Ancient Japan

Music
Like so much else . . .
in early and Nara Japanese culture, it's very difficult to reassemble the musical life of the Nara and Heian periods and before. To be sure, Japan most certainly had a vigorous musical tradition before the advent of Chinese and Korean influence in the sixth century. This tradition persisted in part in popular songs, most on political and social issues, and in Shinto ritual and chant—and possibly in the court music and dances that are handed down from the Nara and Heian. How much, however, of this music is Japanese in origin is difficult to determine.

   By the time the Japanese begin to write about music, they seem to have developed a sophisticated musical theory that categorizes music largely on its provenance or geographical origin. While both Japanese and American musical historians classify early Japanese music as Buddhist, Shintoistic, popular, court music (gagaku ) , military music, and so forth, the early Japanese thought of music as regional styles. So, if you were to somehow transport yourself back to an educated, ancient Japanese experience of music, you would hear distinct cultures in your music rather than hear distinct uses of the music, which is how modern musicologists and audiences hear ancient Japanese music.

   The Japanese classified music as gigaku , Togaku , To-sangaku , Koma-gaku , and Rinyu-gaku . Unfortunately, we have no musical notation from this period in Japanese history, but we have some idea of what this music sounded like based on written descriptions.

   The dominant secular musical style of ancient Japan was gigaku or Kure-gaku . This was the style of music for the popular dances and pantomimes of southern China and northern Indochina imported into Japan. It is, as near as we can tell, the most popular official music in the late sixth century. Later, however, it fell to become the lowest form of official music

   Both Togaku and To-sangaku were musical styles derived from T'ang China. The musical life of the T'ang court was extremely varied and multicultural; a formal set of rules, called the "Ten Styles of Music" governed the hierarchy and use of Chinese and foreign musical styles in court. When musical performances followed the academic rules and types of music of the "Ten Styles of Music," this music was known as Togaku , or T'ang music. When, however, the music consisted of popular music from T'ang China, this music was classified as To-sangaku , or "unofficial T'ang music." Sangaku was the most active and exciting of the early musics—interspersed between songs were acrobatics and energetic pantomimes.

   Finally, Koma-gaku was the music of the three Korean kingdoms and Rinyu-gaku was the music of Southern Asia. The latter always involved dances and pantomimes.

   In the official music of ancient Japan, music was not a separable element from any other components. It was story, pantomime, dance, and acrobatics and all the musical styles were understood as music and some other component. Perhaps the most persistent fallacy that we, as moderns, bring to the experience of music is to somehow think that music can be separated off from other aspects of a performance—in nineteenth century European musical aesthetics, this is called "music alone." Ancient Japanese court music, however, makes no sense without performance, pantomime, story, or dance.



Early Religious Music   We know next to nothing about the music associated with Shinto. The first religious music we know anything about in Japan is the music introduced with Buddhism, which largely consisted of chanting the Buddhist canon. Now, the historical Buddha himself seemed not to approve of music; other sutras have the historical Buddha spelling out strict rules for chanting prayers and sutras .

There are several characteristics of Buddhist chant. It's purpose is largely to produce peace of mind and a loss of the self. As such, any display of musical talent is out of the question as is any competition between singers or performers. It is an exoteric music, that is, it's meant to be easily comprehended and performed by anyone with little musical training.

   It's perhaps useful to review the distinction between exoteric and esoteric music. All music is based on two fundamental human activities: speech and movement. Speech is the basis of music in its rhythms, tones, and cadences; music, in part, is an exaggeration of basic tonal and rhythmical qualities of human speech. Movement is the basis of music in that music gives sound to the movement of the body—it's not overly simplistic to say that music is the sound of the human body in motion. Exoteric music, that is, music designed to be comprehended and performed by a large number of people, tends to be closer to the origins of music in speech and movement. Esoteric music, that is, specialized music designed for an elite audience that cannot understand or perform the music without special training, such as a Beethoven symphony, tends to be farther away from the origins of music. In other words, exoteric music tends to sound more like speech and movement and esoteric music sounds very little like speech or movement.

   The foundation of chant is the spoken word—chanting is an exaggeration of the patterns, tones, and rhythms in speech. Because Buddhist chant is rooted in the spoken language, it is improvisatory. Chant performace in the early Buddhist tradition was largely governed by qualititative rules: "keep the tones without fault" or "read quietly."

   Buddhist music arrived in Japan when the first Chinese teachers of Buddhist music arrived in 719 and 735; the Japanese categorized this music as shomyo . These teachers brought with them two distinct Buddhist chant styles—tendoku , or a shortened reading of the Buddhist sutras , and bombai , or a complete sutra reading in Sanskrit. In addition, they brought a very florid and musically complicated style of chanting called san , which could be performed in Sanskrit, Chinese, or Japanese. The life of Buddhist monks were surrounded by these chants; in fact, much scripture lecturing was done in chants. In addition, all official functions involving Buddhist monks involved lengthy and florid chants.


Ancient Japan
Shinto
   Shinto chant was in part a counter-reaction to Buddhism and, like so many other aspects of Shinto, an incorporation of Buddhist practices in Shinto. Unlike Buddhism, however, Shinto had no canonical scriptures; chanting was performed largely in prayers, the norito , or "divine words." Like Buddhist chant, Shinto musical performance was exoteric, designed to be performed and comprehended by anyone with little musical training.


GagakuPerhaps the most permanent musical culture developed in early Japan was the gagaku , or court instrumental music, developed at the Heian court. As in so many other areas of cultural achievement, the long-lasting peace of the Heian period allowed for the development of a distinctly Japanese style of music.


Japan Glossary
Miyabi
   In Japanese, gagaku means "refined" (ga ) "music" (gaku ) and so is perfectly in line with the Heian cultural value of miyabi , or "courtly refinement." Since the emphasis is on refinement or taste, gagaku was largely experienced in the Heian period as an elite or esoteric music, a "high culture" music in contrast to other Japanese musical traditions. Like other early Japanese musical traditions, gagaku is not "music alone" but rather music and dance or pantomime. The entire gagaku experience, from the music to the singing to the story to the dance was regarded as refined and elegant. It's important, however, to understand that gagaku is not a distinct musical classification, like "Baroque," but is a category that subsumes several musical and performance genres. It is largely a distinction between music for refined, courtly tastes, and all other types of music.


   Like ancient court music, gagaku is largely divided up according to the origin of the musical style. The highest style is the Togaku , or T'ang courtly music, following the programmatic rules of the "Ten Styles of Music." Next to the Togaku was the Komagaku , or musical styles from the Korean kingdoms.

   Distinct from this group were Japanese vocal music accompanied by elaborate, masked and costumed pantomimes. Finally, the last group of gagaku music were the saibara , or Japanese folk songs (sung in Chinese) and roei , or courtly songs written in T'ang style.

   The daily life of the Japanese imperial court was filled with gagaku and, occasionally, shomyo . All ceremonies, weddings, funerals, affairs of state, all would be accompanied by the musical style most appropriate to the occasion with Togaku and Komagaku reserved for the most solemn or serious events. It was during the Heian period that the Japanese began to develop a distinct music theory as well, mainly in trying to distinguish between gagaku , the music of the court, from shomyo , the music of the Buddhists. Music theory was housed in an official Imperial department, the gagaku department, that had as its task the formal training of gagaku musicians.

   Now, even though music theory was not highly developed in the Heian period, it's a significant development. For music theory as a cultural practice has one and only one function: training both performers and audiences how to listen to music. Music theory is the way that cultures formally make esoterism a primary value in music—without proper training, one cannot properly perform or listen to music.

   Japanese music theory was wholly derived from Chinese musical theory which dated back at least to the fifth century BC. In Chinese music theory, the five tones of the musical scale (called a pentatonic scale) were intimately related to all the other "fives" based on the five material agents: the directions, the seasons, organs, animals, etc. The five material agents were a sophisticated theory of change: all change, including musical change, was governed by the relationship of the five material agents either as they engendered one another or conquered one another. These two possible relationships—the sequence of the five material agents as the either engender or conquer one another—in part governed the sequence of notes in the scale.

WoodFireEarthMetalWater

chiao (3rd note)cheng (4th note)kung (1st note)shang (2nd note)yü (fifth note)


   In addition, the five material agents were collapsed in a larger notion of yang and yin, the male (creation) and female (completion) principles of change in the universe. Likewise, the pentatonic scale was divided into a male scale and a female scale, or ryo and ritsu in Japanese. The most important note in the pentatonic scale is the third note of the scale, called the "cornerstone"—in the correspondences with the five material agents, the "cornerstone" corresponds to the agent wood (and so to Spring and the East, or beginnings, and jen , or "benevolence, humaneness," the most important of the virtues). While in the West we define tonal scales based on the first note of the scale (called the tonic), in Chinese and Japanese music, the scale is defined by the cornerstone, or third note. If the relationship between the first note (kung , which corresponds to the earth agent and the center) of the scale and the cornerstone form a perfect third (if you play middle C and E on a piano, you're playing a perfect third), the scale is male; if these two notes form a perfect fourth (like middle C and F on a piano), the scale is female. Here, check this out. Go to a piano and play only the black keys—that's a pentatonic scale. If you play a scale starting at C sharp, you're playing a male scale—the first note is C sharp and the cornerstone is F sharp, a perfect third. If you play a five note scale starting at D sharp, you're playing a female scale—the first note is D sharp and the cornerstone is G sharp, a perfect fourth.

   Finally, Chinese and Japanese musical theory were based on the eight categories of sound (Chinese: pa yin ): metal (bells), stone (stone chimes), earth (ocarina), leather (drums), silk (stringed instruments), wood (double reed wind instruments), gourd (sho , or mouth organ), and bamboo (flute).

   So, what does that mean for you? If you really want to listen to early Japanese music the way, it seems, that a cultured audience would listen and understand it, you'd understand the music in all these aspects: how are the notes of the scale related to one another? Is the piece in a male or female scale? What are the relationships between the categories of sound?

   By the end of the Heian period, the T'ang dynasty in China had fallen (907 AD) and Japan had more or less cut off diplomatic and economic relations with China. As a result, Chinese music became less important at court and the saibara and roiei began to dominate. In the early tenth century, the Imperial court officially set up a "Native Music Department" whose task it was to formally lay down and adhere to rules of native music performance and composition. As with the gagaku department, the "Native Music Department" formally elevated some indigenous music to the status of high culture.


Instruments
   The ancient Japanese thought of musical instruments as two distinct categories: percussion and all others. When the gagaku department was set up, the Heian court also set up a percussion department which in the course of the period became a separate guild. The instruments associated with gagaku were stringed instruments and wind instruments similar to the flute; the percussion instruments, however, were seen as lesser instruments.

   Principle among the stringed instruments was the biwa , which, like so much else in Japanese music culture, was imported from China (in China the instrument is known as the pi'pa ). It not only seems to have been the most important instrument in court orchestras, the biwa was also a work of fine art as the ancient biwas that come down to us are among the finest crafted works of the Heian period. The biwa is a four-stringed instrument whose tonal range occupies the whole of the European bass clef; it is tuned to six "modes' of five tones. While it was the premier solo instrument in T'ang China, in gagaku orchestras it was common but tended to be used for the grunt work—the bulk of the musical work was done by the six-stringed wagon and the thirteen-stringed koto with their more complex and rich modes.

   Among the wind instruments, the principle instruments seem to have been the shakuhachi , a bamboo flute, and the sho , a mouth organ built of seventeen bamboo pipes arranged in a circle, both of which are derived from either Chinese or Korean musical instruments. The shakuhachi flute is played with the flute dangling down in front of the performer; in the Heian period, transverse flutes (flutes which point out to the side when played by the performer like the Western flute) were all the rage.

   Percussion was a standard part of both Chinese and Japanese ensemble music. Three of the tonal categories in Chinese and Japanese musical theory were taken up by percussion: metal, stone, and leather. From Chinese music, the Japanese employed three percussion instruments: a side drum (kakko ), a bronze gong (shoko ), and a large, hanging drum struck by two large, heavy drumsticks (taiko ). In later Japanese music, the taiko would become an important solo instrument in its own right and taiko ensemble music became some of the most spectacular "music alone" performance in Japanese tradition. As with most percussion, taiko music is very close to the origins of music in the movement of the body and a real experience requires seeing as well as hearing the performance. Taiko performance is based on the modulation between the "female" (left hand) and "male" (right hand) strokes of the drumsticks—the female stroke is always soft and the male is always a strong stroke. The modulation between soft and strong is the primary component of taiko performance.

   In addition to court music, percussion was a vital part of Buddhist ceremonies and processions. The instruments and rhythms were different than court music, but Buddhist life and ceremony was filled with percussive richness.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-30-97