Gagaku – why does it sound out of tune?

Art is orderly in general, as it has certain methods and rules that need to be followed. Music is not an exception, as it’s defined by a set of sounds that are played together using a certain rhythym/tempo. Musicians tune their instrument very meticulously so that everyone plays using the same pitch. It will sound “out of tune” if you miss any of those rules.

But “order” is relatively new to humans in their tens of thousands of history, therefore the orderly music we take for granted is also a relatively modern thing. Old music from pre-modern days often ignores regularities that are common in modern music. For example, gagaku, traditional Japanese court music, doesn’t have so-called music sheet, doesn’t rely on a completely tuned pitch nor follow a consistent rhythm. Songs are usually taught verbally and musicians play by looking at fellow musicians to determine the right pitch and tempo as they go.

It may sound slow, dreamy, random and out of tune at first. That is because you are too used to the orderliness of modern music. But once you can free yourself from the presumption that music needs to be played with meticulously tuned instruments, a precise pitch and a consistent rhythm, you will start seeing something else – it’s the feeling that “I have been here before.” Just like when you hear Gregorian chant, you literally feel what’s embedded in your DNA over the past tens of thousands of years. You don’t pay attention to them in your daily life but certain things can remind you where you came from,   

At the end of the day, the nature that surround us is a “chaos system,” and there are many things that co-exist that could be inconsistent. But that’s exactly why nature is so beautiful and mesmerizing. Gagaku and other ancient music reminds you of such beauty.

If you are too used to the orderliness of modern music, gagaku may sound out of tune. But once you free yourself from the presumption that music needs to be played with meticulously tuned instruments, precise pitch and consistent rythym, you will start seeing something else.  At the end of the say, the nature that surround us is a “chaos system,” and there are many things that co-exist that could be inconsistent. But that’s exactly why nature is so beautiful and mesmerizing.