Asian Instrument Collection in the Beckwith Music Library

Asian Instrument Collection in the Beckwith Music Library

The reading room of the Beckwith Music Library in Gibson Hall is adorned with instruments from the Department of Music’s Asian Instrument Collection. On occasion we will highlight one of instruments in the collection. We hope you will stop by to view the instruments and to take some time learn more about these distinctive instruments. Other instruments from the Department’s collection can be viewed in the Gibson lounge on the 1st floor.

The Koto

The Koto
The Koto

The Koto is a member of the long zither or rectangular zither family of instruments. It most likely originated in China and was introduced in Japan around the start of the Nara period (710-784). In modern times, it has been considered the Japan’s national instrument. The term koto was originally used for any horizontally plucked instruments, but later referred to the 13 silk or nylon string instrument, similar to the one in the Music Library. Each string is of equal length and the pitch is altered by adjusting a movable bridge under each string. Modern instruments are often made of two pieces of wood from the paulownia tree, a deciduous tree with large heart-shaped leaves. One piece of the paulownia wood is hollowed out to form the top, or sound box, and the second is a plank that covers the bottom.

To play the instrument, it is placed either on the ground, table, flat surface, or stand. The player uses three plectra, or picks, attached to three fingers of the right hand. The left hand dampens and adjusts the pitch of strings by pushing the string down behind the bridges.

Historically, in Japan the koto has been associated with a variety of social and cultural contexts, including performances in formal courts, an instrument for visually-challenged men, and an important component in the education and upbringing of girls and women. The koto first appeared in Japan as an imperial court instrument in the eighth century. It was later used for ceremonial, religious, and formal occasions and as a household instrument in the imperial court. Various styles, traditions, forms, and “schools” of koto playing have developed throughout Japan. The koto was used as both a solo instrument and as part of an ensemble of other traditional instruments.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614–1685), a visually-challenged professional musician in the seventeenth century (Edo period) is credited with the performance traditions of today. Visually-challenged musicians, or Todo, were responsible for spreading koto music, first to the merchant class and later to the high-ranking families, daughters of samurai, and religious institutions throughout the country.

Although visually-challenged men dominated koto performance, there is much iconographical evidence of women performing on the koto in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Around the turn of the twentieth century koto lessons were incorporated both in girls’ formal school curricula and in geisha training. Today women dominate the koto performance world-wide in both traditional and popular music. Master performers in Japan, include Kazue Sawai, and Michiyo Yagi, and in the United States, Masayo Ishigure and Yukiko Matsuyama.

Around the turn of the twentieth century koto music was influenced by western music. Miyagi Michio (1894-1956) an important koto performer, composer, and teacher in the early twentieth century began incorporating western music styles into his compositions. He also experimented with koto construction by creating larger instruments with between 17 and 80 strings. Michio’s 17-string “bass” koto is commonly used today.

Koto and koto-influenced music has also been incorporated into western art, jazz and popular music. In the 1960’s and 70’s rock musicians and musicians, such as David Bowie, Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, and Queen included the koto in their songs. Hiroshima, an East-meets- West jazz fusion group founded in the mid-1970s uses the koto as one of the main instruments in the band. The koto also influenced the jazz music of Quincy Jones, Pharaoh Sanders, and Dave Brubeck.

Contemporary composers from the United States were also intrigued by koto. Henry Cowell (1897-1965) composed a trio for kotos and a concerto koto and orchestra; Neil McKay (b. 1924) has written a concerto, solo music, chamber music and a work with chorus; David Loeb (b. 1939) has written a number of chamber and solo works for koto; and, Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) wrote sonatas and orchestral works that include the koto.

For more information about the koto, and music and recordings of the koto “check out” the following materials in the Music or Hawthorne-Longfellow Library:

Books and Encyclopedia articles

Adriaansz, W. "Koto,"in Grove Music Online (also in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)
   (Online access restricted to Bowdoin users)

Johnson, Henry. The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan (Main ML1015 .K68 J647 2004)
   This is a beautifully illustrated book devoted to the koto

Malm, William P. Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments (Main ML340 .M3 2000)
   Accompanying CD (Music CD Ethno 3112)

Marcuse, Sibyl. Musical Instruments (Main ML102 I5 M37 1975)

Wade, Bonnie C. Music in Japan: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Main ML340 .W22 2005)

Sôkyoku: Chamber Music for Koto,” in Garland Encyclopedia of World Music
   (Online access restricted to Bowdoin users)


McKay, Neil. World(s): Three Pieces for Solo Koto or Harp (Music M142.K6 M3)

Sound Recordings

The Art of the Japanese Koto, Shakuhachi and Shamisen : A Selection of Old and New Japanese Chamber Music (CD Ethno 2413)

Japan: Traditional Vocal & Instrumental Music (CD Ethno 3572)

The Soul of the Koto / master musicians of the Ikuta-Ryu (CD Ethno 2410)

Quincy plays for pussycats / Quincy Jones and his orchestra
   (Online access restricted to Bowdoin users)

Many other recordings of koto music can be found in our jazz, world music, and classical audio streaming services available to Bowdoin users

Video Recordings

Discovering the Music of Japan (Music DVD ML3750 .D57 2004)

Four wonderful videos devoted to the koto can be found in our Films on Demand video streaming service available to Bowdoin users ; many videos, including videos of the contemporary performers mentioned above, can also be found on YouTube.