Gagaku: Music & Instruments

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Gagaku, Japanese court music, has existed for centuries. We will learn about the traditions and instruments that constitute this colorful, evocative art form.

For Royal Eyes Only

If you were a commoner in ancient Japan, you would not have the opportunity to hear Gagaku. Rumors about its splendor were everywhere, and you could imagine the pomp, ceremony, and beauty of the performance. But no matter how much you might like to witness a Gagaku performance, it was sacred, and therefore reserved for the Imperial court.

An ancient Gagaku ensemble
Drawing of ancient Gagaku ensemble

Origins of Gagaku

The origins of Gagagku are so ancient that there is some debate about in which century it began. Sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries, music from Korea and China made its way to the islands of Japan. Japanese musicians combined these new sounds with traditional Japanese music, and by the 9th century a style known as Gagaku was formally organized.

Gagaku, which means 'elegant music', became the music of the Imperial court. It was played during rituals performed by the Imperial family and was meant to convey an aura of dignity, mystery, and awe around the family and court. The music was not performed in public for a general audience and thus was only heard by aristocrats and royalty. Over time, this imbued Gagaku with a reverential, sacred respect from the Japanese people.

A modern Gagaku ensemble
A Gagaku ensemble

Gagaku was at its height of popularity from the 9th century to the 12th century. After this time, although still performed, it entered a slow decline until 1868 when the Meiji emperor revived the mystique surrounding the Imperial court. From the Meiji Period to the present Gagaku has played a continuous role in the rituals of the court.

Instruments of Gagaku

An illustration of a koto player
Illustration of koto player

A Gagaku ensemble can consist of 16 to 30 musicians. Only traditional Japanese instruments are used. The ensemble is divided into three sections, woodwinds, strings, and percussion. The woodwind instruments are the sho (mouth organ), the hichiriki (double reed flute), and the ryuteki (transverse flute). The drums are the kakko and taiko. The shoko is a bronze gong. The string instruments are the koto and biwa (lute).

Ryuteki player
Photo of ryuteki player

Music of Gagaku

Gagaku is a musical tradition that has been passed down through the centuries mainly by teaching and repetition, from masters to apprentices. There's some notation, but it isn't standardized, so it's difficult to ascertain precisely what performance is intended in the old manuscripts. It takes several years for apprentices to learn and memorize the repertoire.

The music is mostly monophonic, which means one melody at a time with no underlying harmony. There are also sections of homophony, which is one melody with harmonic accompaniment, alternating with the monophony. The melodies are long, sustained, and very slow. They are punctuated at dramatic intervals by the drums. The overall effect is very slow, almost static, meditative music that feels very formal and unemotional.

Gagaku Traditions

Japanese culture is steeped in traditions that have survived centuries, and Gagaku is no exception. For hundreds of years the positions in the Imperial court ensemble were handed down from father to son. This changed in the past few decades and now talented musicians from any family are allowed to audition for a position. However, there are still descendants from the original families of 1000 years ago playing in the ensemble. This only applies to men. Women are not allowed in the Gagaku ensembles.

Ritual clothing is worn. Beautiful silken robes and headpieces are part of the performance. Players sit cross legged on a raised dais that has been elaborately decorated. Their movements as they strike their drums or play their biwas are carefully choreographed and formal. Every position and posture is planned.

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