There are three types of vocal music performed at the Imperial court:

Saibara: This is accompanied vocal court music, and it draws influence from traditional folk music. The lyrics are short and simple with a earthy tone, often describing scenes of life.

Rōei: Performed with or without accompaniment, it is more a recitation than a song, despite how they are often referred to as 'graceful songs'. The lyrics usually consist of a pair of seven-word lines from a familiar Chinese poem, rendered in a combination of Japanese and Chinese.

Kagura-uta: Often labeled as 'God's songs', it is the repertoire of sacred vocal music associated with the mikagura (court dance related to the shinto cult). It is composed of 26 chants including, among others, Niwabi, Achime, Karakami, Hayakarakami, Komomakura, Sazanami, Senzai, Hayauti, Hoshi, Asakura, and Sonokoma.

In all three types of vocal music, the melodies are built from a succession of melodic patterns, each one characterized with its own shape.

Melodic patterns used in rōei and kagura-uta songs


This is a long note followed by a short glissando to its upper neighboring tone, then rapidly returning to the initial pitch. This pattern is never repeated in a sequence.

Example 1 - Tsuki


This is a long note, followed by a short glissando to its lower neightboring tone, then rapidly returning to the initial pitch. This pattern is never repeated in a sequence.

Example 2 - Oshi

Unnamed pattern

According to ISHIKAWA Ko, the singer with whom we worked, this pattern essentially came about as an ornamentation, hence, it does not have a specific name. Its contour involves a sustained-tone that comes down a tone and immediately jumps up a fourth, followed by an ascending second.

Example 3 - Unnamed pattern


This is a sustained-tone, followed by two fast descending thirds, then jumping up a fourth, and ending a tone lower than the initial pitch.

Example 4 - Mawasu-fushi


This is a sustained-tone, followed by a short accelerando with two descending thirds, leading to a melismatic motion that closes on a pitch a fourth lower than the initial tone.

Example 5 - Ori-fushi


This is a sustained tone, pulsated three times by its lower neighboring tone. The motion always starts slowly before accelerating.

Example 6 - Yuri


This is a sustained-tone, pulsated four times by its lower neighboring tone. This motion always starts slowly and then accelerates, before slowing down again. It is only used at the end of a piece.

Example 7 - Yuri-nagashi


This is a sustained-tone, followed by a glissando up a minor sixth, and then the glissando goes down a fourth after after resting on the preceding tone.

Example 8 - Kurikoe

Melodic patterns used in saibara songs


A sustained-tone pulsated with one accentuated lower neighboring tone.

Example 9 - Osu


Similar to yuri except that the neighboring motion is limited to two instead of three.

Example 10 - Yoyu


The saibara's equivalent for yuri.

Example 11 - Irifushi

Short analysis of the melodic patterns in the first phrase of senzai

Senzai is a song from the kagura-uta repertory: it is composed of 9 phrases. Although it would traditionally be accompanied by the kagurabue, hichiriki, wagon, and shakūbyoshi, it is presented here unaccompanied in order to focus solely on its melodic structure.

Typically, the melodic structure of gagaku songs are modular, since the sequencing of various melodic patterns creates the melodic lines. A Western transcription of Senzai's first phrase is analyzed in Example 12 to illustrate this point.

Example 12 - Modular structure of Senzai's first phrase