How to Compare the Traditional Music of Japan and China

By Everett Bradman
China has had a huge impact on Japanese music and musical instruments.

Both China and Japan have music cultures that can be traced back more than a thousand years. Each country has a long list of instruments, compositions, styles and composers, so to effectively compare them, you must first learn about each country.

Digest just how old Chinese music is. China is the home of one of the oldest civilizations in the world—the written history dates back to 1700 B.C.—and is also home to the earliest musical scale in recorded history. During the 20th century, archeologists unearthed a 7,000-year-old flute in China.

Introduce yourself to China's ancient and extremely advanced system of music theory. According to National Geographic, the orchestral, ensemble and solo instrumental musics of China are considered some of the highest art forms in the world.

Read about the pre-Qin era (770 to 476 B.C.), which National Geographic, in an online article on China, says is considered by some historians to be an extraordinary time in Chinese music history, thanks to a government friendly to the arts. Read how Chinese classical music was at its peak around 223 to 262 A.D.

Study Japan's Nara period, 710 to 794 A.D., the first international period in Japanese music history. According to journalist and producer Paul Fisher, Japanese music before this era was mostly primitive folk songs, and more complex Japanese music did indeed originate from China. Instruments from China were brought into Japan during this time, too, and historian Richard Hooker believes Japanese music theory was wholly derived from Chinese musical theory, which dated back at least to the fifth century B.C.

Study how Chinese musical influences were beginning to be assimilated into Japan during China's Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185). Japanese musicians were playing music and using instruments that were essentially Chinese, but the music gradually developed Japanese characteristics.

Read about how Japan began to establish rules of native Japanese music performance and composition in the beginning of the tenth century, when it cut off diplomatic and economic relations with China. The 16th century to the 19th century was the era of the shamisen, shakuhachi and koto, which all originated from China.

Listen to examples of Chinese opera, which began its rise in the early eighth century. Today, over 300 different styles of opera exist in China, the most well-known being the Beijing opera style. Learn about music from different regions of the country, each with its own distinctive trademarks.

Read about some of the forms that have developed in Japan since the 19th century, including popular, folk, traditional and Okinawan island songs, as well as modern Japanese roots music.

Listen to "The Venerated Patterns of China and Japan," a CD by three master musicians and scholars of ethnomusicology who explore the rich and integral common threads linking the traditional music of China and Japan.

About the Author

Everett Bradman has been an editor since 1994 and a professional writer since 2000. He has worked for "The Miami Herald," the "San Francisco Bay Guardian," "Rolling Stone," "Vibe," "Bass Player," "Computer Shopper" and NYC & Company. He holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Florida A&M University.