In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Japan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Theory

Music Japan
Bonnie Wade
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0038


In this entry, the topic of Japanese music encompasses historical repertoires and practices that are usually referred to as “traditional music” as well as music created since the systematic introduction of Western musical theory, instruments, and repertoire in the Meiji era (1868–1912). In terms of the literature that is available about each of them—work produced by both Japanese and non-Japanese writers—the attention paid to traditional music has been far more plentiful. Here, sources on traditional music are organized into major sections on theory, on Imperial court music, on major theatrical genres in which music is a prominent (if not primary) element, on folk music, and on important instruments and their musical repertoires (see Instruments and Their Music). A good deal of the literature on traditional music speaks to those genres as they are learned and performed today, with meaningful space in the modern society. Two sections are devoted to literature on repertoires received or created in Japan since the nation opened its doors to international cultures in late 19th century. One of those sections focuses on popular musics, while the other focuses on composers of the modern era in the “concert music” sphere. Internally, Japan’s musical culture is a flourishing cosmopolitan one; beyond Japan, the place of contemporary Japanese composers and musicians in international spheres is burgeoning.

General Overviews

Of the three books listed here, Malm 2000 and Tokita and Hughes 2008 follow the established format of introducing Japanese musical traditions genre by genre, in chronological order, but they write for different audiences. In Wade 2005, contemporary culture is the starting point, with history illuminating the present.

  • Malm, William P. 2000.Traditional Japanese music and musical instruments. Rev. ed. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

    First published in 1959 (Rutland, VT: Tuttle), this now-classic text introduces Japanese traditional music to the lay person or the student. The important performance genres through history are contextualized and analyzed, with plentiful graphics. Appendix 1 displays several notation systems—vocal, biwa, shakuhachi, koto, and more. Includes CD.

  • Tokita, Alison McQueen, and David W. Hughes, eds. 2008. The Ashgate research companion to Japanese music. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    A multiauthored compendium covering significant historical genres and examining the historical, physical, social, ideological, aesthetic, and economic contexts that cause these musics to exist in the forms that they do now. Chapters on folk, popular, and Western classical musics; the music of the Ryukyu islands (including Okinawa); and Ainu culture. For specialists, includes assessment of research on Japanese music. Includes bibliography and CD.

  • Wade, Bonnie C. 2005. Music in Japan: Experiencing music, expressing culture. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Textbook for the uninitiated, conceived around three themes: musical interface with other cultures (in modern times, Western styles; in history, gagaku); continuity and transformation of cultural material through intertextuality (one story performed in Noh, Kabuki, film); and gradual popularization of originally context-specific practices (koto, shakuhachi, etc.). Suggested activities engage readers. Includes CD.

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