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Japan’s National Instrument, the Koto
The Koto is a traditional 13 stringed harp like instrument, and the national instrument of Japan.
Koto average 180 cm in length and are made from kiri, the wood of the paulownia tree. Although
the long, koto bodies with a slightly curved top are kept relatively plain, some koto are decorated
with inlay of tortoise shell, ivory, ebony or even metal work. The head of the koto to the left of the
player, is covered in a colourful fabric shell, and resembles a dragons’ head, hence its name.
The koto are played using the thumb, index finger and middle finger to pluck the strings. Adjustable
bridges made of ivory, wood or even plastic called ji support the strings and affect pitch according to
placement. Strings are currently made of manufactured fibers such as nylon, however, traditionally silk
was used. Silk strings are more expensive and not as durable as modern strings, however according to
koto players, they do produce a better sound.
Koto were a popular instrument among the nobility having been introduced via China in the 7th century.
Solo pieces for the stringed instrument have existed for centuries too. Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685)
was a blind musician who had a great influence on the music of the koto, changing the tuning used in
traditional court music or gagaku, to create a new style of music called Kumi-uta that remains popular to
this day. Yatsuhashi also added songs to the koto repertoire increasing it from the classical six. Koto
continue to be developed to this day, with recent introductions of a 17 string bass koto, 20, 21 and even
25 string kotos and music for these instruments have been created.
The sound of the koto was considered romantic, and appears often in classical Japanese literature.
In the classic Genji Monogatari, (The Tales Of Genji) the hero Genji falls in love with a woman he has
never seen, simply by listening to her playing the koto.
Koto are a classical instrument, but have been used in modern music by Japanese and foreign artists
alike. The Rolling Stones 1966 album Aftermath featured member Brian Jones playing a koto on the
song “ Take It Or Leave It ”, while David Bowie used a koto for his instrumental piece, “ Moss Garden ”
on the 1977 Heroes album. In 1981, British band A Taste Of Honey’s Hazel Payne played koto on their
hit cover version of the Japanese song, Sukiyaki. Rock band Queen, rapper Dr. Dre and Mr. Big’s Paul
Gilbert have all used koto in their music.
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