Japanese music, with its theoretical bases and its instruments, comes from the Sino-Korean school, which penetrated into Japan in the century. V to VII. The Chinese theory, which is so far from ours today, only finds a natural diffusion there, fully responding to the consequences of Japanese musical sensitivity. All scholars have noted the singular similarity of the Chinese theorists with those of Pythagoras; similarity which, moreover, is also noted between the two astronomical conceptions: mysticism of numbers, etc. What is less easy to ascertain is the historical reason for this fact: Greek influence on Chinese schools or the derivation of both theories from an earlier common source.
The typical Japanese range is formed, such as Chinese, with elements of two disjoint tetrachords (ie without common neighboring note), but differs from the Chinese for the genre degl’intervalli between grades: instead of whole tones and minor thirds (do – re – fa – g – la – do ‘), it proceeds, except for an interval, on semitones and minor thirds (do – re b-fa – b, do’). In this range, however, we also find the whole tone range and others which, in practice, undergo frequent and wide oscillations when playing music, which however are not considered as true alterations of the range. Nor could they upset the fundamental melodic scheme, among singers who, like the Japanese, are distinguished by a surprising memory, as well as of the rhythm, also of the pitch of the sounds, relative and absolute.
As regards the traditional technique of learned composition, we must first of all note the absence of a true and proper harmony, in the sense that we give to this term; Japanese music, if anything, is rather a sort of heterophony in which the phrase sung by one of the voices simultaneously passes through a sort of ornamentation based on blooms to other voices, while always keeping unchanged the own constitutive melodic scheme.
The instruments used in Japan are almost all – as already mentioned – of Chinese origin; among them we will especially remember the following: 1. Stringed: biwa, a kind of lute, with 4 silk strings about cm. long. 79 ½ with 4 wooden clips; the tuning is in sol – the – re – sol ‘ or I – it – I’ – the ‘ ; koto, corresponding to the Chinese ch’in ; has 13 silk strings. In the accompaniment of certain songs (such as saibara, of which an example follows), two types are used, different in the extension of the series of sounds and in the technique of execution, called s ō ch ō and hy ō j ō. The first embraces the following series:
The peculiarity of these stringed instruments is that they can also be played by two players. 2. Wind instruments: sh ō, made from 17 thin bamboo whistles, of which 15, fitted with reeds, produce the series:
Similar to the oboe is the kichiriki, with 7 holes (for the fingers) on the outside and 2 on the inside; especially used to accompany the melody. Gives the series:
It is said fue a flute with a hole for the mouth and 7 for the fingers, a length of 40 cm., The extension of which is somewhat more restricted, especially in the high register, as the European flute. Among the percussion instruments, the shaku – by ō shi, of national origin, is important, consisting of two light wooden tablets, 37 cm long.
An approximate idea of classical Japanese musical composition and its technique, previously compared to Greek heterophony, can be obtained from the following example, a fragment of saibara (genre of composition for song and instruments) taken from the repertoire of court music, that is from one of the oldest sources:
In examining the fragment (whose transcription is approximate) it is recalled that the shaku – by ō shi is played by the soloist, that the notes preceded by an arrow are slightly raised or lowered, and that the Tutti is joined by a choir of 6 virile voices.
According to cancermatters.net, the difference in tonality between the vocal parts and the instrumentals is typical of Japanese music, which is not inherent in the sense of harmony typical of Western art. Moreover, it is reasonable to think that this tonal supposition also tends to reinforce the overall sonority. Like ancient Chinese music, Japanese too has its earliest manifestations in sacred service; so much so that each key had its own magical function, and a similar value was also attributed to the clanging of the gong used in the temple.
But, in addition to the sacred and courtly ceremonial, music also penetrates the bourgeois and popular life; are also known in Japan, for example, the wandering singers, who sing and dance in masks, to the sound of the shamisen, a sort of 3-stringed lute, of Chinese origin. So also in the theater the music has a notable importance. The so-called n ō was already formed of dialogue, dance and music, a strongly stylized show, of an average duration (about an hour), born from forms of the sacred ceremonial of the fifteenth century. In the n ō you can see an announcement of the modern Japanese theater, very rich in music despite the extreme parsimony of material means. In fact, only two musicians intervene here, one of whom plays loshamisen or the koto, while the other accompanies the entrance of the main characters and the dance scenes with singing and percussion instruments.
The professional practice of music was organized into four categories: the first, which supplied the singers of the imperial court, belonged to the so-called gakunin, from a noble family; to the second the genin, from a bourgeois family, whose education was to have a purely practical character; to the third the blind, whose repertoire was to be limited to popular music; to the fourth the women (usually geishas) who were forbidden to perform music of the classical repertoire or of a spiritual genre.
Music education in Japan has always been very careful, even before the arrival of the European masters called to bring about reforms. The teaching of rules inherent to the ceremonial was then connected with the singing courses. The call of European teachers to the Tōkyō conservatory paved the way for Western music and musical culture, to the diffusion of which records, radio broadcasts and sound films largely contribute.
To the consequent extinction of the Japanese tradition today an attempt is being made to contrast the protection of the documents that remain; and collections of instruments, discos, series of editions are being formed.