Elements of Japanese Music

The most ubiquitous and well-known concept in Japanese aesthetics is “Ma” which has been translated as “nothingness” or “emptiness”. But much more than the absence of something, it is a palpable entity. The Japanese also embrace the difference of timbres between the pitches on their musical instruments, and their music developed to accommodate that.

Written By

James Nyoraku Schlefer

I have been writing about myself, my work, a little history of Japanese music, and the intersections or disconnects between Western and Japanese music. Now I would like to discuss musical elements that are distinctly Japanese.

MU / MA / : Perhaps the most ubiquitous and well-known concept in Japanese aesthetics is that known as Ma. Translated as nothingness or emptiness, Ma emphasizes the space, in time or dimension, which is prevalent in all Japanese art forms including theater, architecture, gardening, and—of course—music. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, and the stillness between movements. Much more than the absence of something, it is a palpable entity. In music, Ma typically manifests as the silence we “hear” between phrases. It is that nothingness that separates sound and removes it from a position of prominence. After the first phrase of a shakuhachi solo is played and the player takes a breath, that silence, or Ma, can create a tension that brings a small relief when the next phrase eventually begins. Or if that silence separates the sounds completely, and allows each phrase to be independent, then the silence becomes its own world upon which to meditate.

Timbre as a compositional element: The musical traditions of the globe have each charted their own paths, and Europe was no exception. Western classical music evolved as an ensemble art, and beginning in the 17th century, tempered scales became the standard for composition. The evolving manufacture of musical instruments developed to suit this pitch-oriented musical language. Eventually, keyboard instruments could play all the chromatic tones and do so with a consistent timbre. Woodwind instruments transformed from tubes with holes to ever more complex machinery, the goal being consistent timbre between the ranges and tighter control of pitch. Thus, the trajectory of Western instruments has long held the goal of equalizing the sound quality across the full range of the instrument.

Japanese instruments embrace the difference of timbres between pitches, and the music developed to accommodate that.

Japanese instruments, on the other hand, embraced the difference of timbres between pitches, and the musical language developed to accommodate those differences. Frequently the same pitch is heard with different fingerings, resulting in a vastly different dynamic level and tone color. Take for example the sawari sound of the shamisen. The lowest string is purposely positioned off the nut at the top of the fingerboard to create a distinctive buzzing effect similar to the jawari sound of the sitar. To the Western ear this buzzing may come across as unfocused or unclean, but this is in fact an indispensable sound of the instrument. Likewise, pushing the string on the koto to raise the pitch, rather than plucking a neighboring string with the same pitch, results in an almost imperceptible but distinct sound. And the robust pitch of an open hole on the shakuhachi contrasts with meri, the same pitch achieved with a partially covered hole and the lowering of the player’s head. As a result, Japanese music evolved to accommodate the dissimilarities inherent in the physical makeup of the musical instruments.

Wabi-Sabi: Wabi-sabi is an idea—an essential concept in Japanese aesthetics constituting a view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It is not an official element of Japanese music, but as a composer and performer, I do feel that it is important for Western listeners to appreciate the concept. As an example, the pottery items used in the most refined and exacting Japanese tea ceremonies are often rustic and simple looking, with shapes that are not symmetrical and colors or textures that appear to be coarse. The tea bowls may be deliberately chipped or nicked at the bottom. It is up to the observational ability of the participant to notice and discern the hidden signs of a truly excellent design or glaze. So too, in Japanese music, must the listener be able to discern the subtle differences in sound quality and execution, putting aside preconceived musical experiences to appreciate the artistry.

The urgency to “fix” the sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians.

The urgency to “fix” the natural sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians as it did in the West, and the beauty of these subtle nuances of timbre became the standard. This is a fundamental difference in musical philosophy that presents one of the greatest challenges in merging the sounds of East and West. Nonetheless there have been many composers in the last few decades, both Western and Japanese, who have forged ahead to create some magnificent and ground-breaking new music; some are facing the challenge by essentially ignoring the disconnect, some by probing into the subtle complexities.

A performance of the composition Miyako no Haru (都の春) by Yamase Shoin I (1845-1908) on May 21, 2017 featuring Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto and voice, Sumie Kaneko, shamisen and voice, and James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. Yamase was engaged as the first professor of koto music, at the Tokyo Academy of Music, and composed this work for the inauguration ceremony concert of the Institute in 1890.