Japanese Instruments

by Lyanne Thomas
(Manila, Philippines)

Japanese Instruments, what you may not know

Traditional Japanese musical instruments are comprised of a wide range of string, wind (mostly flutes) and percussion instruments. Let me mention the most common Japanese musical instruments:

Percussion Instruments

Drums: Taiko, literally known as great or big drums. There are many big drums in Japan and most of these great instruments have 2 membranes that are either nailed or laced and are struck with sticks. Most of these big drums such as the Odaiko are usually used during Japanese festivities and celebrations. A famous taiko perfomance group known as Kodo hosts an annual earth celebration. The Earth celebration is a festival of taiko drumming where people from around the world come to Japan to witness the celebration.

The taiko drum festival on Sado Island every summer is not to be missed!

Tsuzumi: Another famous percussion instrument of Japan. The Tsuzumi is shaped like an hour glass and was introduced from the Asian continent around the 7th century.

Stringed Instruments:

Koto: The Koto are made of Paulownia wood and are 2 meters long. This instrument is played by plucking, using picks on the thumb and the first 2 fingers of the right hand. The left hand can be used to modify and adjust the pitch and the tone.

Shamisen: The Shamisen are made from one of a variety of woods such as red sandalwood. It is a 3-string lute and varies from 1.1 to 1.4 in length. The Shamisen is believed to be a variant of the Okinawan sanshin. The head of the Shamisen is covered with animal skin, usually a cat or dog skin. The pegs are made of ivory and the strings are twisted silk. The shamisen was brought to Japan from China in the 16th century.

Biwa: The Biwa is a short-necked lute, used from the 7th century in Gagaku. They are used to accompany early puppet plays. The Biwa's number of frets varies from 4 to 6 and strings vary in number from 3 to 5 but the most common would be usually 4. When playing the biwa it is held almost vertical and is played with a large bachi.

Wind Instruments:

Most of Japan's wind instruments are flutes. The most famous flute is the shakuhachi bamboo flute. The shakuhachi bamboo flute has 4 or 5 finger holes on the front face and on the rear face is a thumb hole. The shakuhachi became associated with wandering Buddhist priests during the medieval times. It is said that Buddhist priests played the shakuhachi as a spriritual discipline.

Other kinds of Japanese flutes include the; Hocchiku, Nohkan, Ryuteki, Kagurabue and Komabue.

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