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:

  1. Native Shintoist religious music and folk songs, called saibara
  2. A Goguryeo and Manchurian form, called komagaku (named for Koma, one of the Three Kingdoms)
  3. A Chinese form (specifically Tang Dynasty), called togaku.

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.


By the 7th century, the gakuso (a zither) and the gakubiwa (a short-necked lute) had been introduced in Japan from China. Various instruments including these two were the earliest used to play gagaku.

Gagaku, the oldest classic music in Japan, was introduced into Japan with Buddhism from the Korean Peninsula. In 589, Japanese official diplomatic delegations had been sent to China (during the Sui dynasty) to learn Chinese culture.

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 which was a civil war from 1467 to 1477 during the Muromachi period, gagaku in ensemble had been stopped playing in Kyoto for about 100 years. In the Edo era, Tokugawa government re-organized the court style ensemble which is the direct roots of the present one.

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, ryūteki, 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, gakuso had been established.

Classical dance (called bugaku) also often accompanies gagaku performances, and both are used in religious ceremonies by the Tenrikyo movement and a few Buddhist temples.

Related to gagaku is theater, which developed in parallel. Noh was developed in the 14th century.

Today Gagaku is performed in two ways. Togaku can be performed as kangen, concert music for winds, strings and percussion, or as bugaku, or dance music for which the stringed instruments are omitted. Komagaku survives only as bugaku. ...overview, University of California site

Contemporary gagaku ensembles, such as Reigakusha (), perform contemporary compositions for gagaku instruments; this sub-genre of contemporary works for gagaku instruments, which began in the 1960s, is called reigaku (伶楽). 20th century composers such as Tōru Takemitsu have composed works for gagaku ensemble, as well as individual gagaku instruments.

Instruments used in gagaku

Wind, string and percussion instruments are essential elements of gagaku music.



  • Gakubiwa (楽琵琶), 4-stringed lute
  • Gakuso (koto, 箏), 13-string zither of Chinese origin
  • Wagon (和琴), zither of Japanese origin, with 6 or 7 strings


  • Shōko (), small gong, struck with a horn beater
  • Kakko (), small hourglass-shaped drum struck with two wooden sticks
  • Tsuri-daiko (太鼓), drum on a stand with ornately painted head, played with a padded stick
  • Ikko, small, ornately decorated hourglass-shaped drum
  • San-no-tsuzumi (三の鼓), hourglass-shaped drum
  • Shakubyoshi (also called shaku), clapper made from a pair of flat wooden sticks

Influence on Western music

Beginning in the 20th century, several western classical composers became interested in gagaku, and composed works based on gagaku. Most notable among these are Henry Cowell (Ongaku, 1957), La Monte Young (numerous works, but especially Trio for Strings, 1958), Alan Hovhaness (numerous works), Olivier Messiaen (Sept haïkaï, 1962), Lou Harrison (Pacifika Rondo, 1963), Benjamin Britten (Curlew River, 1964), and Bengt Hambraeus (Shogaku, from Tre Pezzi per Organo, 1967).

One of the most important gagaku musicians of the 20th 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.

See also


  • Alves, William. Music of the Peoples of the World. Thomson Schirmer, 2006.
  • Garfias, Robert. "Gradual Modifications of the Gagaku Tradition." '['Ethnomusicology'', Vol. 4, No. 1. (Jan., 1960), pp. 16-19.
  • Matsumiya, Suiho. "Traditional Music in Japan To-Day: Its Stability and Evolution." Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 11 (1959), pp. 65-66.
  • Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Charles E. Japan: TuttleCo., Inc., 1959.

External links

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