|The Schools of Hogaku
There are several types of traditional Japanese music and the word hogaku
is used as a general inclusive term for this traditional music. This term is actually
considered to be an abbreviation of kinsei hogaku (hogaku of
the modern age), with hogaku being an abbreviation of honpo ongaku
(music of our nation). In its broader definition, hogaku includes the
ancient gagaku and shomyo music forms and the Noh-Kyogen
or Heike biwa music of the middle ages, but in general use the term hogaku
refers to traditional Japanese music born during or after the Japan’s Edo
Period (17th to mid-19th centuries), including music for shamisen, koto, shakuhachi
flute, biwa, etc.
Each of these music traditions has had various patron groups in each era. For
example, gagaku was patronized by the imperial court or the shrines and
temples, and noh music and Heike biwa music and other biwa
and shakuhachi music was patronized by the samurai class (by high society
after the Meiji Restoration of 1868), while shamisen music was supported
by the common citizens in the Edo period (general public after the Meiji Restoration).
It can be said that the diversity in musical expression and taste resulting from
the different eras in which the traditions developed and the different social
groups supporting them is one of the reasons that several different traditional
art forms of music and performance have continued to exist simultaneously in Japan.
The Classification and Development of Shamisen Music
When we speak off shamisen music we are actually speaking about a tradition
that is divided into numerous schools. There are also a number of ways
that these schools can be classified. Figure 1 shows a classification of shamisen
music by where it is performed. In this case, the divisions are made between music
that is part of a theater performance (the music for kabuki performances is classified
as different from the music for puppet plays), music that is not part of a theater
performance (purely for musical enjoyment) and other categories like music played
as an accompaniment to work songs. Here, it is important to note that there are
many cases of music that began as theater music and eventually came to be performed
in non-theatrical scenes as time went by.
Furthermore, shamisen music can be classified as a branch of music sharing
the same lineage with a family of musical traditions (including Joruri
(dramatic ballads) and Hayari-uta (popular songs) that existed before
the shamisen was imported into Japan in the mid-16th century via Ryukyu
(today’s Okinawa) from its origins in China [Fig. 2]. Since it is music
sharing a common lineage, the melodies tend to be similar. However, as the music
evolved over time in accordance with the tastes of the different patronizing groups,
slight differences began to emerge. Today, it is these differences, often so slight
that only a specialist can identify them, that give the different schools their
In Japanese, "schools" of music are referred to with the term
ryuha, and further distinction is made between the ryu (schools)
as used in figures 1 and 2, and the ha (branches) that exist within each
school as smaller groups usually led by famous families of musicians in which
a certain style is handed down from generation to generation.
Differences in Repertoire Pieces
In both the shamisen and koto traditions, the schools are so numerous
that we sometimes hear stories like those of disappointed students who began studying
the koto with the dream of someday being able to play the famous piece Haru
no Umi (Spring Sea), only to find out later that the piece was not part of
the repertoire of the particular school they were studying under. And, unlike
in the Western music tradition, there are often cases where new pieces commissioned
by one school from a particular composer, or pieces composed by a musician of
a particular lineage, are not allowed to be performed by musicians from other
In other words, even the most famous pieces belong to the repertoire of only one
school, and even if there is a piece by the same name in another school’s
repertoire it, the music will be different. In the case of the performers themselves,
it is also very unusual for a musician to have pieces from two or more schools
in his or her repertoire. So, for example, it is very rare to find a performer
who can play the Echigo Jishi of the naga-uta (long epic songs)
tradition and also play Tsugaru style shamisen.
Differences in Performance Format
Since different types of music have different purposes, they are naturally performed
in different ways. In the case of naga-uta, for example, it is a form
of music that evolved with the kabuki theater, where its role was either as accompaniment
to the kabuki actors’ dance or to provide what might be called background
music for the play. Kabuki adopts many elements from the older Noh-kyogen theater
tradition of the middle ages. One of these elements is the hayashi instrument
ensemble consisting of flute, drum and the large and small hand-held tsuzumi
drums. This is why naga-uta is most often performed with a combination
of voice [the epic narrative], shamisen and hayashi ensemble.
In short, naga-uta evolved as the only music form in which these three
parts are performed together on stage, while other shamisen music is
only for voice and shamisen. Also, the number of voices and shamisen
performing together at once will differ with the different schools.
The shamisen music falling within the theater music tradition is performed
with the musicians sitting on a separate platform from the stage where the play
is acted out, and this is meant to show that the music and narrative come from
a different world than that of the actors on stage. This same style of performance
is used when the music is performed separately from the kabuki play. In contrast,
the koto music called ji-uta sokyoku music is originally what
one could call chamber music, performed in tatami rooms. That is why it is now
performed with the musicians sitting directly on the stage floor (or on a slightly
raised platform). Hogaku continues to abide by rules of performance format
and staging like these that are based in the way the music was originally performed.
As a result, these rules by which the music is performed and things like the shapes
of the music stands used can tell us today where the origins of the music lie.
The solid lines in the chart show music genres that are considered direct descendants
of the oldest traditions (to the left) in the genealogy of traditional Japanese
music, while the dotted lines show genre rooted more generally in the preceding
genre. All the names shown in the chart are of schools that still exist today.
It should be noted that the division between "utai (sung)"
and "katari (spoken)" traditions is based on a historical perspective
and not on the actual contents of the music. As for the joruri genre,
it began to divide into many branches in the early Edo period after the introduction
of the shamisen and, as a result, includes many schools today.