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
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
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
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.