Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 4 research, part 2: Taiko drums of imperial court music of Japan

It was interesting to find out that to Japanese people, taiko simply means drum, which translates to it being a broad category with a wide range of instruments. In the West, the word is used to refer to the more specific category of traditional Japanese drums – wadaiko (wa prefix means Japanese) and the ensamble taiko drumming.

Japanese drums are differentiated based on their size, shape and material of composition. However, I will describe these types through the three main genres of Japanese performance: music for imperial court – gagaku, music accompanying the classical stage performing arts – koten geino, and music used in religious ritual or folk performing arts – minzoku geino.

Gagaku (Fig. 1) originated from the older court music of China and Korea. The arrival of Korean music in Japan was as early as 453 A.D. The music was introduced under the names of the Three Korean kingdoms, collectively known as sankangaku: from Baekje, pronounced Kudara in Japanese – kudaragaku, from Goguryeo pronounced Koma, called komagaku, Silla pronounced Shiragi – shiragigaku and other.


Fig. 1. Gagaku ensemble

The import of Chinese music began under the Sui dynasty (589-618), and it reached its peak during the early Tang dynasty, with the music called togaku. Pieces before Tang dynasty are called kogaku – ancient music, while Tang dynasty and subsequent pieces called shingaku – new music. The first time the word gagaku officially appeared in documents was in 701, when Gagakuryo – first Japanese imperial academy of music was instituted. New influences emerged in 736 and introduced new music: tenjikugaku referring to the music of India, and rinyugaku to the style from Indo-China, probably Champa of the Annam coast.

However, most of the teachers were from China and Korea, as Ortolani compared, similar to the nineteenth century America, when Italians and Germans dominated the field of music(:41). This is the reason why, during the first half of the ninth century, when retired emperor Soga and his noblemen reorganized gagaku and divided it into the music of the left and right, they gave togaku and komagaku a broader meaning to demarcate the directions to the sides of the imperial presence from where musicians appeared. (Garfias) Music of the left – togaku, beside covering the prevailing pieces brought by Chinese musicians, now also covers tenjikugaku and rinyugaku, and music of the right was similarly named komagaku, which besides the new broad meaning which included other Korean style shiragigaku and kudaragaku, also included number of south Manchurian examples called bokkaigaku. Look at the more detailed version of Soga code I’ve found. (Fig. 2)

saga code.PNG

Fig. 2. The Soga Code in detail

Gagaku music is further divided into instrumental music – kangen and dance music – bugaku. There are four drums in gagaku, among these two taiko, used depending on these two styles. For example, dadaiko (Fig. 3) – the largest of the drums is used as dance accompaniment. It has a carved-out wooden body, covered on each end by cowhide drum skin, held by long ropes tensioned with wooden pegs. There is a wooden decoration, like a flame, which envelops the front head of the drum, with imprinted mitsudomoe pattern – the yin-yang symbol with an extra teardrop. When it is struck with a felt-tipped mallet, it produces a low and resounding boom. It is used sparingly for percussive effect. Actually, effect is what all four were used for, rather than the timekeeping.

dadaiko (1).jpg

Fig. 3. Dadaiko drum

In instrumental music, another taiko drum – gaku-daiko (Fig. 4) is used in place of dadaiko. It is half the size of dadaiko, suspended from a wooden frame. It also has cowhide skin, but held by a series of drum tacks.


Fig. 4. Gaku-daiko drum

The two other drums, san-no-tsuzumi (Fig. 5) and kakko (Fig. 6), aren’t in the category of taiko drums. However, I will still give short descriptions as they are indefinite-pitched percussion, which is the interest of this course. San-no-tsuzumi is shaped like an hourglass, used only for komagaku because of its Korean origin. The front part is played by a thin stick in a limited number of short patterns. Kakko drum is a barrel-shaped drum of Indo-Chinese origin that has two rope-fastened deerhide heads. In contrast to the san-no-tsuzumi, it is struck on both sides during togaku, and has three strokes – slow descending roll, a tap with right stick, or a press roll with the right hand.


Fig. 5. San-no-tsuzumi


Fig. 6. Kakko drum

In my next two blog posts, I will write about the taiko and other drums used in two remaining Japanese genres I’ve mentioned here – classical performing arts and religious or folk music.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Gagaku ensemble

Fig. 2. The Soga Code in detail

Fig. 3. Dadaiko drum

Fig. 4. Gaku-daiko drum

Fig. 5. San-no-tsuzumi

Fig. 6. Kakko drum



Ortolani, Benito (1990) The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. Leiden, New York, Kobenhavn, Köln: BRILL

Robert Garfias (2004) The Cultural Context. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology

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