An Introduction To Japanese Traditional Music – What Are The Old Types?

Traditional music is an integral component of every society. Culture and traditions are different from nation to nation, and so is the music naturally. In Japan as well as in the west, Japanese traditional music is very common. Many pieces of traditional Japanese musical compositions have been showcased all over the world in the latest years. In the present age, traditional music still plays a significant role in Japanese culture.

The History Of Japanese Traditional Music

Today, there is a little document written about traditional Japanese music dating back to prehistoric times. There is, however, proof that during the Yayoi and Jomon period music had been granted certain importance.

Japanese traditional music

Many pieces of traditional Japanese musical compositions have been showcased all over the world in the latest years.

Many graves were constructed during the late Yayoi era, both for poets and musicians. The historical records indicate that the chronicles ‘ Kojiki ‘ and ‘ Nohon Shoki ‘ recorded famous songs and legends in this era.

During Emperor Temmu’s reign, the chronicle “Kojiki” was compiled. Songs and poetry had already started to become part of Japanese traditional music by that moment.

The Importance Role Of This Music

Even though Japan has a distinctive culture and tradition, many of the ceremonies and musical styles have been borrowed from other nations. In addition to Chinese language, the Imperial State of Japan imported certain aspects of its culture such as Chinese traditional music. The judiciary of the lords and rulers during the Nara and Heian era were dominated by a traditional type of art called Gagaku. Noh, Shakuhachi, Koto, and Shamisen were the other types of traditional Japanese music.

One thing worth noting here is that vocal music is very important in Japanese folk music.

Popular Traditional Music

The following list includes some of Japanese music’s common traditional and ancient types.

Type 1: Noh

During the 14th century, this traditional Japanese type of music became famous. Noh is a type of theatrical music with its own music called Nohgaku and a dance called Shimai.  Nohgaku utilizes vocal as well as musical instruments.

Here’s a Nohgaku music example. It is worth to listen to the whole album!

Type 2: Shakuhachi, Koto, and Shamisen

These are the traditional forms of music in Japan which existed in the period of Azuchi-Momoyama (1573-1603). Many new musical instruments were introduced during this period.

The Buddhist priests have played Shakuhachi. This form of classical Japanese music was named after the Shakuhachi instrument and performed during religious celebrations and ceremonies.

Koto is also a form of ancient Japanese music. Koto’s music is referred to as Sokyoku. During the Edo period, it gained importance.

There is also the music of the shamisen, a kind of music composed by Ikuta school. The classical Japanese music is used both for narration and for melodious singing.

Type 3: Gagaku

Gagaku was widely referred to as court songs. It was created mainly at the court of the rich and upper class in society. During the Heian era (794-1192 AD) this type of art became very popular.

Gagaku is categorized into three types: 1. Original Music from abroad, 2. Pure music from Japan and 3. Music made by the neighboring nations of Japan. Gagaku comes from China, Korea, and other nations in South-Eastern Asia.

Gagaku is regarded as Kangen when played with the dance Bugaku. The Mouth Organ, Flute, Drum and Zither are some of the most common instruments used in this art type.

Here is an instance of “Koromogae Saibara” Music from To-Gaku.

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Kokufukabu is one of the traditional Japanese pure forms of music. It is an ancient music that contains both vocals and instruments. This music is generally played in the shrines and also in the courts. This ancient music has its origins in Japan, but it was created under the impact of tradition and society of neighboring nations, including Saibaba and Roei. These two musical forms are accompanied by vocals and musical instruments. Shomyo was also an important traditional Japanese music during the Hein era. This is a piece of vocal music used at the time of the prayer services in Buddhist temples.

Here is an example of a Shomyo chant called “Shingon”:

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the three main types of traditional Japanese music?

Three major types of traditional Japanese music are instrumental, court music and theatrical.

2. What is traditional Japanese music called?

There are two most ancient forms of traditional Japanese music: Shomyo (or Buddhist chanting) and Gagaku (another name: Orchestral Court music), which both date from the Nara and Heian periods.

3. What is Sakura music?

The “Sakura Sakura” is a traditional Japanese folk song representing Spring, the season of Cherry Blossom. It is often performed as a hymn representation of Japan in international events.

Unlike common beliefs, the song was not originally from ancient time, it was a famous metropolitan Edo melody.

4. What are the characteristics of Japanese traditional music?

The common features of Japanese music are that they are often slow, sorrowful and use low notes. Artists play them on a keyboard, a piano, guitar or any other Japanese traditional instruments.

5. What is the most popular type of music in Japan?

J-Pop as known as Japanese pop music is most common. Older people still, of course, love enka (traditional ballads). Western music is also played in public, but Japanese national music currently dominates.

6. Is Japanese traditional music still popular in modern culture?

Traditional Japanese musicians sometimes work together with modern Western musicians. Musicians also develop new West-influence styles of Japanese music, but still use traditional musical instruments. So in the modern life, Japanese artists is trying to combine 2 types of arts which come from different cultures. Traditional Japanese music has a chance to stay closer with community and adapt easier with modern life. It is an effort of Japanese government to maintain National culture.


Traditional Japanese music is also composed of folk songs. These songs are mainly related to spiritual rituals and daily work.

Although information about Japanese music from prehistoric times is limited, later on, Japanese folk music has become popular and has a more important role. Today, many people around the world like these styles!

About Hayami Mori

Hayami Mori is an awesome travel blogger & photographer. She was born and raised in Tokyo and have been here for nearly 25 years. She loves traveling and always wants to introduce her beautiful Japan to travelers from all over the world. Therefore, her blog is a great source of information for people looking for what to do in Japan as well as provides some tips to make their trips unforgettable.