Updated: May 17, 2022
5 Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments
So far on our musical journey around the globe, we have visited China, India/Pakistan, France, Ireland, Scandinavia, and the United States. Today, we return to East Asia and as we land briefly in the isle of Japan.
Hanami - Cherry Blossom Viewing
From the end of March to early May, cherry trees blossom across the nation of Japan. The pink and white flowers heralding the return of spring have come to symbolize not just the season but also the nation of Japan. They are so important the the Sakura Zensen, 桜前線 (cherry blossom front) is broadcast by the Japanese Meteorological Agency like the weather. People gather to view the blossoms in parks and picnic underneath the trees as the blossoms fall off the boughs like pink snow in a tradition called Hanami, 花見 (flower-viewing).
Hanami traditions have over a one-thoudsand-year history with the earliest flower viewing traditions coming from China where viewers admired the plum blossoms. During the Japanese Heian Period (794–1185), there was a concerted effort to create uniquely Japanese traditions and art forms, and the cherry blossom became the focus of the festivities as sakura is the national flower of Japan. Emperor Saga, 嵯峨天皇 (Oct. 3, 786 – Aug. 24, 842) held the first Japanese echerry blossom viewing festival, complete with food, drink, music, and poetry as depicted in the woodcut above, Cherry-blossom Viewing on the Hill of the Tenjin Shrine in Yasui (Yasui Tenjinyama hanami), from the series Famous Views of Osaka (1834) by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – Oct. 12, 1858). For a little bit more about Hanami, see this post.
The tradition continues today across Japan and even around the world. Festivities at Hanami festivals celebrate Japanese culture with music, dance, and traditional arts. To celebrate the cherry blossoms, we will be introduced to some traditional Japanese instruments in this post and learn about a Japanese poetry genre called haiku and create our own haiku-inspired song in the following post.
Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments
Traditional Japanese musical instruments are played when performing the traditional folk music of Japan. In Japanese, they are known as wagakki, 和楽器. They belong to the string, wind, and percussion instrument families.
In this post, we will be introduced to five examples. The first taiko is from the percussion family. The second shakuhachi is from the wind family. And, the final three koto, shamisen, and biwa are all from the string family. Koto is a zither-type stringed instrument, while shamisen and biwa are both lute-type stringed instruments. To listen to a sakura-themed playlist curated by the Smithsonian’s Folkways, visit https://folkways.si.edu/sakura-a-musical-celebration-of-the-cherry-blossoms/world/music/album/smithsonian.
Although the Japanese word taiko, 太鼓 literally translates to “drum" in English, it has come to specifically refer to the Japanese art of ensemble drumming, kumi-daiko, 組太鼓. As an instrument, taiko has played a significant role in Japanese musical culture for centuries. Originally played for military ceremonial purposes, taiko took on spiritual ceremonial use as well in both the Buddhism and Shinto. Taiko has also been performed as part of the theater, in the Imperial court, and for concert purposes.
Taiko as an ensemble or kumi-daiko is a creation in post-war Japan. Jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi Daihachi in Japanese: Oguchi Daihachi, 小口 大八 (Feb. 27, 1924 – June 27, 2008) created the first such ensemble in 1951. More recently, taiko has enjoyed not only a resurgence of interest in Japan, where there are over 4,000 taiko ensembles, but also transplantation and evolution in North America. Taiko drumming is featured in the musical backdrop to Wes Anderson’s (b. May 1, 1969) 2008 stop-motion animation film Isle of Dogs scored by French composer Alexandre Desplat (b. Aug. 23, 1961).
As taiko means drum, there are many different types of taiko. Most drums have a shell with heads on both sides of its body with a closed resonating cavity. There are three categories of taiko based on their construction.
Byō-uchi-daiko, 鋲打ち太鼓 (tacked strike drum) have the drumhead nailed to the body. They are struck with a drum bachi, 桴 (wooden stick).
Shime-daiko, 締太鼓 (tightened drum) is a
small, high-toned drum with a one-piece wood body with heads that are stretched and stitched over large metal rings and tightened. These are also struck with a drum bachi.
Tsuzumi, 鼓 (hand drum) is a small drum with an hour-glass shaped body with two heads that is roped together. Its tone may be altered by tightening or loosening your grip on the rope. This is the only type that is played with the hand rather than bachi.
Watch a kumi-daiko performance in the video below, "Rites of Thundering" by the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, from Kenny Endo 40th Anniversary Concert "Ten Ten" in 2015.
For more about taiko
Taiko Center of the Pacific. https://taikoarts.com
Patcher, Ben, and Wendy Jedlička. https://taikosource.com/
Hyun, Soo Jeon, Kangrui, Xue, and Lavender Chen. Stanford Taiko. https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordtaiko/cgi-bin/index.html
Gould, Michael. Taiko Classification and Manufacturing.
Konagaya, Hideyo. Taiko as Performance: Creating Japanese American Traditions. The Japanese Journal of American Studies, No. 12 (2001). http://sv121.wadax.ne.jp/~jaas-gr-jp/jjas/PDF/2001/No.12-105.pdf
“Shawn Bender, Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion.” New Books Network. https://newbooksnetwork.com/shawn-bender-taiko-boom-japanese-drumming-in-place-and-motion-university-of-california-press-2012.
The shakuhachi is an end-blow flute traditionally made from bamboo. Its full name is fuke shakuhachi (普化尺八) which distinguishes it from an ancient extinct flute that came to Japan from China in the seventh century. The fuke shakuhachi was developed in Japan in the 16th century. Its unique beauty comes from its variability. A player may use fingerings, embouchures and amounts of meri/kari (the angle of the airstream) to produce notes of the same pitch but with subtle to dramatic differences in the timbre (tone-color). The komusō monks were Zen Buddhist who played shakuhachi with straw baskets on their heads to symbolize their detachment from the world! Although the sect no longer exists, their musical literature lives on.
Listen to a haunting live performance from 2018 by Riley Lee, a Shakuhachi flute grandmaster. He performs a piece called "Dimante Lapis," which was composed around 1150.
For more about shakuhachi
What Is Meri and Kari?
Kiku Day, Shakuhachi player.
The International Shakuhachi Society.
The koto, 箏, is a large, rounded-top wooden zither with 13 silk strings. It has a moveable bridges called ji which are placed under each string. It's played with plectrums called tsume that are worn on the fingers of the right hand. The left hand presses down on the strings to bend the pitch and create effects like a guitarist may do.
The koto comes from the Chinese zither, guzheng, which we learned about in The Musical Bridge - China. Originally, it was performed as an ensemble instrument with other string and wind instruments, but eventually, it came to be chiefly performed as a solo instrument. It's also commonly performed as part of a trio with a shamisen and shakuhachi. It may also be played as an accompaniment instrument for a vocalist. During Hanami, “Sakura, Sakura,” a 400-year old folk tune, is often performed on the koto.
In the example below, koto player Kasumi Watanabe perform Sakura, Sakura on a 25-string koto. The folk tune melody and an English version of the lyrics are pictured above. You can listen to my simple arrangement of Sakura, Sakura in the following post.
For more about koto
Kasumi Watanbe, Koto player
What Is A Koto?
About Japanese Koto.
Kid Web Japan: Koto.
The shamisen, 三味線, is a three-string lute. It name translates to “three strings.” These three strings were originally silk but are nylon today. The lowest string is placed on the instrument in such a way that it creates a buzzing sound called “sawari.”
Unlike a guitar, the slim neck of the shamisen does not have frets. Its body, called the dō, 胴, resembles a drum, having a hollow body that is covered front and back with resonating skin similar to that of a banjo. This skin-body gives the shamisen its banjo-like timbre. The shamisen is plucked with a plectrum or pick also known as a bachi.
When it is used as a accompaniment instruments, the shamisen is tuned to fit the vocal range of the singer. Its typical tuning pattern is called honchoshi and consists of middle-C (C4), F4, and C5. The instrument is often be adjusted to one of the other common patterns during a performance. Those are niagari middle C (C4), G4, and C5 and sansagari middle C (C4), F4, and B-flat4.
The shamisen is thought to drive from an earlier Chinese lute called a sanxian which had a membrane made of snakeskin which had made its way to Japan in the 16th century. To create a more durable instrument, shamisen builders moved away from the delicate snakeskin construction. The skin for the finest instruments was originally from cats with dog-skin being used a well! (😢!) Today, the use of animal skins has fallen out of favor and they are made out of synthetic materials. Shamisen have been built in a range of sizes and are played in a variety of Japanese traditional music genres.
Listen to a performance by shamisen players Ki & Ki as they perofmance their arrangment of the folk song, Sakura, Sakura under the cherry blossoms in Tokyo.
For more about shamisen
About The Shamisen
Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection: Shamisen
Yoko Reikano Kimura, singer, koto player, and shamisen player
The biwa, 琵琶, is another Japanese traditional lute. Like the shamisen, its origins are a Chinese instrument. In this case, it is the Chinese short-necked lute known as the pipa which arrived in Japan in the seventh century. The biwa is traditionally used to accompany story-telling. Like the shamisen, there are different styles of biwa for different musical styles. The biwa is used as an accompaniment instrument for vocal performances, for Imperial court musical purposes, and as a sacred instrument, accompanying religious Buddhist chant.
Biwa typically have four-strings, though today five-string instruments as also played. Its music is based on a the five-note pentatonic scale and is not always metered. Different sizes of plectrums are used for effect and to create sawari. Unlike the shamisen, the biwa is fretted, though it only has four frets. It has six traditional tunings. The interval between the pitches of the open string and first fret is a major second, while the interval between pitches on two adjacent frets is a minor second. Biwa players use ornaments and turns to give a performance its characteristic sound.
For more about biwa
The Stanford Gagaku Ensemble: Biwa
About the Biwa
Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection: Biwa https://omeka-s.grinnell.edu/s/MusicalInstruments/item/2137
Exposure to new musical styles and genres is important for musicians and artists of all ages. In our next post, we will learn a little about Japanese poetry called haiku and learn the steps to creating our own haiku-inspired songs. Keep creating!
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.