From New World Encyclopedia

Gagaku (literally "elegant music") is a type of Japanese classical music that has been performed at the Imperial court for several centuries. It consists of three primary bodies: native Shintoist religious music and folk songs called saibara; komagaku, which bears influence by a form from the old Korean kingdom of Koma with indirect Manchu influence; and a Chinese form from the Tang Dynasty, known as togaku. By the seventh century, the gakuso (a zither) and the gakubiwa (a short-necked lute) had been introduced in Japan from China. Various instruments including these three were the earliest used to play gagaku. Gagaku derived from a music and entertainment for the nobility to foster the poems, folk and banquet music for all levels of the Japanese society. The evolution of gagaku becomes an example of working beyond boundaries for harmony and understanding.

Komagaku and togaku arrived in Japan during the Nara period (710-794), and settled into the basic modern divisions during the Heian period (794-1185). Gagaku performances were played by musicians who belonged to hereditary guilds. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), military rule was imposed and gagaku was performed in the homes of the aristocracy, but rarely at court. At this time, there were three guilds based in Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto.

Because of the Ōnin War, a civil war from 1467 to 1477 during the Muromachi period, gagaku in ensemble had been eliminated from public performance in Kyoto for about one hundred years. In the Edo era, the Tokugawa government reorganized the court style ensemble which are the direct roots of the present gagaku style.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, musicians from all three guilds came to Tokyo and their descendants make up most of the current Imperial Palace Music Department. By this time, the present ensemble style, which consists of three wind instruments i.e. hichiriki (oboe), ryuteki (flute), and shō (bamboo mouth organ used to provide harmony) and three percussion instruments: kakko (small drum), shoko (metal percussion), and taiko (drum) or dadaiko (huge drum), supplemented by gakubiwa, or gakuso had been established.

Classical dance (called bugaku) also often accompanies gagaku performances. The Tenrikyo religion uses gagaku music as part of its ceremonies.

Contemporary gagaku ensembles, such as Reigakusha, perform contemporary compositions for gagaku instruments. Twentieth-century composers such as Tōru Takemitsu have composed works for gagaku ensemble, as well as individual gagaku instruments.

Related to gagaku is theater, which developed in parallel. Noh was developed in the fourteenth century.

Gagaku, like shomyo, employs the “Yo scale,” a pentatonic scale with ascending intervals of two, three, two, and two semitones between the five scale tones.[1]

Instruments used in gagaku


  • Hichiriki, oboe
  • Ryūteki, transverse flute
  • Sho, mouth organ


  • Gakubiwa, lute
  • Gakuso, zither of Chinese origin
  • Yamatogoto/Wagon, zither of Japanese origin


  • Shōko, small gong, struck with a horn beater
  • Kakko, small hourglass drum struck with two wooden sticks
  • Taiko, drum on a stand, played with a padded stick

Influence on western music

Beginning in the twentieth century, several western classical composers became interested in gagaku, and composed works based on gagaku. Most notable among these are Henry Cowell (Ongaku, 1957), Alan Hovhaness (numerous works), Olivier Messiaen (Sept haïkaï, 1962), Lou Harrison (Pacifika Rondo, 1963), and Benjamin Britten (Curlew River, 1964).

One of the most important gagaku musicians of the twentieth century, Masataro Togi (who served for many years as chief court musician), instructed American composers such as Alan Hovhaness and Richard Teitelbaum in the playing of gagaku instruments.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  1. Cross-Cultural Communication: World Music: Japanese Music. University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. Retrieved June 8, 2007.

Other references

  • Enrico, Eugene Joseph, David Smeal, et al. Gagaku the Court Music of Japan. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1989. OCLC 21580101
  • Masataro, Togi. Gagaku: Court Music and Dance. New York: Walker/Weatherhill, 1971. ISBN 0802724450
  • Nelson, Steven G., Kazuo Okado, et al. Gagaku: An Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan. Tokyo: Shimonaka Memorial Foundation, 2000. OCLC 46488452

External links

All links retrieved April 17, 2024.


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