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Contextual Associations

The koto is a plucked board-zither chordophone of Japan. Initially its primary use was in imperial circles and at Buddhist temples as a part of the gagaku ensemble, in which it is still found today some 1,300 years later. For many centuries it was in favor with members of the aristocracy, but in the mid-15th century CE the privilege of playing and teaching this instrument was awarded to professional blind musicians (called todo) who, in turn, facilitated its introduction to the emergent merchantile class. During the artistically vibrant Edo period (1603-1868 CE) several stylistic schools (ryu) of koto playing were founded the performance practices and repertoires of which are still alive, especially those of the Ikuta-ryu (founded in the late 17th century) and the Yamada-ryu (late-18th century). In addition to the sokyoku (koto and vocal music) of this period chamber works for koto with other instruments were created (see Sankyoku Ensemble from Japan). Westernization during the early 20th century resulted in stylistic explorations that had been discouraged by the strictly organized schools of koto musicians, making it possible for Western-trained Japanese composers to write for the koto in new ways and even to design new versions of the instruments. Yet, in contemporary Japan, many everyday citizens have at one time or another in their lives studied the koto and its traditional repertoire under the auspices of one of the surviving koto-ryu.


The resonating chamber of the koto is constructed from two long boards of wood, preferably paulownia. The thick top board is carved so that it is convex both side-to-side and end-to-end (this becomes the instrument’s soundboard) and hollowed out on its bottom side to form the resonating cavity and sidewalls. Onto the inside surface of this board are carved tight straight grooves running the entire length of the resonator. Such surface patterning, called ayasugi, are said to enhance the tone quality of the instrument. The second, thinner board is nearly flat and includes two sound holes located near its ends. It is glued to the upper piece to enclose the resonating chamber. Two straight but arched ridge nuts are glued widthwise across the soundboard. The nut at the left end of the instrument, which is topped with a saddle made from a strip of plastic, has beneath it a block of wood that effectively marks the end of the resonating chamber at this end of the instrument. The nut at the other end has no such block beneath it. Thirteen synthetic (nylon or tetoron, traditionally silk) strings of equal length and thickness are stretched over the two fixed nut ridges. At the right end of the instrument each string passes through an eyelet and the soundboard, then through the soundhole and over the end of the resonator before being tied to itself with a knot that rests on the ridge-nut. At the left end each string again passes through an eyelet and the soundboard before being attached to a metal tuning peg anchored in the block of wood beneath the bridge. Each string’s general tension is adjusted with one of these tuning pegs, which are accessible through a hole (covered by an embroidered cloth end cap) in the left-hand end of the instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The koto is traditionally played on the floor, the playing end lifted a few inches off the ground with short legs or a rectangular box. The player kneels facing the side of the instrument near its left end (from the perspective of the image on this page). Before performance, the performer must tune the instrument by placing an inverted Y-shaped moveable plastic (traditionally wood or ivory) bridge called a ji under each string and adjusting the length of its left end segment to the desired pitch. The player wears plectra, called tsume, made from ivory, bone or plastic on the thumb and first two fingers of her or his right hand. With these, the segment of each string to the right of its ji (from the player’s perspective) is plucked. For the bulk of the sokyoku and sankyoku works composed between the 17th and early 20th centuries the koto is tuned to one or the other of a few non-tempered hemitonic pentatonic scales. The scale/mode used for the piece heard on the audio clip is called hira-joshi: G3 - A3 - B-flat3 - D4 - E-flat4 over a range from G3 to A5 (pitches are approximate). Notes other than these basic scale tones can be played by incorporating a left hand technique whereby the performer depresses a string a few inches to the left of its ji (from the player’s perspective) to increase that string’s tension. This results in a higher pitch when the playing segment of the string is plucked. The same technique can be used to produce portamento-like effects and vibrato.


The thirteen-string Chinese zheng of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) was introduced to Japan during the early Nara period (710-784 CE) and with only minor design changes became the koto. Since that time the koto has basically remained physically unchanged, although in the 20th century seventeen-, twenty-one-, and thirty-string models were developed to play contemporary repertoire.

Bibliographic Citations

Adriaansz, W. 1984. “Koto.” NGDMI v.2: 465-471.

de Ferranti, Hugh. 2000. Japanese Musical Instruments. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Flavin, Philip. 2008. “Sokyoku-jiuta: Edo-period chamber music.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. ed. Alison McQueen Tokita and David W. Hughes. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub. Company, pp. 169-195.

Onuki, Tosiko. 2002. "Sokyoku: Chamber Music for Koto." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 695-699.