4 Traditional Instruments Commonly Used by Geisha

  • Besides other traditional arts like poetry writing and reciting, flower arrangement, tea ceremony and calligraphy, geisha are also expected to be adept at elegant song and dance. They were trained musicians and artists who brought refined and tasteful entertainment to clients.

    1. Shamisen 三味線

    The shamisen, an Okinawan string instrument similar to a small-bodied guitar, was initiated into the geisha world in the 18th century. It was first brought from China in the 16th century. As the name suggests, it has 3 strings and is plucked or strummed with a relatively big wooden plectrum called a bachi 撥. Ever wondered why traditional Japanese music always sounds so morose and wistful, dripping with melancholy? It is because only minor 3rds and 6ths are used; majors have the opposite effect and sound vivaciously brighter and livelier. A geisha practices the style of short song, kouta 小唄 since her maiko days, taking years to master it. The style of song used in other forms of theater like bunraku 文楽 or kabuki 歌舞伎 is nagauta 長唄, or long song, and sounds much more robust in contrast to the delicate geisha music.

    2. Koto 箏

    The koto is the national instrument of Japan, and has 2 variants: the 13 string and the 17 string. These strings are held taut by bridges that may be moved when tuning the instrument. The plectra are finger picks, worn on the thumb, index and middle fingers. It is also of Chinese origin, dating back to the 7th century. The geisha looks exquisite kneeling while playing the koto. Their allure, wit and seemingly carefree spirit are juxtaposed against the melancholy of the music. It is no wonder that men are so enamored.

    3. Shakuhachi 尺八

    The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute that came around the same time as the koto, but was revived in the Edo era. It is also used by Zen Buddhist monks in meditation, known as suizen 吹禅. It has 4 holes on the front and one of the back, and resonates with feelings of solitude and tranquility when played. A shaku 尺 is a unit of measure equal to 30.3cm, and one-tenth of a shaku is a sun 寸. The shakuhachi’s name is derived from its length: 1 shaku and 8 sun.

    4. Tsuzumi 鼓

    The tsuzumi, or shouko, has Chinese and Indian origins, and looks much like a tribal drum. It has an hourglass body and 2 drumheads with adjustable cords that may be used to compress the drumheads to alter the pitch while playing. It is also used in other forms of Japanese theater, as well as in folk music called min-you 民謡. The lower pitched small tsuzumi is played on the shoulder, as opposed to the big tsuzumi, which is played on the side.

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