Customs and Rituals

How is music important in Shinto ritual?

Gagaku, “refined music,” is ancient courtly music originating in China as early as the Han dynasty and cultivated by the Japanese in Heian imperial circles. Often associated with dance, the fourteen-member instrumental ensemble consists of percussion and reeds. But it also includes the stringed instrument similar to the Hawaiian guitar called the so, cousin of the larger koto, identifiable by its frequent use of the technique of note-bending. A plucked string called the biwa is also part of the ensemble. Woodwinds are the “three reeds” (sankan): short, piccolo-like, six- and nine-hole flutes; a primitive oboe-like woodwind that produces a sharp, edgy sound; and a cluster of seventeen bamboo pipes called the sho that is in fact a tiny pipe organ for the mouth. Slow stately rhythms beat out by the percussion underlie the haunting, almost plaintive sounds of the high-pitched reeds. Few sounds are a more apt musical communication of the solemnity and perfect “otherness” of the deities the music addresses in Shinto shrines. Most non-Japanese who encounter music identified as Japanese are likely to associate that musical tradition with the sound of plucked strings, such as the koto and shamisen. In Shinto shrine ritual, however, stringed instruments do not play the major role they play in Chinese ritual. Percussion and woodwinds make up the bulk of the typical ceremonial ensemble. Percussion instruments include the massive taiko, a large barrel with two skin heads that sits sideways on an elevated stand just inside the outer ritual hall of larger shrines. A shrine ritualist, often one of the miko (“deaconesses”), announces the beginning of ceremonies by a pulse-pounding crescendo-decrescendo on the great drum. Various smaller drums keep time for dances.


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