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.