Gagaku Music

Gagaku music, commonly translated as court music, is an example of Japanese tradition heavily influenced by China. The word, gagaku, comes from the Chinese word, yayue, which means proper music. Despite originating from China, Gagaku music became something heavily associated with Imperial Japan. While this, along with Japan’s history, contributes to the decline in popularity of this music, it also gives a glimpse into the rich history of Japan. Gagaku music shows many of the social aspects of Japan during this time.


Gagaku orchestras consist of three main instrument groups: percussion, wind, and string instruments. The most notable percussion instrument in the Gagaku ensemble is the Dadaiko, a massive drum. The ensemble normally contains two of these drums. The leader of the ensemble is the player of the Kakko, a small drum that can be played on both sides. Other percussion instruments include a medium size drum (Taiko) and a bronze gong (Shoko). The string instruments include a six-stringed zither (Wagon), another zither (Gakuso), and a lute (Gakubiwa). The key to the Gagaku ensemble is the wind instruments, including the double reed Hichiriki, the flutes (Ryuteki and Komabue) and the seventeen reed pipe instrument (Sho). The Hichiriki is responsible for the sharp sound heard in the Gagaku ensemble. Each orchestra is organized through the Jo-ha-kyu concept. Jo means the introduction, Ha is the exposition and Kyu is the ending.

As previously stated, Gagaku music came to Japan through China. Chinese music entered Japan through visiting priests, envoys, students, and musicians during the Nara and Heian periods. While in China the style was mainly used for banquets, in Japan it was adopted for court functions. After the Heian period Japanese society became more militaristic, and since the skill of the Gagaku instruments were passed down from generation, the disruption of society caused for Gagaku’s prominence to decline. Yet when the Tokugawa dynasty was established in the seventeenth century, remaining musicans were either sent to the emperor in Kyoto or the shogun in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Once Japan began to westernize under the Meiji Restoration, these musicians were sent to Tokyo. At this point, it was only one ensemble, nothing compared to Gagaku orchestras in its golden age.


While the sharp sound of the Hichiriki makes Gagaku music controversial, other aspects of it do as well. Gagaku was limited to only palace performers until 1871, meaning it was not available for public consumption. Only the elite could listen to Gagaku music. Women were also not allowed to play Gagaku music in its early days. While the musicians were talented, they were considered to be a servant class in the court. While this does not affect the music, it is still important to note the social background of those performing in the tradition.

It is unfortunate that Japan moved away from this tradition historically, but it is also important to recognize that the social aspects of Gagaku were also outdated.   Luckily, one can still hear Gagaku music being played at temples on special occasions across Japan. It is important to keep the tradition alive, but in a way that includes all who want to be able to experience this musical tradition.