Traditional Songs in Japan

Long voice and inside resonance

In Search of a New Sound

Folk songs that resonate far away and to the inside of the body

Human treasure, folk song

In Japan, there is another world heritage-class human treasure that has not yet been certified. It is stored in a single computer near Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture. There is a long and secret story many people took care for this treasure to be alive.

The story began in 1979, a “folk song emergency survey” issued by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. The prefectural board of education in the whole country was instructed to record the folk song of the oral story of various places. The activity lasted for a decade, with 50,000 songs recorded on open reel tape. The original sound source is kept in the prefectural board of education, and the Agency for Cultural Affairs has a duplicate version. After the recording, listening, transcribing, and classification was carried out, lyrics, etc. were compiled as literature. The literature was finally published at the National Museum of History and Folklore in 2007(National Folk Song Database).

A news paper at the recording

Although it was recorded and organized, very few people knew the existence of sound sources and literature. The original sound source and the reproduction version of the Agency for Cultural Affairs kept in the prefectural board of education without reaching almost anyone’s ear. This may be called a second emergency.

At that time, there were people who realized the value of this sleeping treasure. They obtained permission to reproduce the original sound source for the purpose of research and copied it to cassette tapes and went around. It was in the 1990s. It was a time when open reels were not already used, and cassette tapes were rare. The sound sources re-recorded on cassette tapes were then digitized. Up to this point, they were a packed sound source for each tape. At the digitization, the time stamp was put on, it made to move directly to the head of each song. Digitalization itself had an impact. The recording standard of codecs is changing. The digital sound source has again converted to the latest codec. In the future, the task of separating files by songs is aimed at.

Folk songs are new and old.

Now, let’s talk about folk songs.

According to Kazuo Nagase of Warabiza in Akita Prefecture, there is no definition for folk songs. After several decades years, music began to be thought of as a song that had been around for a long time and became considered a folk song. In other words, folk songs cannot be said to be only old songs. Relatively new songs are often regarded as folk songs.

Folk songs also have a mechanism to follow the disciplines or schools, such as iemoto, the founded family and souke, the established house, but in most cases, free tradition is carried out. Therefore, it seems that the cohesive changes considerably in ten years. The emergency folk song survey is like a photograph at that time, and it is not the whole picture scroll of the folk song history.

If you can see the whole records, there will be a magnificent space and time in the origin of the folk songs. In Japan, there might be expressions with the clause and the utterance in the Jomon period, which was about10,000 years ago, and there might be the equivalent of the musical instruments which knocked the tree and the stone, too. There must be some things that they evolved in the Yayoi period, the next period of Jomon. Yamato would become even more sophisticated, the same as in the Heian period.

According to Nagase, old folk songs may have used a scale that was transmitted far and accurate. It resonated well, and it was a scale that it was hard to decline even if multiple sounds were combined. Folk songs might be used practically for call or signal. It might have been close to the squeals of animals and birds. There was the one which played a kind of survival confirmation by continuing to sing the folk song when passing through a steep cliff.

From the folk song, the life of the earth woven into the sound, the life of the human being does not resonate?

Diversification and Decline of Folk Songs

At the end of the War Nation era, the local domain change became more frequent, and culture transferred more often from other regions. In the case of Akita, where Mr. Nagase is, Satake family moved from Mito, then Mito’s culture was imported. Naturally, there might be a conjunction of folk songs, too. In the Edo period, cultural exchanges across the country flourished, and even in Akita, the performances from Osaka and Edo were held in almost every day. In other words, at this point, music from various regions was mixed and evolved into a folk song with various aspects.

In addition, local folk songs have performed in Asakusa for the business in the Taisho period after the Meiji Restoration. It’s a reverse transfer of music. Yasuki-bushi and Akita obako became popular. The people’s music was greatly influenced by Western music. In particular, the penetration of the equal temperament represented by the piano has changed music greatly. This is not limited to Japan, but also in Europe.

After the World War II, the folk song boom broke out. Until then folk songs kept cultural power under various influences. But it weakened the power in the period of industrial growth.  Because the young person moved for work from the farm village and the mountain village to the cities. The last rescue of the folk songs was emergency investigation.

In-tuned sound

I will talk a little about the scale. String instruments did not often have frets (frets are thin bars that determine the pitch placed on the finger plate of a string instrument). On the other hand, the higher frets were placed to change the pitch by pressing the strings strongly (deeply) against the frets. A sound different from the equal temperament was used. The sound of the Biwa may affect the physical condition as it causes euphoria, hallucinations, and for some people, nausea. It approaches on the body by more than the sound of the equal temperament.


In modern times, simple music such as rock ‘n’ roll has been invented, and guitars and basses are thriving with low-height frets suitable for the wild performance. The spread of low-height frets might have a large influence on the equal temperament, especially pianos do (there is also an interesting history in the transition of music to settle down to the modern equal temperament).

There is no organ in the human body that originally fixes the pitch of the voice. Rather, vocalists and singers train to fix the pitch. Folk songs didn’t have to be bound by the pitch, but they were probably made in search of conveyance by the vibration of the air as intended.

Is commercial use possible?

Let’s return the story to the sound source of the folk songs.

Currently, the sound source of the folk songs which has gone through digitalization twice is under control of Mr. Nagase. One of the reasons why these sound sources, including the original sound source, are not known is in the restriction of the copyright adjacency. The owner’s rights are owned by the prefectural board of education and the Agency for Cultural Affairs. On the other hand, each performer has a neighboring right. Mr. Nagase and his colleagues made a request for permission from neighboring rights holders in Akita Prefecture. In the case of Akita Prefecture, there still was a list of singers. The results were fruitful, and Mr. Nagase could release “CD-ROM Akita’s Folk Song.” Being able to use for commercial is very important in promoting them.

As an example, in Saga Prefecture, the Board of Education independently releases neighboring rights and makes it possible to use them for general use (you can listen to 846 songs on Saga folk songs in the Saga Prefectural Library Database). In addition, the Boards of Education of Oita Prefecture, Tokushima Prefecture, Kyoto Prefecture, Osaka Prefecture, Mie Prefecture, etc. are promoting the publication of its own CD-ROM and free listening at museums.  

I am impressed that the survey of decades ago that could be forgotten is alive and well. On the other hand, it is forgotten that there was a “folk song emergency survey” in many areas. And the original sound source is deteriorating without being maintained. In the future, the inheritance of neighboring rights will proceed, and it will be virtually impossible to obtain permission. It will be interesting to see how the Agency for Cultural Affairs and industry groups such as JASRAC will respond to this situation. It would be desirable to release the neighboring rights, including commercial use, as special cases.

The Value of Folk Songs

According to Mr. Nagase, who has conducted his own research, there are some common elements between Japanese folk songs and Celtic and South American music. And, there are a lot in common with Korean folk songs.

Japanese folk songs use sho and shakuhachi, which has a method of dissonance sound. And, the dissonance sound often imitates the sound of nature such as the sound of wind, water, thunder, the rubbing noises of twigs and bamboos. Bamboos used as a material of music instruments, and human breathing is the root of sound. Old music might be closer to nature than the present one. The imitation of nature may be the origin of music, and it seems to be a valuable asset in the world.

Recent studies have shown that there is a difference in the frequency at which healthy cells and cancer cells emit, as well as the high resonance of the fundamental tone that are not 440hz of the equal temperament. In addition, there is a lot of high-frequency components and euphoric promoting effect in the gamelan which is Indonesian music instrument, and there are a lot of high-frequency components in the forest, and there is a forest bathing effect of the sound. There are many studies on the improvement of dementia symptoms by music.

There are still many unknown things between sound and us. Mr. Nagase believes that by collecting and analyzing folk songs from all over the world, we can make music that connect all people from all over the world. It would be interesting to open the World Folk Song Expo.




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