In order to understand the functional and cultural logic of unfamiliar notation systems it is important first to recognize that notation is not in itself music, but rather an adjunct to the remembrance or evocation of sonic events for performing purposes and, in some music cultures, for study or compositional use. A second important point is that the actual music and all its accessories (such as notation) usually reflect the aesthetics and world views of the peoples in whose culture they were created. Thus, what is important to one music culture may be of much less concern in another: in this context it must be noted that Japanese traditional musicians seldom felt a strong need for detailed notations such as those admired by most Western musicians. For the Japanese, notation was merely a memory aid; indeed, the structure of Japanese pieces, the relations between their parts and the subtle nuances of their performing practices did not lend themselves to effective representation in either vertical or horizontal linear graphics. This does not imply an interest in improvisation, as such a style hardly exists in Japanese music. Rather, it reflects a concern in both music lessons and performances for a concentration on aural and technical skills with as few visual distractions or inhibitions as possible. Nevertheless, because there has always been a strong guild system (see §I, 3 above) and a tradition of ‘secret’ pieces (hikyoku) in Japanese music, notation systems were fostered that would preserve compositions for future generations in an outline form that only the initiated could translate into actual sounds. It was not until Western musical pragmatism asserted its influence that detailed notations became significant. Thus a discussion of Japanese notation up to the late 19th century must deal with numerous different systems that were used not only for each genre or musical instrument but also for various guilds of performers within each tradition. Here no attempt is made to cover all these variations; rather, the basic principles used in major styles of Japanese notation are demonstrated, with selected examples where necessary for clarity.
The term ‘notation’ as used above refers to written notation; a broader usage of the term embraces ‘oral notation’ as well. Many Japanese instruments have long been taught using oral mnemonics (see §III, 4 below), which often later became part of written notation.
Traditional transmission, then, might involve any of three approaches: direct imitation of another performer (in formal lessons or simply by assiduous overhearing as often in folk contexts); singing of oral mnemonics prior to actually trying to play a piece; or reliance on written notation. Despite the startling range of notations shown below, it was only in the 20th century that written notation assumed importance in teaching many genres. This trend results not only from modernization but also from the fact that few pupils feel they have time to learn by the traditional, time-intensive methods. For the same reason, a fourth method of transmission is becoming common (as elsewhere): use of recordings, whether commercial or made during lessons.