Koto and Japanese Music

A couple months ago, I met a woman who grew up in Japan and plays the koto. The koto is a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. It is made of wood and nearly 6 feet long. It has 13 strings, which originally were made of silk but typically consist of more durable nylon or plastic today. There are versions of the koto that have 17 and possibly more strings. The strings are tuned by placing movable bridges under them.koto-vfhpqv

In the past, the bridges were made of ivory. Today they are usually made of plastic or sometimes wood. They are also often shifted for tunings specific to each piece of music.

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Most of the time, the bridges remain in place though the musical work, but sometimes a single bridge may be moved in the middle of the piece.

The koto first came to Japan from China somewhere around the 7th or 8th century. Similar instruments can be found throughout Asia. In China there is the guzheng, in Korea the gayageum, and in Vietnam the Ðàn tranh. Some variants have bridges, some do not. The ones without bridges are sometimes called zithers.

The koto is either placed on the floor with the musician kneeling near the right end of the instrument

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or it may be placed on an elevated stand, which allows the musician to sit on a stool or to stand.

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The musician plucks the strings primarily with three finger picks, called plectra, worn on the thumb, index, and middle finger of the right hand.

The left hand is used primarily to press on the strings, which will shift the pitch of the strings up a half or whole step. The left hand can also be used to bend notes.

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Both hands and all fingers may be employed to pluck or strum strings as well. Plastic or nylon strings may be played for several years. Since they are plucked at one end only (and therefore undergo most of the wear and tear only at that end), it is common to have a professional technician remove and reverse the strings after they’ve been played steadily for several years. This is no small undertaking, but it extends the usable lifetime of the strings.

There are many standard traditional tunings, often based on a minor pentatonic scale.

Here are three common koto tunings:

tuning

As modern and Western music has been adapted and performed on the koto, tunings have similarly been modified to support more common Western eight-note scales.

My friend does not read Western music notation. She reads traditional Japanese musical notation, which looks like this:

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It is read from top to bottom, right to left. Each rectangle is analogous to a musical measure. Instead of naming or indicating notes, notes are instead indicated by their string numbers, written in Japanese musical scores by their kanji character. In the example above you may notice the kanji characters for the string numbers:

1st string

2nd string

3rd  string

4th string

5th string

(and so on)

Special characters indicate when a string needs to be pressed partially or fully to alter the note pitch, as well as to indicate effects, such as tremolo and other specialized plucking or strumming techniques.

I have begun to arrange and compose music for the koto and viola (my primary instrument). It takes a lot of thought, since I have to keep in mind that not every note can be played on the koto, and certain note sequences are difficult or impossible to play, depending on how often and how quickly the koto player must alter or bend them. Also, the player can only reach a certain number of strings, so large intervals or chords are only possible if no note bending is involved, so both hands remain relatively free for plucking.

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I love the sound of the instrument and have very much enjoyed hearing it and playing my viola alongside it. My mother owns a koto, though I have not heard her play it in decades. Many Westerners may have heard the koto if they have heard traditional Japanese music (e.g. in a Japanese film), but few have seen one played live. I encourage people to seek out recordings and videos of the koto being played, but especially to see one played live, if possible.

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