The two most famous performance art forms from the medieval period are Dengaku Noh and Sarugaku Noh. Dengaku began with ritual dances in the rice fields and added acrobatics, juggling and other entertainment that had their origin in Sangaku, a variety performance from China. This gradually developed until there were professional Dengaku performers who performed to entertain court aristocrats and high-ranking warriors. In its mature form, this art form was known as Dengaku Noh. It is well known that powerful warriors such as Hojo Takatoki and Ashikaga Takauji heavily patronized Dengaku Noh. But Dengaku Noh remained very simple as a dramatic form and eventually was overtaken by Sarugaku Noh.
Sarugaku Noh can be thought of as a different name for what we know as Noh today. The word "saru" in "Sarugaku" means "monkey," and "Sarugaku" originally referred to a form of comic acting. In ancient times, this word was used for comic routines and skits. Then to this was added the dances and "Kusemai" performed by Shirabyoshi female dancers, and the addition of Imayo to develop from Sarugaku into Sarugaku Noh. This was done by the Sarugaku performers in troupes in Yamato around Nara and Kyoto: the regions of Omi, Tamba and Settsu. This occurred during the Kamakura periods and early Muromachi period. This Sarugaku Noh became a highly developed art form. The most representative figure in this process is Zeami, who came from the Kanze-za, a troupe of Sarugaku in Yamato.
Sarugaku Noh‘s cultural position became solidly established through the patronage of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Under the protection of the shogun, Sarugaku Noh became highly polished and then, in the Edo period, it became patronized by the Tokugawa shoguns and was established as the official performance art of the samurai class. Today there are five schools of Noh, Kanze, Hosho, Komparu, Kongo, and Kita. Aside from the Kita school, which was established in the Edo period when the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu gave his support to an artist from the Kongo school, the other four schools of Noh have a very long history and originate in Yamato Sarugaku. As a vocal art form, it is possible to see Noh as a singing form that combines narrative and lyrical elements. And as mentioned before, the influence of Shomyo is very strong and this is combined with the melodies of Kusemai, and the percussion music from Dengaku and the popular festival spectacle called Furyu.
Noh is also accompanied by farces called Kyogen. These are performed by a separate group of actors and are almost totally dialogue plays, but many plays feature songs and dance. These kouta in Kyogen are a valuable clue to what kouta was like in the late medieval period and grew into Kabuki.
The Muromachi shogunate ended with civil war and the emergence of three strong men that unified Japan once more: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Kabuki Odori appeared just at the end of these civil wars and developed into Kabuki theater, puppet theater and all the various styles of music associated with these genres. Kabuki Odori thus stands right on the border between the medieval period and the Edo period, which is often described as "early modern." As the medieval period ended, Kabuki Odori became popular among the common people. Izumo Okuni‘s dances became very popular, so popular that she even performed within the imperial palace. The most eye-catching number that Okuni performed seems to have been Nembutsu Odori. Probably, she was the first to perform this. In a word, this was a kabuki version of the Nembutsu Odori that preceded this. "How fleeting, even if you try to hang it on a hook it is useless, hang it on your heart, the name of the Amidha Buddha. Namu Amidha Butsu, Namu Amidha Butsu." She danced as she sang this, probably to a light, popular melody. Dances like this, or preexisting "Kaka Odori," and "Yayako Odori," came to be called Kabuki Odori. But today, it is not clear exactly what kind of music this was. It is only clear that this was one of the types of kouta songs that were popular in the medieval period.
One thing that cannot be overlooked in the Muromachi period, the final period of the medieval age is the popularity of kouta. They are called kouta or "small song," to distinguish them from the more formal "o-uta" used in the ceremonies of the imperial court. These were popular songs which we have in written form from the 16th century. They were sung to the rhythm of a closed fan. In poetic meter, these songs are intermediate between the older forms of tanka (5-7-5-7-7) and Imayo and the typical Edo style verse of 7-7-7-5. Today, we can hear many of these medieval kouta in the Kyogen farces that are performed with the classical Noh plays and these songs are probably close to the ones that accompanied early Kabuki Odori. The songs in the printed collections also spread and developed into a number of typical Edo period singing styles like Nagebushi.