Guest writer: Mars#8919

Music is something that has touched many civilizations throughout the centuries; it evolves in correlation with the people that create and enjoy it. Japan is no exception to this and has experienced a musical exploration of its own since its humble beginnings.  Let’s talk about the roots of Japan’s musical history and how it has changed from its earliest conception to the modern music we enjoy today.

Gagaku Era

The Gagaku music era began back in 589 AD. Only the most elite dignitaries and royalty, such as the Imperial Court and Imperial Family, could listen to it since it was used for royal ceremonies and rituals meant to convey an aura of dignity, which was not meant for the general public. Its origins came from Korean and Chinese music before being combined by Japanese musicians to eventually become Gagaku.

Gagaku era
Image source

A Gagaku ensemble consists of 16 to 30 musicians. Only traditional instruments were used with three musical sections: woodwind, string, and percussion. The woodwind instrument is the sho (mouth organ) which is made of multiple wooden pipes with pipe holes held together by a metal ring with a wind chamber and a mouthpiece. The percussion instrument, the Taiko, is a large drum held up by a ring decorated with embroidery and played with mallets. The string instrument played, called the Biwa, is a large, flat, guitar-like four-stringed instrument with a flat scroll and long pegs played with a pick.

All of the instruments make for a lovely ensemble, with traditional and exquisite music.

Shomyo Era

shomyo era
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This era was believed to have begun sometime around the 6th century. Its origins are believed to have come from India, traveling along the Silk Road before entering Japan. It’s is one of the oldest forms of vocal music used as a Buddhist ritual chant and even though it originated many years ago, it is still practiced today.

A Shomyo ensemble does not contain many instruments and consists mostly of vocals. When instruments are used, they are usually bells, gongs, or wooden percussions, making it truly beautiful and peaceful.

Nogaku Era

Nogaku Era
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This era of Japanese music originated in the 8th century and it came from China, but it only later became popular in the 14th century. Nogaku/Noh is a form of musical theatre featuring acrobatics, songs, dancing, and comical sketches using props and usually telling a story about a supernatural being who takes human form. The plays vividly described the ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries in Japan.

Nogaku inspired many traditional arts to form and influenced the Japanese theatre.

Classical Music Era

Classical music was introduced to Japan in the 18th century when Western music started becoming popular. Shuji Isawa studied music at Bridgewater Normal School and Harvard University, and was an important figure in the development of Western-influenced music in Japan. On returning to his home country in 1879, Isawa formed the Ongaku-Torishirabe-Gakari (Music Investigation Agency), a national research centre for Western music; it was later renamed the Tokyo Music School (Tôkyô Ongaku gakkô) where they taught classical music.

There are many types of instruments used in classical music. Some of the more famous string instruments are the violin, viola, double bass, harp, and cello. Some popular woodwind instruments are the flute and clarinet and some well-known brass instruments include the trumpet, trombone, and the tuba. The percussion instruments are those like the piano and the drums (snare drums and bass drums). As a classical musician myself, I feel that the Classical Music era in Japan was the prime time of its music.

All of these instruments play together to create a beautiful melody accompanied by a perfect harmony and a steady bassline.

To learn more about these instruments, visit

J-Pop Era

Likely the most widely known of Japan’s musical eras, the Japanese Pop era (known as “J-Pop”) began in the 19th century. At first, most of the songs were covers of Western songs, but around the ’70s, Japanese musicians began to individualize their music to make it their own. The J-Pop era started as jazz, then made its way to folk songs, to rock and to the earliest stage of of modern J-Pop, kayoukyoku.

J-Pop consists more of vocals and of an instrumental backtrack, but it’s so diverse that it can be basically anything. There are hundreds of boy groups and girl groups, as well as solo artists that encompass J-Pop, many of which we learn about through anime and YouTube!

J-Pop allows expression through music, whether it be through jazzy tunes, heavy rock, touching vocals, or through A.I. (Vocaloids)!

Final Words

No matter what kind you listen to, music has made an impact on society for the better. From music for royalty to ancient theatre, and later to the finest classical music to peppy pop, music has evolved around us and with us through the years. No matter what music you listen to, play, or enjoy, it’s a way to purely and truly express emotion.

An artist paints a picture on a blank canvas, guided by the brush.
A musician paints a picture on silence, guided by the heart.


   Gagaku: Music & Instruments

   Japanese Music History

   Gagaku: The Court Music of Japan (complete)

   Gagaku: Imperial Court Music of Japan

   Japan: Shomyo Buddhist Ritual – Dai Hannya Ceremony

   Shomyo: Buddhist Ritual Chant

   Nôgaku theatre

   Music of Japan

   Oregon Symphony: The Woodwind Family

   Shomyo: Buddhist Ritual Chant by Sonbou no Toki

   Kitanodai Gagaku Ensemble

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