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What is a Koto?

The koto is made of Paulownia wood, is about six feet long and ten inches wide, and has thirteen strings of equal size and tension.  A bridge is placed under each string.  Moving the bridge up or down results in an infinite range of tunings.  The strings are plucked with plectra worn on the thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand.  Various modifications of sound are made by pressing or pulling the strings with the left hand.  In all, there are seventeen different playing techniques for the right hand and eight for the left hand.  The koto is of Chinese origin and was introduced to Japan around the sixth century, and was originally used exclusively by the Imperial Court.  By the 17th century, its use became widespread and was enjoyed especially when accompanied by voice, shamisen, or shakuhachi.

The Bass Koto, or Jushichigen, is a modern invention by the blind koto master Miyagi Michio, who introduced it in 1921.  Also made from paulownia wood, it is larger and heavier than the koto.  With seventeen thicker strings, it produces sounds two to three octaves lower than the koto.  The addition of bass koto accompaniment to many contemporary compositions has brought a new dimension to koto music.

The Koto is normally tuned to a pentatonic, or five tone scale.  The basic tuning, called 'Hira Joshi', corresponds to the notes shown below.  There are a number of variations to the basic tuning - each music selection will be tuned according to the basic key of that piece.