Traditional Music

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Naoya Mura

    Main guest

    Dancer, director and choreographer Naoya Mura is highly involved in spreading knowledge about Japanese music and other traditional forms of entertainment. Through his writing and frequent public appearances, he has built a reputation for his thorough yet easy-to-understand explanations.


July 4, 2017

Traditional Music

*You will leave the NHK website.

For many people around the world, the phrase “Japanese music” may evoke thoughts of brightly-dressed, hyperactive pop idols or, recently, a middle-aged man combining a writing implement with a piece of fruit.

But long before Japan was exposed to Western musical styles, it had a rich tradition of music all its own that’s the subject of this edition of Japanology Plus.

The program breaks traditional Japanese music into three rough categories: the music of the imperial court, that of Noh theater, and the boisterous, sometimes bawdy music of the common people.

The former, gagaku is arguably the oldest orchestral music in the world. Gagaku and the instruments used to play it were imported from China and Korea over a millennium ago and adapted to suit the Japanese aesthetic. The music was performed at imperial ceremonies and shrine rituals, and still is today. It’s played on eight major instruments, a combination of woodwinds and percussion, that blend to create a haunting style host Peter Barakan refers to as sounding “fairly strange” to the Western ear.


Guest Naoya Mura is a dancer well-versed in many kinds of traditional music.

That’s because, explains guest Naoya Mura, traditional Japanese music is less about rhythm and melody than about capturing the sounds of nature in musical form—a key point that runs through each style covered in the program.

That includes the music of Noh theater, the second style explored. Noh, said to be the oldest form of theater in the world still performed today, keeps decoration and props to a minimum, instead relying on the music to set the mood.

And set the mood it does: Peter describes the music of Noh as resembling that of a ghost movie, and Mura agrees, pointing out there’s even a specific Japanese word—hishigi—for the spine-tingling, high-pitched sound made by the nohkan, the flute used in Noh music.

While both the music and the physical movements of Noh are carefully prescribed, we learn that the musicians do have a certain amount of freedom within that framework, signaling to each other with vocalizations and minute pauses when to speed up or slow down the tempo. This creates the fluctuations that are a signature of Noh music.


Taiko drummer Munehisa Tokuda shows how Noh performers use subtle signals to communicate.


Ryuichi Onodera gives a chilling nohkan performance, employing the flute’s hishigi sound.

Though Noh and that other famous Japanese theatrical form, kabuki, are now given equal standing as high Japanese art, that certainly wasn’t the case when the latter appeared in the 17th century. While Noh was performed for the ruling samurai class, kabuki was popular entertainment for the common people that required a different style of music altogether.

Enter the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that resembles similar instruments from China and Okinawa.  The shamisen, which guest Mura describes as having a “bright, festive sound,” is also used to perform short folk pieces like the one played on the program by Yoshizumi Koshina. One of the most distinctive features of the instrument is its sitar-like buzz, called sawari, which is created by having the lowest string sit directly on the neck. That buzzing sound ties the music of the shamisen back to that of gagaku—both feature what Mura refers to as the “discordant tones of nature.”


Yoshizumi Koshina demonstrates the shamisen’s bright, festive sound and its signature sawari.

Though modern Japanese music has become much more closely aligned with that of the West, this author would argue that plenty of traditional elements remain in today’s music if you know where to look. The Japanese preference for discordant tones Mura refers to, for example, might offer a clue as to why so many prominent figures in the dissonant genre known as “noise music” hail from Japan.

Many Japanese artists are also involved in performing modern music with traditional Japanese instruments. Western hits covered on instruments like the shamisen, koto, and taiko have even become a popular sub-genre on the internet, and serve as a great starting point for those interested in Japan’s traditional music. In point of fact, we’ll be covering the impact of traditional music on Japan’s current music scene in an upcoming edition, so stay tuned.


It’s safe to say the theme this time struck a chord with DJ and music expert Peter Barakan.


In Plus One, Matt Alt learns to play a well-known Japanese tune on the koto.

Also appearing

Munehisa Tokuda

Taiko drummer and member of a Noh musical group for 35 years,  Munehisa Tokuda has performed around the world from Europe to China and has appeared in a Noh version of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Ryuichi Onodera

A nohkan flute player who made his debut in 2000, Onodera has recently participated in performances in Milan and at the Vatican.

Yoshizumi Koshina

A shamisen player who specializes in the music that accompanies kabuki, Yoshizumi Koshina is also involved in a variety of activities to spread knowledge about the instrument.

*You will leave the NHK website.