳篥), oboe
  • O-hichiriki (大篳篥)
  • Ryūteki (龍笛), transverse flutes
  • Shō (), mouth organ
  • U (), large mouth organ
  • Komabue (高麗笛)
  • Azuma-asobi-bue (東遊笛, also called chukan
  • Kagurabue (神楽笛)
  • Shakuhachi (尺八)
  • Haishō (排簫)


  • Biwa (gakubiwa)(楽琵琶), 4-stringed lute
  • Gakuso (koto, ), 13-string zither of Chinese origin
  • Kugo, (箜篌)angled harp used in ancient times and recently revived
  • Genkan (阮咸)
  • Yamatogoto (大和琴, also called wagon), zither of Japanese origin, with 6 or 7 strings


  • Shōko (), small gong, struck with two horn beaters
  • Kakko (), small hourglass-shaped drum struck with two wooden sticks
  • Tsuri-daiko (太鼓), drum on a stand with ornately painted head, played with a padded stick
  • Ikko, small, ornately decorated hourglass-shaped drum
  • San-no-tsuzumi (三の鼓), hourglass-shaped drum
  • Shakubyoshi (笏拍子, also called shaku), clapper made from a pair of flat wooden sticks
  • Hōkyō (方響)

Influence on Western music[edit]

Beginning in the 20th century, several western classical composers became interested in gagaku, and composed works based on gagaku. Most notable among these are Henry Cowell (Ongaku, 1957), La Monte Young (numerous works of drone music,[5] but especially Trio for Strings, 1958), Alan Hovhaness (numerous works), Olivier Messiaen (Sept haïkaï, 1962), Lou Harrison (Pacifika Rondo, 1963), Benjamin Britten (Curlew River, 1964), Bengt Hambraeus (Shogaku, from Tre Pezzi per Organo, 1967), Ákos Nagy Veiled wince flute quartet (2010), Jarosław Kapuściński (numerous works), and Sarah Peebles (numerous works).

One of the most important gagaku musicians of the 20th century, Masataro Togi (who served for many years as chief court musician), instructed American composers such as Alan Hovhaness and Richard Teitelbaum in the playing of gagaku instruments.

Other cultural influence[edit]

The American poet Steve Richmond developed a unique style based on the rhythms of gagaku. Richmond heard gagaku music on records at U.C.L.A.'s Department of Ethnomusicology in the early 1960s. In a 2009 interview with writer Ben Pleasants, Richmond claimed he had written an estimated 8,000-9,000 gagaku poems.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha Limited, Tokyo 1991, ISBN 4-7674-2015-6
  2. ^ Japanese Music, Cross-Cultural Communication: World Music, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay[dead link]
  3. ^ Gagaku at Shogyo-ji
  4. ^ ...overview, University of California site
  5. ^ Zuckerman, Gabrielle (ed.), "An Interview with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela" ( copy of 2006), American Public Media, July 2002, "So, this contribution of Indian Classical music is one of the biggest influences on me, but there are other influences on me too. [...] We have the effect of Japanese gagaku, which has sustained tones in it in the instruments such as the Sho."
  6. ^ Pleasants, Ben. "American Rimbaud: An interview with Steve Richmond". 
  • Alves, William. Music of the Peoples of the World. Thomson Schirmer, 2006.
  • Garfias, Robert. "Gradual Modifications of the Gagaku Tradition." '['Ethnomusicology, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Jan., 1960), pp. 16-19.
  • Matsumiya, Suiho. "Traditional Music in Japan To-Day: Its Stability and Evolution." Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 11 (1959), pp. 65-66.
  • Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Charles E. Japan: TuttleCo., Inc., 1959.

External links[edit]