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Music In The Middle Ages

Gagaku: Imperial Court Music of Japan

Peter Kun Frary


While the Middle Ages raged in Europe, half a world away in Asia, highly refined art music was performed at royal courts, banquet halls and shrines in China, Korea and Japan. In the case of Gagaku (雅楽), Japanese imperial court music, this music has existed as an unbroken legacy since the 7th century, hosted by the royal family at the Imperial Court in Kyoto. It is both the world’s oldest surviving orchestral music and the oldest classical art music of Japan.

Gagaku Orchestra | Gagaku is the Imperial Court Music of Japan and contains strings, woodwinds and percussion instruments | PRI Public Radio International

Origin of Gagaku

Gagaku literally means elegant music and, although now uniquely Japanese, its style, instruments and technique originally descended from classical art music traditions of Korea, China and other regions of Asia, most of which have long disappeared. Gagaku consists of three main repertoires:

  • Kuniburi no utamai: Shinto religious music and folk songs and dance
  • Komagaku: Music of Korea and Manchuria.
  • Tōgaku: Chinese and South Asian music (from Tang Dynasty)

The musicians are one of the truly unique aspects of gagaku. Since ancient times, gagaku was played by musicians belonging to hereditary guilds. In other words, the gagaku musical legacy was passed down from father to son for untold generations. Most current imperial gagaku musicians are descended from these ancient hereditary guilds and trained for 9 years in the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency on the palace grounds. So, although this music is preserved in ancient Japanese music notation, it was also transmitted aurally among family members as a living musical tradition.

Gagaku Style

The melodies of gagaku are based on a type of pentatonic scale (five note scale) known as the yo scale. Besides use in gagaku, the yo scale was used for Buddhist chant and Japanese popular and folk songs.

Yo Scale | Pentatonic scale used in gagaku and other traditional Japanese music.

Gagaku, especially the beginning of pieces, is characterized by a uniquely Japanese pulse known as breath rhythm: take a deep breath, hold it briefly and then exhale it. Obviously, this type of pulse can't be counted or measured with a metronome and requires extensive rehearsal and careful listening to the other musicians to coordinate.

Currently, traditional gagaku is performed two ways:

  • Kangen: concert music for winds, strings and percussion
  • Bugaku: dance music

The standard instrumentation of the kangen orchestra includes sixteen instruments:

  • Nine woodwinds: 3 hichiriki, 3 ryûteki, and 3 shô.
  • Four string instruments: 2 koto and 2 biwa.
  • Three percussion instruments: 1 shôkô, 1 kakko, and 1 taiko.

Bugaku instrumentation is similar to gagaku but omits string instruments.

The instruments of the kangen orchestra divide into three choirs: woodwinds, strings, and percussion. Each choir has a specific function. The hichiriki and ryûteki form the woodwind choir and present the melodic material of the piece. The percussion choir plays rhythmic patterns, marking off time units. The two plucked-string instruments: koto and biwa, and the the shô, enhance important percussive passages with motives and drone harmonies related to the melody. Listen to a performance of kangen gagaku:

Kangen Gagaku (12:06) | Masayo Concert Series | Nagoya, Japan

Bugaku (21:15) | Chikoko | Tokyo Music Institute

Contemporary gagaku ensembles emerged in the 20th century, e.g., Reigakusha (伶楽舎), intermingling gagaku instruments with contemporary compositions by composers such as Toru Takamitsu. This style of gagaku is called reigaku (伶楽).

Not heard outside Japan for over one thousand years, the Imperial Gagaku Orchestra has toured the West, made many audio recordings and influenced many contemporary Western composers such as Alan Hovhaness, Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell to name a few. The legacy of gagaku is also evident in the gagaku orchestra courses offered at major universities such as UH Manoa, UCLA and others. UNESCO has placed gagaku on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


gagaku, pentatonic scale, yo scale, elastic or breath rhythm, kangen, bugaku, reigaku

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved