Can You Describe Some Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments?


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Steve Theunissen Profile
The koto, imported from China around the ninth century, is a long wooden box-type instrument about six feet (1.8 meters) long and one foot (.3 meter) wide. With the instrument lying before him, the seated player plucks its 13 strings with a plectrum. A skilful player can produce music that pleasantly resembles that of the harp.

The Japanese bamboo flute, measuring about 21 inches (53 centimetres) in length, is called shakuhachi. This instrument has five finger holes, and a mouthpiece at the upper end. The player holds the shakuhachi vertically. By skilfully adjusting his lips to the mouthpiece at varying angles and moving his neck into different positions as he covers the holes with his fingers, the instrumentalist is able to produce three octaves of tones. The plaintive wail produced by this flute may generate feelings of vagueness and melancholy.

The shamisen has no counterpart among Western musical instruments. It came to Japan from China by way of Okinawa around the year 1560 C.E. But only the instrument is an import. The manner in which the shamisen is played, the kind of music produced with it and the construction of the instrument itself are strictly Japanese. It looks somewhat like a banjo, is made of wood covered with cat skin, and has three gut strings. The shamisen is played by striking the strings with a large plectrum.

When music is produced on the shamisen, the most important thing is not the sound of the instrument but the words for which the music provides the background. Without the words, the music has little meaning. It varies according to the meaning of the song. When words fail to express what is to be conveyed, such as the cold of falling snow or the trickling of a brook, the shamisen is used to "imitate" these things, and the story is told without words.

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