The koto is a thirteen-string zither of approximately 190 cm long and 25 cm wide (75 inches long and 10 inches wide)




Figure 1



The koto sounds as written, and it is tuned to an A-430Hz. The strings are numbered from the lowest (first string, the outer one to the highest (thirteenth string, the inner one and closest to the musician).

Tuning is accomplished by changing the position of the movable bridges under the strings, which are plucked with plectra placed on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the musician's right hand. 

The Yamada plectra (with rounded tip) are used in the performance of gagaku music conversely to the Ikuta plectra (squared tip) used when performing solo music, among others. The Yamada plectra are ineffective to play tremolos. In the past, the left hand used to pull and push on the strings thereby changing the pitch of the sounds produced, but this technique is no more used in traditional repertoire.

Koto-Playing Position.jpg


Yamada plectra

The left hand does not control the strings' pitch

Figure 2

Figure 3


Figure 4 introduces the koto's seven traditional tunings. It shows that there are two possible ways to tune the 6th and 11th strings of the hyojô and banshikichô modes: C# or D for the former and G# or A for the latter. But in the end, these two strings will be an octave apart, meaning that the chosen pitch apply to both strings.



Koto's tuning

Figure 4

Although the sound of the koto resonates more than the biwa's, three observations must be made about it:

1- The plucking position of the right fingers is as close as possible to the bridge to ensure maximum volume.

2- There is a difference in the sound quality between the attack of the thumb and the other two fingers. The thumb attacks the string by pushing it up while the two other fingers attack the string by pushing it down, and because there is more strength in a downward motion, the attack of the two fingers is stronger than the thumb's attack.




Position of the right hand and the downward plucking motion of the index and middle finger

Upward plucking motion of the thumb

Figure 5

Figure 6


Figure 7 shows the spectra of a D4 played ff plucked with the middle finger (in blue) and the thumb (in red). It shows that the sound quality of a pitch attack by the middle finger is richer than when attacked by the thumb.


Comparison of the sound quality of a D4 when attacked with the middle finger (in  blue) and the thumb (in red)

Figure 7

3- As seen below under 'Traditional performance practics', most of the koto's melodic patterns involve the octave, not only because it falls well under the hand since this is the span covered by the thumb and the middle finger, but also because it provides maximum resonance.


Traditional performance practices

The koto has two types of patterns: metrical and non-metrical patterns.


I.    Metrical patterns

Most metrical patterns are two-measure long. There are two basic patterns that fit this category: Shizugaki and Hayagaki  (The examples are in the Ichikotsuchô mode (D mixolydian))

a. Shizugaki starts its rhythmic activity on the 2nd beat of the first measure

b.Hayagaki starts its rhythmic activity on the 1st beat of the first measure









1 = R.H. Thumb, 2 = R.H. Index, 3 = R.H. Middle finger.

Example 1


These patterns can be transposed on any pitches from the mode, but the fingerings and the string sequences remain the same. Because of the modes' idiosyncratic tunings such transpositions do not always generate the same intervallic sequences, as illustrated in Example 2 which is a transposition of Example 1.






Shizugaki transposed

Hayagaki transposed

Example 2



There are various techniques to embellish and vary these basic patterns, such as, among others: use of grace notes, kozume, sawaru, and ren:

a. Grace-note: The pitch of the 2nd beat of the first measure of the shizugaki pattern is emphasized in three ways: First, this pitch is accentuated with a strong attack of the middle finger, second, it is repeated one octave higher on the third beat, and third, this last pitch which is the highest one in the melodic pattern, is preceded by a grace-note that has the effect of accentuating it.


Grace-note variation of Shizugaki



Example 3



b. Kozume : This is a special type of attack from the thumb flicking the string from under. The resulting sound is softer than the usual thumb's attack from above. When used with the shizugaki pattern it appears on the 1st beat of the 2nd measure. When used with the hayagaki pattern it can either appear on the 3rd beat of the first measure (like in Example 1) or on the 1st beat of the 2nd measure (Example 4).



Shizugaki with kozume

Hayagaki with kozume




Example 4


c. Sawaru : This is a soft attack of the thumb of the 4th beat on the first measure. It is used with both patterns. The thumb attack is the standard one. Here is an example from the work Shukôshi in Sôjô (G mixolydian) mode with the shizugaki pattern.


Shizugaki pattern with sawaru


Example from Shukôshi in Sôjô mode
Example 5


d. Ren : Glissando performed by the thumb, it can be used with both patterns. It is most often used as a group of four thirty-second notes on the up-beat of the 2nd beat of the 1st measure leading to the 3rd beat as shown in the example.


Hayagaki with ren


Example 6

e. Musubute : This is a three measure pattern used only in three works: Bairo, Somakusha, and Manzairaku. The first measure of the pattern introduces a special technique of the thumb called kaeshizume.


f. Kaeshizume : This is a sequence of attacks from under the strings by the thumb. This technique is not exclusive to the Musubute pattern, it can be used with the shizugaki and hayagaki patterns, in which case it appears as two eighth-notes on the 4th beat of the 1st measure.

Musubute (kaeshizume is used in the first measure of this example)


Excerpt from Bairo in Hyôjo mode
Example 7



Example 8 shows the basic melody of Etenraku's section B and C, and its rhythmic accompaniment. Its purpose is to show in

context how the koto uses its various patterns to color a melody. 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 modal system. (For more information see the chapter: Theory/Pitch).


Example 8 also shows the koto's standard two-measure motive, this one based exclusively on shizugaki + kozume. It is used to

double some melodic tones. As a point of clarification, the melodic tone supported in the first measure of the koto's pattern appears

on the second beat of the measure. The pitch in the second measure of the koto's pattern either doubles the melodic tone in

rhythmic phase as in measure 6 and 12, or it can anticipate it as in measure 2, or follow it as in measure 14.


Note in the measure 4 how the melodic tone 'E' is supported by a 'D' in the koto'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 one more phrase is needed

to complete this section.


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 koto

Example 8





II. Non-metrical patterns

Typical unmeasured sections in gagaku music include among others the netori and the "coda" (the end of piece) of most works. The netori is a very short piece played in free rhythm just before the performance of Kangen. It allows the instruments to tune to the shô and adjust to the mode. The koto has two patterns that it uses exclusively in these sections.

a. Sugagaki : This pattern can be played in the coda or in the netori of the Taishikichô mode. Its melodic shape can be transposed on any pitches of the mode. It has several rhythmic variations including one where the four pitches all have the same durations.






Example 9

b.Tsumu : This is a pattern used exclusively in the netori. Moreover over it is exclusive to the modes that have scale degree 5 and 1 on their 5th and 7th strings, respectively.  Consequently it is only used in the netori of the following modes:  Hyô-jô, Taishiki-chô, Banshiki-chô, Sui-chô, and   Oshiki-chô. The 5th and 7th strings are plucked together by the thumb and middle finger with the hand positioned slightly away from the bridge producing a rather soft sound. Most probably the function of tsumu is to help with the tuning process of the netori since the koto's sound is the most resonating of the two string instruments, and that this pattern emphasizes the two most important pitches of a mode: its tonic and dominant.


Tsumu in Oshiki-chô

Example 10


Tsumu is always part of an unmeasured melodic/harmonic line. Example 11 shows a rhythmic and melodic approximation of a koto part for a netori in Oshiki-chô.





Koto part for a netori in Oshiki-chô.

Example 11