Appreciating Japanese Music

Japanese music often sounds very different to Western music, but like our music, has a long varied history. It is divided into many classifications, and there are a variety of different types for you to enjoy here.

Unlike our music which is based upon seven or eight note western modal scales, traditional Japanese music is often based upon a five note pentatonic scale, which gives it it's unique oriental flavour. Interestingly, Irish traditional music also uses pentatonic scales, although the end result sounds very different.

Unknown ensemble - download mp3

This is my favourite piece. I have no idea who the performers are, but this piece has a very traditional feel. You can almost imagine a musical ensemble performing for the court in an ancient shogun castle!

The piece uses traditional instruments, I suspect a koto (Japanese harp) and a subtle shakuhachi flute. The koto sounds similar to a shamisen, but a bit beefier and twangier. There's also some great percussion in the background. I love the vocal vibrato of the lead singer, which is not a skill used in modern western music, but interestingly was very popular in European opera 200 or so years ago.

The whole piece is really given vibrancy by the wonderful half chanted/half shouted backing vocal troup.

Painting by Bruce Hedges -
Taiko piece 1 - download mp3

The teiko is a huge Japanese drum, often played in ensembles. Traditionally, it is played solo. The word "teiko" means simply "drum", but it originally meant great or wide drum. It has a powerful, soul-stirring sound. This piece is quite short and very traditional.

Taiko piece 2 - download mp3

This second taiko piece has a more modern feel. Layers are skillfully built up, enabling you to appreciate the subtle variations in rhythm and impact power. The changes in pitch are caused by striking the skin nearer to the centre, or the edge of the drum. Hits near the the edge produce a higher pitch because the skin is more tightly stretched. However, taiko also come in many different pitches according to size, and depth.

Shakuhachi - download mp3

The shakuhachi is a Japanese bamboo flute. In fact, the word means "1.8 foot" referring to its length. A Japanese foot is slightly shorter than the Imperial foot and is divided into 10 units called sun. The shakuhachi is played like a flute, and although it only has five notes, an infinite number of microtones can be achieved by varying the angle of the flute to the player's mouth, and by only partially revealing or occluding the finger holes.

The shakuhachi has a less refined and reedy sound than a European flute, but it has a particularly airy, floating sound that is very appealing.

Hadesugata - download mp3

This piece of music verges on hysterically funny to the western listener, and has almost certainly been banned as a form of torture under the Geneva convention.

Hadesugata, or "Doll theater" is a type of puppet theater, in which one performer expresses all dialogue and narration. The expression of different voices is said to be a real art form, and whilst the emotions will sound over-articulated in the context of normal music, is easier to appreciate when you imagine the use of puppets.

I'm not absolutely sure, but I think that the charcter is this piece is unhappy. The particular piece is a tragedy, not just because of the singing. It's about love, murder, broken marriage, duty to the state and to one's ancestors, and ultimately, a suicide pact. Could almost be an episode of East Enders...

A shamisen player
Modern meets classical - download mp3

I'm not certain who this piece is by, although I suspect that the vocalist may be an Asian singer called Coco Lee. Initially it sounds a bit like Captain Pugwash does samba, but it quickly settles down and Coco's beautiful voice, and the rather sugary backing singers kick in. This interesting fusion uses the traditional Japanese scale and an authentic-sounding stringed instrument that is probably a shamisen (Japanese guitar).

Keiko Matsui - Light above trees

This wonderful and emotional piece really rewards you for sticking with it. It starts dark and threatening, but quickly moves into the most amazingly relaxing and lifting piece.

I imagine that the piece represents an afternoon storm on the inland Japanese mountains, but then the storm passes, and rays of lights rise past the stands of bamboo and over the trees, shining through the dark clouds, giving way to a brief period of evening tranquility. A last frenzy of activity as birds flock home, and then a mysterious night approaches.

Primarily performed by Keiko Matsui on piano and her husband Kazui on shakuhachi with some wild electric guitar near the end, it is the perfect embodiment of the tasteful contemporisation of traditional Japanese music.