Musical Musings

Sharing musical thoughts and ideas.

August Cultural Music Focus - Japan

Monday, August 9, 2021 by Paula Augustine | Student Article

Japanese Music: A Rich Musical Culture

This semester we will touch on Japanese Music. Today we will get a short introduction to the instruments they used. The videos that I have included are maybe a little long for younger students, just listening to the first minute or so will generally give them an idea of the instrument.

Historical Japanese Instruments:

Today the Japanese enjoy the same instruments we enjoy. They also have historical instruments that remind us of the traditional sounds we think of as Japanese. Here are some basic historical Japanese instruments. I find it interesting how most cultures around the world had musical instruments which included something to drum on, something with strings, and something flute-like to blow.


Drums have played an important role in Japanese music. They were used in battle to intimidate the enemy or to give commands to the army. Huge drums playing may scare the enemy away! Taiko were also used in religious ceremonies played by holy men. Today Taiko drum groups can be found throughout Japan and even the world. There is even a video game called Taiko Drum Master!



This instrument is played with a large wooden strummer and has strings like a guitar. The strings are strummed or plucked or even slid along. Many times it was used by singers to accompany stories. Just like we have different types of stringed instruments, they also had different types of Biwa. Some had four strings and others 5 and the strings may be tuned to different notes.


But the instrument that looks even more like a guitar or a banjo is the Japanese shamisen. It only has three strings and has a very long neck. This instrument has been used with many



And of course my favorite instrument, the flute-like Shakuhachi. This is made out of bamboo and is held like a recorder, but the player blows across the top like a flute.



How would you like to play the piano by plucking the strings yourself? These are the type of instruments that inspired very early keyboard instruments. The smaller Dulcimer is similar to the Japanese Zoto. This Zoto has 25 strings.