Hi, how are you doing?
Leaves have just started to change colors and it is a great season to travel in Japan.
If you have never been here in Autumn, you should definitely come to enjoy the beautiful nature!
This time, I wrote about a traditional Japanese instrument, Koto.
I’m learning myself Koto these days to brush up my composition skill.
Luckily, I found a teacher in the area where I am now and just started taking classes about 5 months ago. It really is fun to play and I get a lot of inspirations.
Here is all about Koto.
I hope this will help you understand more about Japanese culture.
What is Koto?
Koto(箏) is a Japanese musical instrument derived from a Chinese instrument.
It is said that Koto was made based on Chinese stringed instrument called zheng.
In Asia, there are similar kinds of instrument such as Yatga in Mongol, Gayageum in Korea, and Đàn tranh in Vietnam. Koto is made of wood, and usually about 180 cm in length. A regular Koto has 13 strings with 13 movable bridges.
The strings are plucked with three finger picks covering thumb, index finger, and middle finger.
A same kind of stringed instrument was introduced from China in the 7th and 8th century. The first kinds made in China were said to have 5 strings and later on adding 2 more strings.
When the instrument was introduced to Japan in early Nara Period (710 to 784), it had 13 strings. And that became a Japanese standard style of the instrument.
It was considered a romantic instrument, and Koto became popular among wealthy people. The solo Koto music was established and flourished as a Japanese court music. Professional Koto players were usually blind people, but eventually it spread to the general public.
One of the most important Koto players in history is Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685), known as “Father of Modern Koto”.
He was a blind musician from Kyoto who made a new style of Koto music called “Kumi uta”. In this style, he mixed individual pieces together to make a whole music. He changed the traditional tuning to make a new harmony that fits better to his style.
During Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), western music was introduced to Japan and since then, composers of Japan have been trying combining western elements with traditional Koto music. Michio Miyagi, a blind composer, is considered as the first Japanese composer to mix them. He created over 300 new works and invented 17 string bass Koto. He helped increase Koto’s popularity, and his music Haru no Umi (Spring Sea) is still played today to welcome New Year each year in Japan.
Most Koto are made of Paulownia wood and the body of a traditional Koto is made of Kiri wood, which is the Imperial family crest for the Empress.
Traditional bridges are made of ivory, but nowadays plastic is widely used.
There are many kinds of materials used for strings. Plastic and Polyester strings are popular, but silk strings are still used among professionals.
The main production area of Koto is Fukuyama city in Hiroshima.
Koto is traditionally placed on the floor when played. A player kneels and play with finger picks.
As the body of a Koto resembles that of a dragon, top part of it is called the “Dragon shell”, the bottom is called the “Dragon’s stomach”, one end is consisted of “Dragon’s head” , “Dragon’s eyes (the holes for the strings)” , “Dragon’s tongue (the side part of the end)”, etc. The other end of a Koto is called the “Dragon’s tail”.
2 major schools: Yamada and Ikuta.
The style flourished in Edo (Old Tokyo) is called Yamada style. In this style, players use picks with round edge.
In the case of the Ikuta style, which has been popular in other areas except Edo, players use square shaped picks and position them at an angle of about 45 degrees left oblique against the instrument.
Music scores are written vertically, from right to left.
And a player read which string to play how long (and how).
Each string are named 一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十, 斗, 為, 巾 from the lower to higher notes.
Sadly, traditional instruments and cultures are fading away, but we can learn a lot from them and should not forget the uniqueness that we have in each country.
If you get interested in learning Koto, feel free contact me!
Have a nice day!