One of the clearest lessons learnt on school music trips is how the art and music of a country or region reflect the common characteristics of the people from that area. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Japan, where the music has the same simplicity and closeness to nature that can be found in their art, lifestyle, and even their food.
While the influence of China can be clearly seen in the music, art and literature, the Japanese mark of simplicity is unmistakable. In fact, school music trips to Beijing and Tokyo can show that there are vast similarities in the traditional instruments – the difference in the music that results from these instruments, however, is as vast as the distance between the two countries.
Not all forms of Japanese music have vocals and instruments. One of the most important aspects of Japanese music is the importance and uniqueness of rhythm – something that can be attributed to their traditional Tao, Shinto and Buddhist philosophies. Whereas Western rhythm is characterised by a series of sounds, Japanese rhythm emphasises the importance of silence- called ma- in the creation of music. Often sparse, beginning slow and rising in tempo as the piece progresses, the rhythms of Japanese music are often based on the rhythms of nature.
Types Of Japanese Traditional Music
Traditional Japanese music falls into several types: instrumental (not necessarily purely instrumental, may sometimes include vocals), narrative, theatrical and court music. For a complete overview of Japanese traditional music, itineraries should include trips to traditional performances of each type.
Theatrical music: Kabuki and Noh are the two major forms of Japanese theatre. While one need not necessarily go on school music trips to Japan to see it, as Japanese theatre groups often go on world tours, watching a Kabuki or Noh play in an authentic, traditional (often centuries old) setting is an experience not to be missed.
Court music: Called gagaku, the oldest type of traditional music was introduced from the Korean peninsula (then called Goguryeo) and includes both instrumental (kigaku) and voice (seigaku). For centuries, these songs and dances were only performed at the Imperial Court in Kyoto, but these days, performances can be arranged for school music trips and other tours. The oldest instruments (dated from around the 7th century) used for playing gagaku are the gakuso (zither) and the gaku biwa (short necked lute), but other instruments were used later on as well. Gagaku is traditionally played by musicians from hereditary guilds originally based in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara.
Instrumental music: Shamisen, taiko, and shakuhachi were three of the primary traditional instruments used throughout history, and these instruments still form the basis of a number of styles of Japanese music.