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Koto (instrument)

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The koto Japanese: 箏 is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument derived from the Chinese zheng, and similar to the Mongolian yatga, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh The koto is the national instrument of Japan1 Koto are about 180 centimetres 71 in length, and made from kiri wood Paulownia tomentosa They have 13 strings that are usually strung over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument There is also a 17-string koto variant Players can adjust the string pitches by moving the white bridges before playing To play the instrument, the strings are plucked using three finger picks, otherwise known as plectra, on thumb, index finger, and middle finger2


  • 1 Names and Types
  • 2 History
  • 3 Construction
  • 4 Koto today
  • 5 Recordings
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 References
  • 9 Further reading
  • 10 External links

Names and Typesedit

The character for koto is 箏, although 琴 is often used However, 琴 usually refers to another instrument, the kin 琴の琴; kin no koto 箏, in certain contexts, is also read as sō 箏の琴; sō no koto However, many times the character 箏 is used in titles, while 琴 is used in telling the number of kotos used clarification needed The term is used today, but usually only when differentiating the koto and other zithers The word for an Asian zither with adjustable bridges is “So” Variations of the instrument were created, and eventually a few of them would become the standard variations for modern day kotos The four types of kotos: Gakuso, Chikuso, Zokuso, Tagenso all were created by different subcultures but also to change the play style3


The ancestor of the koto was the Chinese zheng45 and was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century6 The first known version had five strings, which eventually increased to seven strings It had twelve strings when it was introduced to Japan in the early Nara Period 710–784 and increased to thirteen strings This particular instrument is known throughout Asia but in different forms: the Japanese koto, which is a relative to the Chinese zheng, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese dan tranh7 This variety of instrument came in two basic forms, a zither that had bridges and zithers without bridges

An 1878 depiction by Settei Hasegawa of a woman playing the koto

When the koto was first imported to Japan, the native word koto was a generic term for any and all Japanese stringed instruments Over time the definition of koto could not describe the wide variety of these stringed instruments and so the meanings changed The azumagoto or yamatogoto was called the wagon, the kin no koto was called the kin, and the sau no koto sau being an older pronunciation of 箏 was called the sō or koto

The modern koto originates from the gakusō used in Japanese court music It was a popular instrument among the wealthy; the instrument koto was considered a romantic one Some literary and historical records indicate that solo pieces for koto existed centuries before sōkyoku, the music of the solo koto genre, was established According to Japanese literature, the koto was used as imagery and other extra music significance In one part of "The Tales of Genji Genji monogatari", Genji falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman, who he has never seen before, after he hears her playing the koto from a distance

The Koto of the chikuso was made for the Tsukushigato tradition and only for blind men Women could not play the instrument in the professional world nor teach it With the relief of the rule, women started to playing the koto, but not the Chikuso because it was designed for the blind which led to a decline in use; the other kotos proved to be more useful The two main koto still used today are the Gakuso and Zokuso These two have relatively stayed the same with the exception of material innovations like plastic and the type of strings The Tagenso is the newest addition to the koto family, surfacing in the 19th century, it was purposefully created to access a wider range of sound and advance style of play; these were made with 17, 21, and 31 strings 8

Perhaps the most important influence on the development of koto was Yatsuhashi Kengyo 1614–1685 He was a gifted blind musician from Kyoto who changed the limited selection of six songs to a brand new style of koto music which he called kumi uta Yatsuhashi changed the Tsukushi goto tunings, which were based on gagaku ways of tuning; and with this change, a new style of koto was born Yatsuhashi Kengyo is now known as the "Father of Modern Koto"

A smaller influence in the evolution of the koto is found in the inspiration of a woman named Keiko Nosaka Keiko Nosaka a musician who won Grand Prize in Music from the Japanese Ministry of Culture in 2002, felt confined by playing a koto with just 13 strings, so she created new versions of the instrument with 20 or more strings9

Masayo Ishigure playing a 13-string koto

Japanese developments in bridgeless zithers include the one-stringed koto ichigenkin and two-stringed koto nigenkin or yakumo goto Around the 1920s, Goro Morita created a new version of the two-stringed koto; on this koto, one would push down buttons above the metal strings like the western autoharp It was named the taishōgoto after the Taishō period

At the beginning of the Meiji Period 1868–1912, western music was introduced to Japan Michio Miyagi 1894–1956, a blind composer, innovator, and performer, is considered to have been the first Japanese composer to combine western music and traditional koto music Miyagi is largely regarded as being responsible for keeping the koto alive when traditional Japanese arts were being forgotten and replaced by Westernization He wrote over 300 new works for the instrument before his death in a train accident at the age of 62 He also invented the popular 17 string bass koto, created new playing techniques, advanced traditional forms, and most importantly increased the koto's popularity He performed abroad and by 1928 his piece for koto and shakuhachi, Haru no Umi Spring Sea had been transcribed for numerous instruments Haru no Umi is even played to welcome each New Year in Japan10

Since Miyagi's time, many composers such as Kimio Eto 1924–present, Tadao Sawai 1937–1997 have written and performed works that continue to advance the instrument Sawai's widow Kazue Sawai, who as a child was Miyagi's favored disciple, has been the largest driving force behind the internationalization and modernization of the koto Her arrangement of composer John Cage's prepared piano duet "Three Dances" for four prepared bass koto was a landmark in the modern era of koto music

For about one hundred and fifty years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese shirked their isolationist ideals and began to openly embrace American and European influences; which is most likely why the koto has taken on many different variations of itself11


Detail of koto

A koto is typically made of Paulownia wood The treatment of the wood before making the koto varies tremendously: one koto makerwho seasons the wood for perhaps a year on the roof of the house Some wood may have very little treatment Kotos may or may not be adorned, some adornments include inlays of ivory and ebony, tortoise shell, metal figures, etc The wood is also cut into two types, itame also mokume which has a swirling pattern or straight lined, masame The straight lined pattern is easier to manufacture so the swirl raises the cost of production therefore is reserved for decorative and elegant models 3

The body of a traditional koto is made of a wood called kiri 8 Every piece of the instrument comes with cultural significance, especially since the koto is the national instrument Kiri is also important to Japan because it is the Imperial family crest for the Empress Kiri is dried and cut into precise measurements The size of the soundboard on a standard modern koto has remained approximately 182 centimeters In the past the measurement ranged from 152 to 194 centimeters

The bridges Ji used to be made of ivory, but nowadays are typically made of plastic, and occasionally made of wood One can alter the pitch of a string by manipulating or moving the bridge2 For some very low notes, there are small bridges made, as well as specialty bridges with three different heights, depending on the need of the tuning When a small bridge is unavailable for some very low notes, some players may, as an emergency measure, use a bridge upside down Of course, such an arrangement is unstable, and the bridge would have a tendency to fall down Bridges have been known to break during playing, and with some older instruments which have the surface where the bridges rest being worn due to much use, the bridges may fall during playing, especially when pressing strings There are, of course, various sorts of patch materials sold to fill the holes which cause the legs of a bridge to rest on an unstable area About six feet long and one foot wide, the koto is traditionally placed on the floor in front of the player, who kneels12

Ji bridge

The strings are made from a variety of materials Various types of plastic strings are popular Silk strings are still made Silk strings are usually yellow in color They cost more and are not as durable, but claimed to be more musical The strings are tied with a half hitch to a roll of paper or cardboard, about the size of a cigarette butt, strung through the holes at the head of the koto, threaded through the holes at the back, tightened, and tied with a special knot Strings can be tightened by a special machine, but often are tightened by hand, and then tied One can tighten by pulling the string from behind, or sitting at the side of the koto, although the latter is much harder and requires much arm strength Some instruments may have tuning pins like a piano installed, to make tuning easier

The makura ito, the silk thread used in the instrument, is a pivotal part of its construction This feature was not seen on the speculated nobility style instruments because they used a more tension of theirs and valued the relict nature of their instruments The commoners did all the innovations that made the Koto not only a sturdy instrument, but more sonically adept The makura ito was used in paper so the fine silk was in abundance in Japan As of the beginning of the 19th century, an ivory called makura zuno became the standard for the koto13

For every part of the koto there is a traditional name which connects with the opinion that the body of a koto resembles that of a dragon Thus the top part is called the "dragon's shell" 竜甲 ryūkō; the Asian dragon is believed to have a shell like that of a turtle, while the bottom part is called the "dragon's stomach" 竜腹 ryūfuku One end of the koto, noticeable because of the removable colorful fabricshell, is known as the "dragon's head" 竜頭 ryūzu, consisting of parts such as the "dragon's horns" 竜角 ryūkaku - the saddle of the bridge or makurazuno 枕角, "dragon's tongue" 竜舌 ryūzetsu, "dragon's eyes" 竜眼 ryūgan - the holes for the strings and "dragon's forehead" 竜額 ryūgaku - the space above the makurazuno The other end of the koto is called the "dragon's tail" 竜尾, ryūbi; the string nut is called the "cloud horn" 雲角, unkaku

Koto todayedit

Koto concert at Himejijo kangetsukai in 2009 Michiyo Yagi playing a 21-string koto

The influence of Western pop music has made the koto less prominent in Japan, although it is still developing as an instrument The 17-string bass koto, called jūshichi-gen in Japanese, has become more prominent over the years since its development by Michio Miyagi There are also 20-string, 21-string, and 25-string kotos Works are being written for 20- and 25-stringed kotos and 17-string bass kotos Reiko Obata has also made the koto accessible to Western music readers with the publication of two books for solo koto using Western notation The current generation of koto players such as American performers Reiko Obata and Miya Masaoka, as well as Japanese master Kazue Sawai and her students, including Michiyo Yagi, are finding places for the koto in today's jazz, experimental music and even pop The members of the band Rin' are popular jūshichi-gen players in the modern pop/rock music scene

June Kuramoto of the jazz fusion group Hiroshima was one of the first koto performers to popularize the koto in a non-traditional fusion style Reiko Obata, founder of East West Jazz band, is the first to perform and record an album of jazz standards featuring koto Obata also produced the first-ever English language koto instructional DVD "You Can Play Koto" Obata is one of the few koto performers to perform koto concertos with US orchestras, having done so on multiple occasions including with Orchestra Nova for San Diego's KPBS in 201014

Other solo performers outside Japan include koto player and award-winning recording artist Elizabeth Falconer, who also studied for a decade at the Sawai Koto School in Tokyo, as well as koto master Linda Kako Caplan, Canadian daishihan grandmaster and a member of Fukuoka's Chikushi Koto School for over two decades Another Sawai disciple, Masayo Ishigure, holds down a school in New York City Yukiko Matsuyama leads her KotoYuki band in Los Angeles Her compositions blend the timbres of World Music with her native Japanese culture She performed on the Grammy winning album Miho: Journey to the Mountain by the Paul Winter Consort garnering additional exposure to Western audiences for the instrument In November 2011 worldwide audiences were exposed to the Koto when she performed with Shakira at the Latin Grammy Award show

In March 2010 the koto received widespread international attention when a video linked by the Grammy Award-winning hard rock band Tool on its website became a viral hit The video showed Tokyo-based ensemble Soemon playing member Brett Larner's arrangement of the Tool song "Lateralus" for six koto and two bass koto Larner had previously played koto with John Fahey, Jim O'Rourke and members of indie rock groups including Camper Van Beethoven, Deerhoof, Jackie O Motherfucker and Mr Bungle

In older pop and rock music, David Bowie used a koto in the instrumental piece "Moss Garden" on his album "Heroes" The multi-instrumentalist, founder and former guitarist of The Rolling Stones Brian Jones played the koto in the song Take It Or Leave It, on the album Aftermath, 1966 Paul Gilbert, a popular guitar virtuosoist, recorded his wife, Emi playing the koto on his song "Koto Girl" from the album Alligator Farm Rock band Kagrra, are well known for using traditional Japanese musical instruments in many of their songs, an example being "Utakata" うたかた, a song in which the koto has a prominent place Winston Tong, singer with Tuxedomoon, uses it on his 15-minute song, "The Hunger" from his debut solo album Theoretically Chinese The rock band Queen used a toy koto in "The Prophet's Song" on their 1975 album A Night at the Opera Ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett used a koto very effectively on the instrumental song "The Red Flower of Tachai Blooms Everywhere" from the album Spectral Mornings The koto played by band member Hazel Payne is featured in A Taste of Honey's 1981 English cover of the Japanese song Sukiyaki15 Asia band used a koto on the middle-eight scetion of "Heat of the Moment" on their eponymous 1982 album16 A synthesized koto is also played by her in their cover of the song I'll Try Something New17 Dr Dre's 1999 album Chronic 2001 prominently features a synthesized koto on two of its tracks - "Still DRE" and "The Message"

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck composed "Koto Song" that, while not featuring the koto itself, is played to allow the piano to emulate its sound Brett Larner was also active in jazz, recording a duo CD with saxophone legend and composer Anthony Braxton


  • Silenziosa Luna - 沈黙の月 / ALM Records ALCD-76 2008

See alsoedit

  • 17-string koto
  • Đàn tranh
  • Guzheng
  • Guqin
  • Gayageum
  • Kacapi
  • Santur
  • Se
  • Taishōgoto


  1. ^ "Koto" Encyclopædia Britannica Online Retrieved 2008-03-18 
  2. ^ a b "Select Your Library - Credo Reference" 
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Henry 1996 ""A Koto" by Any Other name: Exploring Japanese Systems of Musical Instrument Classification" Asian Music 49: 38–64 
  4. ^ Deal, William E 2006 Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan New York: Infobase Publishing pp 266–267 ISBN 0-8160-5622-6 
  5. ^ Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 2 international ed Minnesota: Americana Corp 1966 p 400 
  6. ^ Speed, Burgess 2008 Japan: Your Passport to a New World of Music Alfred Publishing p 7 ISBN 978-0-7390-4303-5 
  7. ^ "Hugo's window on the world of Chinese zheng" Chime Leiden: European Foundation for Chinese Music Research 16-17: 242 2005 Throughout the centuries, the zheng became the parent instrument of the Asian zither family as it spread from China to a number of adjacent countries giving birth to the Japanese koto, the Korean kayagum and the Vietnamese dan tranh 
  8. ^ a b Johnson, Henry M 1996 "Koto manufacture: The Instrument, Construction Process, and Aesthetic Considerations" The Galpin Society Journal 49: 38–64 
  9. ^ Wade, Bonnie C Music in Japan: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture Oxford: Oxford Univ, 2005 Print
  10. ^ "sian Instrument Collection in the Beckwith Music Library" Bowdoin Bowdoin College Library Retrieved 28 September 2013 
  11. ^ Johnson, Henry M "Traditions Old and New: Continuity, Change, and Innovation in Japanese "Koto"-Related Zithers" Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 29 2003: 181-229 ProQuest Web 30 Sep 2013
  12. ^ "Contemporary Music for Japanese Instruments: Sawai Koto Ensemble" FREER|SACKLER Smithsonian Instittution Retrieved 2013-09-28 
  13. ^ Miyazaki, Mayumi Fall 1999 "Music in Art: International Journal for Music Iconography" The History of Musical Instruments in Japan and Visual Sources 24: 51–56 
  14. ^ "Reiko Obata Performs with Orchestra Nova on KPBS" Youtube Retrieved 11 March 2014 
  15. ^ "Sukiyaki by A Taste of Honey on Soul Train" Youtube Retrieved 4 March 2012 
  16. ^ Rosen, Craig 1996 The Billboard Book of Number One Albums New York: Billboard Books p 269 ISBN 0-8230-7586-9 
  17. ^ "I'll Try Something New by A Taste of Honey on Soul Train" Youtube Retrieved 17 June 2012 


  • Edmonds, Richard Louis et al "Japan" Grove Art Online Oxford Art Online July 30, 2008
  • Johnson, H 2004 The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan Amsterdam: Hotei
  • Malm, W P 2000 Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments Rev ed New York, NY: Kodansha International
  • Sachs, C 1940 The History of Musical Instruments New York, NY: W W Norton & Company Inc Publishers

Further readingedit

  • The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan, by Henry Johnson Hotei, 2004
  • The Kumiuta and Danmono Traditions of Japanese Koto Music, by Willem Adriaansz University of California Press, 1973

External linksedit

  • Koto, early 17th century, Japan at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Koto no Koto - Koto no koto: the website with general information

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