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Music in Japan

Posted by on June 25, 2018

I write this blog post as a cacophony of taiko drumming surrounds me. The local music festival in Onishi runs from July 14-15th, and everyone is in preparation. There are different groups and towns that learn different taiko patterns for playing in shrines, while flautists play behind them and dancers dance on top of the shrine. It is a wonderfully grand event, and this year I will be adding my taiko skills to the mix.

‘Taiko skills?’ you ask, ‘I thought you were a singer!’. That is correct. So far, I am…less than ideal at taiko. But according to my boss and the taiko teachers, I am doing remarkably well. I think that is a lie.

But first, let’s step back and talk about the music I have experienced so far in Japan in general. In Italy, I was shocked that most of the music I ended up hearing was just American pop music and the occasional Italian hit. But then, on the streets there were tons of classical street performers, as classical music is revered in Italy. In Japan, I was not sure what to expect.

In Tokyo at the busiest places, specifically around train stations, there are tons of street performers, even a handful in a row! People would stop and watch/listen to them, but the main genre I noted was Japanese pop music. But step into the local 7-Eleven in Onishi, and I bet you cannot make a visit without hearing a saxophone rendition of Ariana Grande’s Problem. I have been graced with the song every visit so far.

If you take the JR railways through Tokyo, or subway in Kyoto, you might notice that each stop plays a song. I find this quite interesting, as each stop is unique. This does not appear to be the case for every city, but there are songs or more melodic warning messages everywhere. In Kyoto, I noticed that the warning message, used if a car is coming or an escalator is ending, is a descending major third. Bus stops in Kyoto are do-re-te, or +M2 -M3. In the United States, everything warning is extremely harsh and blaring. But here in Tokyo, pleasing intervals are used, the repetition keeping the meaning the same throughout.

subway sounds

There was also an interesting discovery when I was in the car with Nathan’s host family. His youngest host sister was singing along to the credits song of Castle in the Sky. Soon I was humming along too, it was quite catchy! She was not singing the words, but rather the solfege! And modulating when it became easier to sing in another key! She had the entire song memorized on solfege…the exact same solfege I use when I sight sing, except instead of ti, it was shi, which makes sense for the Japanese alphabet. Nathan later told me that that is how Japanese children (or at least the small subset we have been in contact with) learn to sing songs. I found this incredible, and wished that I, at nine years old, could have easily solfeged my way through songs.

The host sisters also learned how to play recorder at school. I learned how to play recorder at school! We quickly bonded over finding ‘Let it Go’ in the sheet music for recorder as I sang in English and she sang in Japanese. It was refreshing to see that music education in Japan seemed to be strong.


Ok, back to Taiko.

Four days ago, my boss came up to Nathan and I and said: “It is time to learn taiko!”. I knew this day was coming. Christina, my intern counterpart from last year, had told me about it, and rumor has it she was really good. But I am a classically trained musician, and this was definitely not going to be like the music rehearsals I was used to. It would be good for me.

The first thing he hands us is the ‘sheet music’. It was created for the artists and residency, because the people of the town have grown up playing. Kids play in the shrine (with easier parts) from a very young age. The pattern is just memorized or felt/heard and then learned. The pattern is not like a pattern of music I am accustomed to seeing, with quarter notes and rests and so forth. The ‘sheet music’ had circles and dots and dashes that represented different articulations of the drum. Which in some cases did not equal the rhythm.

the sheet music


Nathan, the drummer, got to it and learned it by rote. I was like wait, what??? And when I got back to the office immediately tried to translate the ‘sheet music’ into actual sheet music with durations and rests…only to find that Christina had also tried last year and given up. I would soon follow suit. For example, the rhythm might be ‘ten teke ten’ and in one case it would be quarter, 2 8ths, quarter, with hands right, right left right. But in another case it would be quarter, quarter rest, quarter quarter half, with hands right left right left. The best way to learn taiko was how it has been learned for centuries: by rote and repetition.

Three days later, we went to our first official taiko rehearsal with the other people. Meaning we would be practicing on actual drums or tires instead of pillows, and with drumsticks instead of cut up pieces of bamboo. A step up! But it was also scary, because I felt wholly unprepared for this as I was still messing up the pattern. And I definitely could not make it through the song without having my eyes glued to the paper, which no one else has.

The first iteration of the song goes well! I am in the back corner, playing on a tire, so I can learn, but if I mess up, no one can hear. It is ideal. And then, my boss says “your turn to go play on the drums!”. Oh, good, is it?? So we go to play on the drums, only within two seconds, the nice lady next to me playing the flute decides I need help. She probably is not wrong. She stops playing the flute and starts shouting the articulation names at me (it is extremely loud in the room, shouting is the only way). This act of kindness, however, is NOT helpful. I can now no longer look at my paper as I make eye contact with her and try to get it down. The second round is better as I choose to look back at the paper. I have to focus on my own part, because there are also other bigger drums playing a contrasting part! So it helps me to have something to ground me. At the end of the second song, I am finally done with my time on the drum. My nice helper friend says “very good job!”. Another lie about my taiko skills. But hey, it is my first official practice.

Through the 15th, you can find me frantically practicing taiko. I’ll get it, it will just take time. The most important thing in this festival, as is stressed over and over again, is to have fun. I will try my best!

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