The Koto


The koto is actually a member of the zither family but, since many people are not familiar with that instrument, it is usually referred to as a Japanese floor harp. It is approximately 6 feet long, one foot wide and two inches thick, with a slightly convex shape. It's made from two pieces of paulownia wood which have been cut lengthwise through the tree. The top piece is hollowed out in the shape of an upside-down U. It sits on a flat bottom piece, which makes the sounding board. In cheaper instruments, these two pieces are glued to each other and the top, curved piece has lengthwise carvings on its inside face. However, in more expensive kotos, the top and bottom pieces are specially cut to fit bevel-set into each other and the top piece is hand-carved in a herringbone pattern to enhance sound quality. Originally, koto strings were made of silk. Silk strings are still used occasionally in concerts, but only for very classical pieces. They have a muted sound and are extremely expensive and fragile. They may only last for a single performance. Nowadays, nylon or tetron strings are used instead. These are more durable and they give a bigger, brighter sound, which contemporary audiences prefer. The strings of the koto are balanced on moveable bridges. These bridges used to be made of wood but, as with the silk strings, wood produces a rather dull sound. Today, most bridges are made of some kind of plastic. The preferred bridges for expensive instruments are made of ivory, but since the ivory trade was stopped, a heavy, extremely high-quality plastic is often substituted. It was created to simulate ivory's particularly clear sound.


Tuning a koto is somewhat different from Western ideas of tuning an instrument. Pieces are not necessarily written in any particular key - the actual key will depend on what note you choose to set the first bridge. The choice of this note is determined by factors such as what other instrument one is playing with, what vocal range is required by the song being sung, etc. Once you have selected the note for the first string, there are instructions with each piece for setting the bridges in specific relationships to each other. These "tunings" are the approximate equivalents of our Western key signatures. In classical pieces, the tuning is often a pentatonic scale or a modified version of that scale. Since the bridges are not fixed, however, an infinite range of tunings is possible. In modern pieces, anything is used, from do-re-mi scales to special tunings invented by the composer for a particular piece or effect. The koto's harp-like sound is pleasant to listen to and combines easily with many other traditional and Western instruments.


The strings are plucked with three ivory picks worn on the thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand. In classical pieces, the left hand is usually only used to raise the pitch (by pressing on a string behind its bridge), to make grace notes or to physically move the bridges for key changes within the piece. In modern pieces, however, the left hand is also used for vibrato and to pluck the strings. Koto music is written using Japanese characters. The strings are numbered from one (lowest) to thirteen (highest) and the character assigned to each string indicates its number. So koto music is basically a play-by-number system. Generally, it is written from right to left and from top to bottom. However, there are some schools of koto where the Japanese characters are written left to right, simulating the feeling of reading Western music. And, of course, modern music being written today for the instrument often utilizes standard, Western 5-line notation.

Koto-related Resources

Books      CDs      Videos     

Books about koto and Japanese music
The Kumiuta and Danmono Traditions of Japanese Koto Music, Willem Adriaansz, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-01785-4

An absolute "must-have" for any serious koto teacher, player or researcher. This scholarly text contains some of the most detailed information available in English about koto. Contents include history of the instrument, specifics regarding koto construction in both Ikuta and Yamada styles, information on the various styles of koto notation, detailed descriptions of classical and modern techniques for both hands, details of the different koto tunings, the actual structure of danmono and kumiuta pieces, 5-line score + romanized song + song translation for a number of important kumiuta pieces, classification charts for all the pieces by tunings/number of songs/type of piece and a huge bibliography. Make every effort to own this.

Tegotomono - Music for the Japanese Koto, Bonnie C. Wade, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-8371-8908-X

A detailed study of the song-and-instrumental "tegotomono" pieces, including Western transcription of the pieces used, in both Ikuta and Yamada variants when available. Text also includes some discussion of techniques, tunings, etc., among other information. (The book's original incarnation was a thesis for Dr. Wade's M.A. degree.)

Anthology of Sokyoku and Jiuta Song Texts, compiled and translated by Gen'ichi Tsuge, Academia Music Ltd., ISBN 4-87017-017-5

An excellent resource for those studying these types of classical pieces. Each piece includes brief information about the song, its structure, and the story behind it. The Japanese text is transcribed into Romaji (Western alphabet) and an English translation of the song running alongside the transcription. At the back of the book, you will find all the song texts written in proper Japanese characters. This book is based on Yamada koto style and includes one section specific to that repertoire which performers of Ikuta style may find unfamiliar. However, the rest of the text contains almost all the major songs common to both koto styles. Since these koto song texts are also used in jiuta shamisen, this book is a great tool for performers of both instruments with respect to appreciating the song texts and the poetry upon which they are based.

East Asia: China, Japan and Korea: Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 7, edited by Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru , J. Lawrence Witzleben, ISBN: 0824060415

This volume of the encyclopedia covers the music of all the above countries, as well as a small amount of information on Inner Asia. Each country's section contains articles on: issues and processes, musical genres, music in society, and regional and minority music and issues. Comes with an audio CD containing samples of the various styles from each country. Japan is covered in Part 4 at almost three hundred pages.

Japanese Musical Instruments, Hugh de Ferranti, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-590500-8

A small book providing an overview of traditional instruments. The book includes literary references to musical instruments from sources that span the tenth to the twentieth centuries.

Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, William P. Malm, Kodansha International, ISBN 4770023952

Similar type of overview as above, although more detailed and with photos. Revised edition comes with CD.

The Traditional Music of Japan, Shigeo Kishibe, Ongaku no tomo sha Corp., ISBN 4-276-13301-7 C1073

Another overview of Japanese music, but focus is the instruments in their historical and cultural contexts.

The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan, Henry Johnson, Stylus Publishing LLC

If you're serious about koto, you want to have this book in your library. It examines the instrument's physical form, construction and instrument types, its performance traditions and social organizations, and its contexts of performance. Each aspect is explored in detail, providing ways of understanding the place of this traditional instrument in contemporary Japan. Well-illustrated, and the first book in English to examine the koto in such depth.


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CDs - where to find them online

If you read Japanese or can find someone to read it to you, the absolutely number one source for koto music anywhere on the Internet to date is Tokyo's Hogaku Journal website. Here you'll find recordings of any style of music performed on traditional Japanese instruments and recordings of traditional Japanese music performed on any instrument. Over 1000 CDs available and the list just keeps growing, with most recordings involving koto.

Hogaku Journal

Chords Canada stocks a good selection of traditional and contemporary koto CDs. They stock other hogaku recordings as well and ship globally. Click the Audio/Visual link on their nagivation bar.

Chords Canada

Far Side Music has a good selection of traditional, contemporary and avant-garde koto discs. Search for keyword "koto". Most selections have audio clips to sample before you buy.

Far Side Music

Amazon used to have a fair number of koto recordings, but in the last year or so, they seem to be out of stock on most of them. However, if you want to check out their Japanese offerings to see what was in their catalogue, it'll give you something to look forward to once they sort their stock situation out.

Search for keyword "koto". Most selections have audio clips to sample before you buy.
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Koto videos

Without question, YouTube has probably the largest selection of koto videos out there. Hours of listening and watching pleasure!


The Kennedy Centre Millennium Stage in New York has archives of past performances. There are about half a dozen koto ensemble performances in the archives. Go to the Millenium Stage site and then use searchword "koto". They run about an hour each.

Millenium Stage

The Koto