The biwa is a four stringed lute and it is approximately 106 cm long (42 inches). 




Four frets

Figure 1







Biwa’s back is flat

Biwa’s plectrum

Figure 2


Although shaped like its Western counterpart, its back is flat and it has a shallower body. The short neck has four raised frets, each one specifically assigned to one of the left hand finger. The strings are struck with a hand-held wooden plectrum.








The biwa sounds as written, and it is tuned to an A-430Hz. The strings are numbered from the lowest (first string) to the highest (fourth string). The tuning of the strings changes according to the piece’s mode and since the biwa’s pegs do not move smoothly, retuning the instrument requires time.

Biwa’s pegs


Figure 3



NAKAMURA Kahoru, the biwa player with whom we worked, told us that for a concert including pieces of two different modes she tunes two biwas before the concert. Figure 4 introduces the biwa’s six traditional tunings. The open strings are shown in the first measure and the pitches assigned the left-hand fingers in the follwong four measures. The interval between the pitches of the open string and first fret is a major second, while the interval between pitches on two adjacent frets is a minor second.



Biwa’s tunings

Figure 4

KAWASAKI Yoshihiro, one of the sound engineer with whom we worked explained to us that the biwa’s shallow body is first and foremost a bouncing board that sharply projects forward its sound. Hence the sound of the biwa is very strong at the attack but it has almost no resonance, and in that sense, its contribution to the overall sonority is more rhythmic than harmonic. In order to boost the volume of its sound the biwa player rarely attacks a single string but rather arpeggios of 2, 3, or 4 pitches, with one note per string. The stroking motion always starts from the 1st string, sequentially sweeping the others until it reaches the arpeggio’s last string.  Figure 5 shows examples of harmonic structures of, 2, 3, and 4 pitches in Ichikotsu-chô.




Arpeggios of 2, 3 and 4 notes

Figure  5

Figure 6 shows the spectral analyses of the arpeggio read at the attack and one second later.  It helps illustrate how little resonance the biwa produces since already after 1 second most of its sound energy is below the threshold of hearing.







At the attack










The biwa’s sound at the attack (top) at one second later (bottom)

Figure 6

Typically, the lowest notes of the arpeggios are opened strings while the highest one can either be a fingered pitch or an opened string. Exploiting the sound of the opened strings increases the overall sound’s volume, but it is possible to include a fingered pitch among the lower grace-notes but that pitch should preferably be chosen among those playable on the 4th fret. This is due to the fact that the space between the strings in the first three frets is so short that a fingered 1st fret on the 3rd string, for example, would damp the following 4th string, as shown on Figure 7. Finally, it is not custom to finger more than one pitch within a harmonic structure, so if a fingered pitch were to be included among the grace-notes, then the last pitch would need to be an opened string.



Little space between the strings on the first three frets causes obstruction when attacking an upper string

whose immediate lower string is fingered in one of the first three frets.

Figure 7


Traditional performance practices

Kakubachi: The performance of arpeggio with a downward motion of the plectrum, it is always loud. Moreover, it always starts from the 1st string and stops on either the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th string depending if the arpeggio contains 2, 3, or 4 pitches, respectively.

Kaeshibachi: The performance of arpeggio with an  up-ward motion of the plectrum, it is always soft. The method of holding the plectrum is different when performing kaeshibachi or kakubachi, consequently few seconds to allow the repositioning of the hand is required when using the two techniques in sequence. It always starts from the 4th string and stops on either the 3rd, 2nd, or 1st string depending if the arpeggio contains 2, 3, or 4 pitches, respectively.


Kakubachi in Ichikotsuchô

Kaeshibachi in Ichikotsuchô




Example 1

Waribachi: Downward sweeping of the four strings, dividing the motion into two groups of two notes. Each group can include either two open strings or one opened and one fingered string. Typically, the duration of each group subdivides the measure into two equal durations.

Kakisukashi: This is a three or four-note arpeggio with two strings in unison. Options are limited when considering that a fingered string between two open strings must be fingered on the 4th fret to avoid damping.


Waribachi in Ichikotsuchô

Kakisukashi in Ichikotsuchô



Example 2


Hazusu: This is a sequence of two pitches where the first one is attacked tied to the second one which is not attacked. Typically, the second pitch is fingered on the same string one or two frets lower than the first one. Traditionally,  the duration of each pitch subdivides the measure into two equal durations.

Tataku: This is similar to hazusu, except that this time, two non-struck pitches follow the struck one. Traditionally, the 2nd pitch either acts as a lower neighbor-tone or a descending passing tone. Typically, the three-note rhythm is either short-short-long or long-short-short.

In both cases, the sound of the non-struck pitches is not hearable when perform with the orchestra, but the gesture itself might help the biwa player keep time. Considering that the metronome marking of this music rarely exceeds the quarter-note at 54, and that the biwa plays mostly on the 1st beat of each measure, it is the authors’ impression that hazusu and/or tataku may help the biwa player keep time by providing material/action that cuts the duration of a measure in two, even if it cannot be heard. The exception is when hazusu or tataku are performed on the 4th string, in this case, the left hand fourth finger taps the string so that the un-attacked pitch or pitches can be somewhat heard.


Hazusu in Ichikotsuchô

Tataku in Ichikotsuchô



Example 3


Example 4 shows the basic melody of Etenraku's section B and C, and its rhythmic accompaniment. Its purpose is to show in context how the biwa uses its various patterns to color some melodic tones. The phrase structure is of four measures of four beats, and each section is composed of two phrases. The piece is in hyô-jô mode (E Aeolian) and the basic melody is centered on the pitches: E, B, and A, three of the four fundamental pitches of the Japanese modes. (For more information see chapter Theory/ Pitch).

Example 4 also shows the biwa's standard one-measure motive. It is an arpeggio always starting from the first string (the lowest) and swepping upwards to either the second, third or fourth string. Typically, the lower strings of the arpeggio are opened, as indicated with the '0' in Example 4, while the last string hit may either be opened or stopped. As a point of clarification, the highest and last pitch of the biwa's arpeggio is considered as its melodic pitch. The sole stroke motion used in this example is kakubachi, but it also includes examples of hazusu and tataku.

Example 4 shows that the biwa's melodic pitch doubles the basic melodic tone on the downbeat of almost every measure, except in measure 4 where the melodic tone 'E' is supported with a 'D' in the biwa's part. We speculate that being half-way in the section, the purpose of this clash may be to avoid a too strong feeling of cadence on the 'tonic E' since there is one more phrase to come before completing this section. Finally, measure 5 shows a rare instance where a melodic tone (F# in this case) is doubled on the second beat of the biwa's pattern.

The excerpt is performed by the ensemble Reigakusha.

The basic melody of Etenraku's section B and C and how it is articulated by the biwa

Example 4


New performance practices

Rubbing the strings: The plectrum is used to rub an opened string.




Example 5

Hitting the body of the instrument: The plectrum is used to hit the black protective part in the front of the instrument. The sound is totally different depending on where the instrument is hit, how the plectrum is held, and which part of the spectrum hit the surface. The biwa player with whom we worked, NAKAMURA Kahoru, improvised ten different realizations of this rhythm.




Example 6

Harmonics: The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics of each opened string can be performed by attacking the string with either the plectrum or the finger, in both cases, the overall sonority is quite soft.




Harmonics with fingers

Harmonics with plectrum

Example 7