Koto (instrument)

String instrument
Other names 13-stringed koto

Hornbostel–Sachs classification 312.22-6
(Heterochord half-tube zither sounded with three plectrums)
Inventor(s) Kenjun
Developed 16th century
Related instruments

17-string koto, zheng, yatga, gayageum, đàn tranh

The koto (Japanese: ) 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 Japan.[1] 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 finger).[2]

13-stringed koto performance of the song "Sakura Sakura"

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The character for koto is , although 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 (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.


The ancestor of the koto was the Chinese zheng[3][4] and was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century.[5] 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 tranh.[6] 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.

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 strings.[7]

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 Japan.[8]

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 itself.[9]


Detail of koto

A koto is typically made of Paulownia wood. The treatment of the wood before making the koto varies tremendously: one koto maker 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 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 bridge.[2] 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 kneels.[10]

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.

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 today

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 U.S. orchestras, having done so on multiple occasions including with Orchestra Nova for San Diego's KPBS in 2010.[11]

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 the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones played 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 (album). 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 Sukiyaki.[12] Asia (band) used a koto on the middle-eight scetion of "Heat of the Moment" on their eponymous 1982 album.[13] A synthesized koto is also played by her in their cover of the song I'll Try Something New.[14] Dr. Dre's 1999 album Chronic 2001 prominently features a synthesized koto on two of its tracks - "Still D.R.E." 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.


See also


  1. "Koto". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  2. 1 2 "Select Your Library - Credo Reference".
  3. 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.
  4. Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 2 (international ed.). Minnesota: Americana Corp. 1966. p. 400.
  5. Speed, Burgess (2008). Japan: Your Passport to a New World of Music. Alfred Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-7390-4303-5.
  6. "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.
  7. Wade, Bonnie C. Music in Japan: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2005. Print.
  8. "sian Instrument Collection in the Beckwith Music Library". Bowdoin. Bowdoin College Library. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  9. 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
  10. "Contemporary Music for Japanese Instruments: Sawai Koto Ensemble". FREER|SACKLER. Smithsonian Instittution. Retrieved 2013-09-28.
  11. "Reiko Obata Performs with Orchestra Nova on KPBS". Youtube. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  12. "Sukiyaki by A Taste of Honey on Soul Train". Youtube. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  13. Rosen, Craig (1996). The Billboard Book of Number One Albums. New York: Billboard Books. p. 269. ISBN 0-8230-7586-9.
  14. "I'll Try Something New by A Taste of Honey on Soul Train". Youtube. Retrieved 17 June 2012.


Further reading

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