Pacific Asia Museum

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Imperial Court of Japan and Shō


Gagaku or imperial court music of Japan includes both orchestral music and dance. Three groups of instruments included in this orchestra are: percussion such as taiko and shōko, strings such as koto and biwa, and the winds hichiriki and shō, seen here. When played together, distinct sounds from these instruments create unique harmonies: percussion instruments generate rhythms, layered under the wind instruments’ melodies; and the string instruments adding both melodic and rhythmic elements to the orchestra.

This centuries-old musical legacy is comprised of many different musical traditions and influences, both domestic and those that traveled along the Silk Road. A few of the most distinct musical traditions present in gagaku are native songs and dances, such as kagura and yamato-mai, and foreign songs and dances from continental Asia, such as togaku from China and komagaku from Korea.

Literally translated as ‘elegant music,’ gagaku is performed on several occasions, including religious ceremonies and non-religious events of the imperial house and aristocracy dating from the tenth century in the Heian period onwards. Gagaku has been passed down with great pride and care for centuries under the patronage of the imperial family. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate reorganized the gagaku, which had almost been discontinued during the previous Muromachi period due to fierce civil wars. This form revived by the Tokugawa was close to what is played today. Please listen to the sound of shō by itself and as a part of the gagaku.

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