Traditional Japanese music

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Musicians and dancer, Muromachi period

Traditional Japanese music is the folk or traditional music of Japan. There are three types of traditional music in Japan: theatrical, court music (called gagaku), and instrumental.


Japan has several theatrical forms of drama in which music plays a significant role. The main forms are kabuki and noh.


Noh () or nōgaku (能楽) music is a type of theatrical music. Noh music is played by an instrumental ensemble called hayashi-kata (囃子方). The instruments used are the taiko (太鼓) stick drum, a big hourglass shaped drum called the ōtsuzumi (大鼓), a smaller hourglass shaped drum called the kotsuzumi (小鼓), and a bamboo flute called the nohkan (能管). The hayashi ensemble is performed along with yokyoku, vocal music, in noh theater.


Kabuki (歌舞伎?) is a type of Japanese theatre. It is known for its highly stylized dancing and singing as well as the elaborate make-up worn by the predominately all male cast. The first instances of kabuki used the hayashi from noh performances. Later on, kabuki began incorporating other instruments like the shamisen. The music of kabuki can be divided into three categories:[1] geza, shosa-ongaku, and ki and tsuke.


Geza includes music and sound effects played on stage right, behind a black bamboo curtain called a kuromisu. Geza music can be further subdivided into three types. The first type is uta or song. Uta is sung in accompaniment to shamisen playing. Typically there are multiple uta singers singing together. The second type is called aikata. It involves shamisen music without any singing. The third type is narimono. Narimono is played by musical instruments besides the shamisen.


Shosa-ongaku encompasses music that is played on the stage and accompanies acting and dancing. Shosa-ongaku includes the Takemoto, Nagauta, Tokiwazu and Kiyomoto music styles. Takemoto accompanies acting. Nagauta, Tokiwazu and Kiyomoto accompany dancing in kabuki. Takemoto basically recites the parts of the play concerning scenery. The actors attempt to synchronize their lines with the rhythm of takemoto- an effect known as "ito ni noru" (get onto strings).

Naguata is one of the most commonly seen forms of geza. It involves singers, called utakata, and shamisen players, called shamisenkata. The utakata are seated stage right of the dancing and the shamisenkata are seated stage left. The shamisenkata use hosozao (thin neck) shamisen which produce high pitched tones and are capable of producing delicate melodies.

Tokiwazu consists of reciters called tayu and shamisenkata that use chuzao (medium-neck) shamisen. Tokiwazu is similar to Kiyomoto music but it is slower-paced and more solemn. Tokiwazu is also performed onstage.

Kiyomoto also consists of tayu and shamisenkata using chuzao. However, in kiyomoto words and sentences full of emotion are recited in very high-pitched tones.

Ki and Tsuke[edit]

Ki and tsuke covers the distinctive sounds made by striking two square oak boards. When the two boards are struck together, they produce the ki sound. When they are struck against a hardwood board, they produce the tsuke sound...

Court Music (Gagaku)[edit]

Gagaku (雅楽?) is court music, and is the oldest traditional music in Japan. Gagaku music includes songs, dances, and a mixture of other Asian music. Gagaku has two styles; these are instrumental music kigaku (器楽) and vocal music seigaku (声楽).

  • Instrumental Music
  • Vocal Music
    • Kumeuta (久米歌?)
    • Kagurauta (神楽歌?)
    • Azumaasobi (東遊び?)
    • Saibara (催馬楽?)
    • Rōei (朗詠?)


Shōmyō (声明?) is kind of Buddhist song which is an added melody for a sutra. Shōmyō came from India, and it began in Japan in the Nara period. Shōmyō is sung a capella by one or more Buddhist monks.


Jōruri (浄瑠璃?) is narrative music using the shamisen (三味線?). There are four main jōruri styles. These are centuries-old traditions which continue today.

  • Gidayubushi (義太夫節?)- During the Edo period, Takemoto Gidayu (竹本義太夫?) began to play joruri in Osaka. This type of jōruri is for bunraku, (puppet plays).
  • Tokiwazubushi (常磐津節?) - During the Edo period, Tokiwazu Mojidayu (常磐津文字太夫?) began to play this style of joruri in Edo. This type of jōruri is for kabuki dances called Shosagoto.
  • Kiyomotobushi (清元節?) - Kiyomoto Enjyudayu (清元延寿太夫?) began to play this for kabuki dances in Edo during the late Edo period. He began to play this style in 1814. He played Tomimotobushi style at first. He spun off from Tomimotobushi style. He started Kiyomotobushi style. This style is light. This style is refreshingly unrestrained. This style is chic.
  • Shinnaibushi (新内節?) - In the middle of the Edo period, Tsuruga Shinnai (鶴賀新内?) began to play this for kabuki. This style of jōruri is typically lively and upbeat.

There are other four jōruri styles which have largely died out. Katōbushi, Icchuubushi and Miyazonobushi are old style. Katōbushi, Icchuubushi and Miyazonobushi are called Kokyoku (古曲?). Kokyoku means old music. Kokyoku consists of Icchuubushi, Katōbushi, Miyazonobushi and Ogiebushi(荻江節?). Ogiebushi is not jōruri. Ogiebushi is like Nagauta.

  • Katōbushi (河東節?) - During the Edo period, Masumi Katō (十寸見河東?) (1684–1725) began to play in an original style in 1717. It is heavy.
  • Icchuubushi or Itchubushi (一中節?) - During the Edo period, Miyako Icchuu (都一中?) or Miyakodayuu Icchuu (都太夫一中?)(1650–1724) began to play this style.
  • Miyazonobushi (宮薗節?) or Sonohachibushi (薗八節?) - During the Edo period, Miyakoji Sonohachi (宮古路薗八?) began to play this style in Kyoto. Miyazonobushi is modest style.
  • Tomimotobushi (富本節?) - During the Edo period, Tomimoto Buzennojō (富本豊前掾?) (1716–1764) began to play this style. Tomimoto Buzennojō played Tokiwazubushi style at first. He spun off from Tokiwazubushi style. He started Tomimotobushi style.


Nagauta (長唄?) is music using the shamisen. There are three styles of nagauta: one for kabuki dance, one for kabuki dialogue, and one of music unconnected with kabuki.

Ogiebushi (荻江節?) is similar to nagauta. Ogie Royuu I(荻江露友?) (?-1787) began to play this style, having played nagauta style at first. He spun off from Nagauta style. He started the Ogiebushi style. Original was a sect of Nagauta. Ogie Royuu I(?-1787) became famous in about 1767. His rival was Fujita Kichiji(富士田吉治?)(Fujita Kichiji was Nagauta singer in Edo). Ogie Royuu I(?-1787) had a beautiful voice, but the volume of his voice was small. In theater a voice of big volume was important. So, Ogie Royuu I(?-1787) stopped singing in the theater. Another theory says that Ogie Royuu I(?-1787) lost. Fujita Kichiji won. So, Ogie Royuu I(?-1787) stopped to sing in theater. Ogie Royuu I(?-1787) began to play in Yoshiwara. This style of music was mainly sung at Yoshiwara. Ogie Royuu II and Ogie Royuu III is unknown. Ogiebushi declined after 1818. Tamaya Yamazaburou(玉屋山三郎?) composed new Ogiebushi pieces at the end of the Edo Period. Tamaya Yamazaburou was an owner of parlor house in Yoshiwara. Tamaya Yamazaburou knew music very well. Tamaya Yamazaburou's pieces are affected by Jiuta (地歌?) music. Iijima Kizaemon(飯島喜左衛門?) re-established Ogiebushi. Iijima Kizaemon changed his name to Ogie Royuu IV in 1876. Another theory says that he became Ogie Royuu IV in 1879. Ogiebushi is classified as a Kokyoku (古曲?, old music). (Kyoku usually means music piece or music number in modern Japanese. "music" is old sense.) Now Kokyoku is Katohbushi(河東節?), Icchuubushi(一中節?), Miyazonobushi(宮薗節?) and Ogiebushi(荻江節?). Kokyoku is old music. Not many players perform Kokyoku. Kokyoku players are old. Young players are few. Kokyoku is comparatively old music in Edo Period(New music is Nagauta, Gidayuubushi, Tokiwazubushi, Kiyomotobushi, Shinnaibushi etc... in Edo Period). Kokyoku is an expedient name. Kokyoku was named by Machida Kashou(町田佳聲?) in 1919. Machida Kashou(1888–1981) was a Japanese music researcher and composer. Exactly, Ogiebushi is newer than Nagauta. But Ogiebushi is classified as Kokyoku. Kokyoku is an expedient name. After 1919 the word Kokyoku has been used in Japan. The word Kokyoku had popular usage in the Taisho Period. In 1962 Kokyokukai(古曲会?, Old music group) was established. Kokyokukai has trained the successor. Kokyokukai has held the concert. In modern Japanese, "hurui ongaku" refers to old music. Kokyoku is idiom.

Shakuhachi music[edit]

Shakuhachi (尺八?) music began in the Edo period. Buddhist monks played the shakuhachi as a substitute for a sutra. Sometimes the shakuhachi is played along with other instruments.


Sōkyoku (筝曲?) uses the "Chinese koto" (guzheng), which differs from the Japanese koto (琴?). There are two schools of sōkyoku.

  • Ikuta ryu - Originated in Eastern Japan. It is played with shamisen.
  • Yamada ryu - Originated in Western Japan. It is focused on songs.

Traditional music in modern culture[edit]

Traditional Japanese musicians sometimes collaborate with modern Western musicians. Also, musicians create new styles of Japanese music influenced by the West but still using traditional musical instruments.

Traditional musical instruments[edit]

Traditional cultural events[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Invitation to Kabuki | Expression by sounds". Retrieved 2016-04-08.
  2. ^ 舞楽 (in Japanese). The Asahi Shimbun Company. Retrieved 2012-02-18.

External links[edit]