How Does Japanese Music Differ From That Of The West?

At first, everything about Japanese music seems opposed to the sense of westerners. If one listens to the famous Entenraku (literally, music that was brought from heaven), a classic tune from the composer Gagaku, there is little reference to what most people's ears are used to. The pace can be immensely stretched, so that the melody itself cannot be identified immediately.

One hears, besides muffled drumbeats, a Hichiriki flute intoning, before the other instruments, such as mouth organ and the Sho-ryuteki gradually join in. The melody is imbedded in the high-sounding tones of the Sho and the broken chords of the strings. The slightly blurred and pitchy sound complexes have a glittering brilliance similar to the view in bright sunlight.

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This music has a long tradition, and the rhythm is free, which makes the Japanese music flow organically. The thematic material is not converted, and the musical process is the unfolding of the melody. Thus, the music glides from one sound to another, and the subtle instrumental tunes seem to mingle with each other. The impression and experience of this is sublime, extraordinary and strict. The name Gagaku translates into elegant, refined music, which is so elaborated that its cryptic design only a trained listener can tell.

The hieratic severity, which does not preclude the appearance of fictitious music has already fascinated European composers. One French composer has created quite a similar sound in his piece Sept Haikai. Also, his student, wished to accomplish something alike. He even composed in 1977 a theme for the Imperial Gagaku Orchestra of Tokyo. This melody was played by Western instruments, and he arranged this so cleverly that the original Asian sound remained intact.

Indeed, the fascination of this remote Japanese sound is understandable. Essential to the Japanese culture is the proximity to nature. In fact, the musical arts and poetry are not to be separated from it. When one listens to the Shakuhachi bamboo flute, one can hardly think of anything else but the labor of the howling wind and rushing water. This happens due to the relative quiet sound of an extremely contemplative instrument with a rich palette of tone colors.

That the instrument is traditionally only played during Buddhistic ceremonies, but never in concerts for other listener, one can guess almost immediately. Western music differs a lot, as it seems louder and more bizarre than Asian sounds.
However, here, too, one can notice the high pitched quality of instruments and voices. Something magical happens though when one combines those two music styles. Basis for many of those pieces are crisp and tart sounds of the Koto, a zither, which spreads a mysterious charm.

The yodeling tunes from a Japanese singer appear at first odd to Western ears. The impression is underscored by the many glissandos and portamenti; the swinging sound frequency of the Koto. However, the classical Western music becomes more and more popular in Japan. Tokyo alone has nine symphony orchestras that play everything - from the Baroque period to contemporary music. Similar, there are many Western ensembles playing with Japanese instruments.

It is a pity that the Japanese music is hardly known in the Western world. Certainly, the tunes may sound unusual and funny at first, but once one gets used to it the melodies turn out to be deeply moving. Japanese music appears to be based on the feelings of the musician and has a more profound meaning than first expected. 

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