A koto is a 13-string zither.
It is traditionally played on the floor.
What is a Koto?
The koto is a string instrument that originated in China and came to Japan in the 7th-8th century. The Japanese koto is a large instrument, about six feet long, consisting of a hollow body made from Paulownia wood (kiri). Underneath the body are two sound holes, one at each end. There are 13 strings which are tied over stationary bridges at each end of the body. The strings are the same size and same tension. A movable bridge, called a ji, is placed somewhere along the length of each string. The ji lift the strings off of the body so that they will resonate when plucked. The strings are tuned by sliding the movable bridges back and forth.
How a Koto is Played
The koto player sits at the top end of the instrument and plucks the strings in the area just to the left of the top bridge. The strings are plucked with three picks, called plectrums, which are attached to the thumb and first two fingers. The player can use their left hand to bend the strings in the area to the left of the ji. Pressing the strings toward the koto body causes them to go sharp (as much as 1 note), and pulling them towards the ji causes them to go slightly flat.
Koto Music and Scores
Koto music has evolved for centuries, and continues to change to this day. Originally koto scores were not written down. Many koto players were blind (koto playing was, for a time, an occupation reserved for blind people), and so writing down scores made no sense. As with many other crafts, the repertoire was maintined entirely by memory and passed down through apprenticeship.
Although music was not written down, the strings were named. The string names for the first ten strings are simply the numbers 1-10:
The last three strings are named:
Take a look at the tuning page to see the position of the player and the string names.
Japanese musical notation is different for each instrument. Koto scores use the Japanese characters for the numbers 1-10, and for to, i, and kin to indicate which string to hit. Scores are in tablature form, which means that the characters are written into a table. The table is read from the top to the bottom of each column starting at the right column and going to the left column. In addition to the characters for each string, a score contains marks to indicate which finger to use, the plucking technique (there are several), and whether to make the note sharp or flat. Columns might be divided into right- and left-hand sections, and they often show the words for singing. Adjacent columns may have more than one part.
Modern pieces are often written in standard Western notation (with some additions), and many contemporary players can use both.
Because of its long history, koto music has seen many changes. During the Heian period (794-1185) the koto was apparently played as a solo instrument in the court. As court life disappeared in subsequent times, koto music remained in the world of priests and noblemen. For a time, it was an official occupation for blind men, and was apparently limited to this group.
Vocal accompanyment to meditative music began to appear in the late 16th century, but its performance was limited to temples. Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685) began to play koto music outside of its formerly restricted audience. He invented new tunings for the koto and composed many new pieces. In fact, he is considered to be one of the greatest composers of koto music. After Yatsuhashi Kengyo, the koto was open not only to blind male professional musicians, but also became of interest to female members of well-to-do families.
Ikuta Kengyo (1666-1716) (Kengyo was the name once taken by prominent koto players) merged koto music with the tradition of the more popular, more widespread, and livelier shamisen (a lute-style instrument popular at the time in the entertainment districts of Japan). The Ikuta school (Ikuta ryu) stresses koto and shamisen ensemble music.