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A selection of biwa in a Japanese museum
Related instruments

The biwa (琵琶) is a Japanese short-necked fretted lute, often used in narrative storytelling. The biwa is the chosen instrument of Benten, goddess of music, eloquence, poetry, and education in Buddhism.

It arrived in Japan in two forms. Since that time, the number of biwa types has more than quadrupled. Guilds supporting biwa players, particularly the biwa hoshi, helped proliferate biwa musical development for hundreds of years. Biwa hōshi performances overlapped with performances by other biwa players many years before heikyoko and continued until today. This overlap resulted in a rapid evolution of the biwa and its usage and made it one of the most popular instruments in Japan.

Yet, in spite of its popularity, the Onin War and subsequent Warring States Period disrupted biwa teaching and decreased the number of proficient users. With the abolition of Todo in the Meiji period, biwa players lost their patronage.

Furthermore, reforms stemming from the Meiji Restoration led to massive, rapid industrialization and modernization. Japan modeled its development on Europe and the US, praising everything Western and condemning everything native. Traditions identifiably Japanese became associated with terms like backwards or primitive. Such associations even extended into areas like art and music, and the biwa.

By the late 1940s, the biwa, a thoroughly Japanese tradition, was nearly completely abandoned for Western instruments; however, thanks to collaborative efforts by Japanese musicians, interest in the biwa is being revived. Japanese and foreign musicians alike have begun embracing traditional Japanese instruments, particularly the biwa, in their compositions. While blind biwa singers no longer dominate the biwa, many performers continue to use the instrument in traditional and modern ways.


  • History 1
  • Types of biwa 2
    • Classic biwa 2.1
    • Middle and Edo biwa 2.2
    • Modern biwa 2.3
  • Biwa Style 3
  • Use in modern music 4
  • Recordings 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The biwa came to Japan in the 7th century and it was evolved from the Chinese instrument pipa,[1] while the pipa itself was derived from similar instruments in Western Asia. This type of biwa is called the gaku-biwa and was used in gagaku ensembles and is the most commonly known type. While the route is unclear, another type of biwa found its way to the Kyushu region, and this thin biwa (called mōsō-biwa or kōjin-biwa) was used in ceremonies and religious rites. Before long, as the Ritsuryō state collapsed, the court music musicians were faced with the reconstruction and sought asylum in Buddhist temples. There they assumed the role of Buddhist monks and encountered the mōsō-biwa. They incorporated the convenient aspects of mōsō-biwa, its small size and portability, into their large and heavy gaku-biwa, and created the heike-biwa, which, as indicated by its namesake, was used primarily for recitations of The Tale of the Heike.

Through the next several centuries, players of both traditions intersected frequently and developed new music styles and new instruments. By the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the heike-biwa had emerged as a popular instrument. The heike-biwa could be described as a cross between both the gaku-biwa and mōsō-biwa. It retained the rounded shape of the gaku-biwa and was played with a large plectrum like the mōsō-biwa. The heike biwa was also small, like the mōsō-biwa (actually smaller) and was used for similar purposes.

While the modern satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa both find their origin with the mōsō-biwa, the Satsuma biwa was used for moral and mental training by samurai of the Satsuma Domain during the Warring States period, and later in general performances. The Chikuzen biwa was used by Buddhist monks visiting private residences to perform memorial services, not only for Buddhist rites, but also for telling entertaining stories and news while accompanying themselves on the biwa, and this form of storytelling was thought to be spread in this way.

Not much seems to have been written about biwas from roughly the 16th century to the mid-19th century. What is known is that three main streams of biwa emerged during that time: zato (the lowest level of the state-controlled guild of blind biwa players), shifu (samurai style), and chofu (urban style). These styles emphasized 琵琶歌 (biwa-uta) — vocalization with biwa accompaniment — and formed the foundation for 江戸歌 (edo-uta) styles such as shinnai and kota [Allan Marett 103]. From these styles also emerged the two principal survivors of the biwa tradition: satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa [Waterhouse 156]. From roughly the Meiji Era (1868–1912) until the Pacific War, the satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa were popular across Japan, and, at the beginning of the Showa Era (1925–1989), the nishiki-biwa was created and gained popularity. Of the remaining biwa traditions, only higo-biwa remains a style almost solely performed by blind persons in the post-war era. The higo-biwa is closely related to the heike-biwa and, similarly, relies on an oral-narrative tradition focusing on wars and legends.

By the middle of the Meiji period (1868–1912), improvements had been made on the instruments and easily understandable songs were composed in quantity. In the beginning of the Taisho period (1912–1926), the Satsuma biwa was modified into the Nishiki biwa which was popular among female players at the time. With this the biwa met a great period of prosperity, and the songs themselves were not just about the Tale of the Heike but songs connected to the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War such as “Takeo Hirose”, “Hitachimaru”, “203 Hill” gained popularity. However, the playing of the biwa nearly became extinct during the Meiji period as Western music and instruments became popular, until players such as Tsuruta Kinshi and others revitalized the genre with modern playing styles and collaborations with Western composers.

Types of biwa

There are more than seven types of biwa, characterised by number of strings, sounds it could produce, type of plectrum, and their use. As the biwa does not play in tempered tuning, pitches are approximated to the nearest note.

Classic biwa

  • Gagaku-biwa (雅楽琵琶) - A large and heavy biwa with four strings and four frets used exclusively for gagaku. It produces distinctive Ichikotsuchō (壱越調) and Hyōjō (平調). Its plectrum is small and thin, often rounded, and made from a hard material such as boxwood or ivory. It is not used to accompany singing. Like the heike biwa, it is played held on its side, similar to a guitar, with the player sitting cross-legged. In gagaku, it is called gaku-biwa (楽琵琶).
  • Gogen-biwa (五絃琵琶) - This T'ang variant of biwa can be seen in paintings of court orchestras and was used in the context of gagaku, however was removed with the reforms and standardizations made to the court orchestra during the late 10th Century. It is assumed that the performance traditions died out by the 10th or 11th century (William P. Malm). This is instrument also disappeared in the Chinese court orchestras. Recently, this instrument, much like the Kugo harp has been revived for historically informed performances and historical reconstructions. Not to be confused with the five-stringed variants of modern biwa, such as Chikuzen biwa.
  • Mōsō-biwa (盲僧琵琶) - A biwa with four strings used to play Buddhist mantra and songs. It is similar in shape to the chikuzen-biwa, but with a much more narrow body. Its plectrum varies in both size and materials. The four fret type is tuned to E, B, E and A, and the five fret type is tuned to B, e, f and f. The six fret type is tuned to B, E, B and b.

Middle and Edo biwa

  • Heike-biwa (平家琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and five frets used to play Heike Monogatari. Its plectrum is slightly larger than that of the gagaku-biwa, but the instrument itself is much smaller, comparable to a chikuzen-biwa in size. It was originally used by traveling biwa minstrels, and its small size lent it to indoor play and improved portability. Its tuning is A, c, e, a or A, c-sharp, e, a.
  • Satsuma-biwa (薩摩琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four frets popularized during the Edo Period in Satsuma Province (present day Kagoshima) by Shimazu Nisshinsai. Modern biwas used for contemporary compositions often have five or more frets, and some have a doubled fourth string. The frets of the Satsuma biwa are raised 4 centimeters from the neck allowing notes to be bent several steps higher, each one producing the instrument's characteristic sawari, or buzzing drone. Its boxwood plectrum is much wider than others, often reaching widths of 25 centimeters or more. Its size and construction influences the sound of the instrument as the curved body is often struck percussively with the plectrum during play. The satsuma-biwa is traditionally made from Japanese mulberry, although other hard woods such as Japanese zelkova are sometimes used in its construction. Due to the slow growth of the Japanese mulberry, the wood must be taken from a tree at least 120 years old and dried for ten years before construction can begin. The strings are made of wound silk. Its tuning is A, E, A, B, for traditional biwa, G, G, c, g, or G, G, d, g for contemporary compositions, among other tunings, but these are only examples as the instrument is tuned to match the key of the player's voice. The first and second strings are generally tuned to the same note, with the 4th (or doubled 4th) string is tuned one octave higher. The most eminent 20th century satsuma-biwa performer was Tsuruta Kinshi, who developed her own version of the instrument, which she called the tsuruta-biwa. This biwa often has five strings (although it is essentially a 4-string instrument as the 5th string is a doubled 4th that are always played together) and five or more frets, and the construction of the tuning head and frets vary slightly. Ueda Junko and Tanaka Yukio, two of Tsuruta Kinshi's students, continue the tradition of the modern Satsuma biwa. Carlo Forlivesi's compositions Boethius (ボエティウス) and Nuove Musiche per Biwa (琵琶のための新曲) had both been written for performance on the Satsuma model of the biwa designed by Kinshi Tsuruta and Yukio Tanaka. "These works presents a radical departure from the compositional languages usually employed for such an instrument. Also, thanks to the possibility of relying on a level of virtuosity never before attempted in this specific repertory, the composer has sought the renewal of the acoustic and æsthetic profile of the biwa, bringing out the huge potential in the sound material: attacks and resonance, tempo (conceived not only in the chronometrical but also deliberately empathetical sense), chords, balance and dialogue (with the occasional use of two biwas in Nuove Musiche per Biwa), dynamics and colour."[2]
Plectra for the Chikuzen (left) and Satsuma biwas

Modern biwa

  • Chikuzen-biwa (筑前琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four frets or five strings and five frets popularized in the Meiji Period by Tachibana Satosada. Most contemporary performers use the five string version. Its plectrum is much smaller than that of the Satsuma biwa, usually about 13 centimeters in width, although its size, shape, and weight depends on the sex of the player. The plectrum is usually made from rosewood with boxwood or ivory tips for plucking the strings. The instrument itself also varies in size, depending on the player. Male players use biwas that are slightly wider and/or longer than those used by females or children. The body of the instrument is never struck with the plectrum during play, and the five string instrument is played upright, while the four string is played held on its side. The instrument is tuned to match the key of the singer. An example tuning of the four string version is B, e, f and b, and the five string instrument can be tuned to C, G, C, d and g. For the five string version, the first and third strings are tuned the same note, the second string down three steps down, the fifth string an octave higher than the second string, and the fourth string a step down from the fifth. So the previously mentioned tuning can be tuned down to B, F, B, c, d. Asahikai and Tachibanakai are the two major schools of Chikuzen biwa. Popularly used by female biwa players such as Uehara Mari.
  • Nishiki-biwa (錦琵琶) - A modern biwa with five strings and five frets popularized by Suitō Kinjō. Its plectrum is the same as that used for the Satsuma biwa. ts tuning is C, G, c, g, g.

Biwa Style

Generally speaking, biwa is considered one of Japan`s principal traditional instruments, and, as such, it has both influenced and been influenced by other traditional instruments and compositions throughout its long history in Japan. The following section will situate the biwa in the context of traditional Japanese music.

  • General Background on Music in Japan

The general term used for music in Japan is 音楽 (ongaku). 音 means sound or tone, and 楽 means music or enjoyment. Both characters together technically refer to all forms of music but, more recently, evoke images of modern (post-Pacific War) ensembles and compositions. Traditional music styles have their own designations.

  • 邦楽 Hōgaku - Japanese Traditional Music

Broken apart, 邦 means (home) country and, 楽 means music. The characters together are thought to be an abbreviation of the term 本邦音楽, which literally means “music of Japan.” The term Hogaku is also derived from 近世邦楽, which translates as “national music of modern times.” It is usually defined as traditional Japanese Music. Japan`s Ministry of Education classifies Hogaku as a category separate from other traditional forms of music, such as Gagaku (court music) or Shōmyō (Buddhist chanting), but most ethnomusicologists view Hogaku, in a broad sense, as the form from which the others were derived [Sosnoski 34]. Outside of ethnomusicology, however, Hogaku usually refers to Japanese music from around the 17th to mid 19th Centuries [Sugiura 1]. In Hogaku, musical instruments usually serve as accompaniments to vocal performances. Song dominates hogaku, and the overwhelming majority of hogaku compositions are vocal. In this context, the biwa was one of the prominent instruments [Dean 156].

Since雅 means elegance, Gagaku literally means elegant music and generally refers to musical instruments and music theory imported to Japan from China and Korea from 500-600 CE. Gagaku is divided into two main categories: Old Music and New Music. Old Music refers to music and musical compositions from before the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-906), and New Music refers to music and compositions produced during or after Tang, including music brought from various regions in China and Korea [Randel 339] [The International Shakuhachi Society].

Old and New Music are further divided into 左楽 (Music of the Left) and 右楽 (Music of the Right) Categories. 左楽 is composed of 唐楽 (music from Tang) and 林邑楽 (music from Indo-China). 右楽 is composed of 高麗楽 (music from Korea).

Gagaku was usually patronized by the imperial court or the shrines and temples. Gagaku ensembles were composed of string, wind, and percussion instruments, where string and wind instruments were more respected and percussion instruments were considered lesser instruments. Among the string instruments, the biwa seems to have been the most important instrument in gagaku orchestral performances [Garfias, Gradual Modifications of the Gagaku Tradition 16].

The two characters: 声 and 明 literally mean “voice” and “clear”. Shōmyō is a translation of the Sanskrit word, sabda-vidya, which means “the (linguistic) study of language”. Shōmyō is a kind of chanting of Buddhist scriptures syllabically or melismatically set to melodic phrasing, usually performed by a male chorus. It is said to have come to Japan in the early 9th Century [Randel 270].

While biwa was not used in shōmyō, the style of biwa singing is closely tied to shōmyō, especially mōsō and heike style biwa singing [Matisoff 36]. Both shōmyō and mōsō are rooted in Buddhist rituals and traditions. Before arriving in Japan, shōmyō was used in Indian Buddhist. The mōsō-biwa was also rooted in Indian Buddhism, and the heike-biwa, as a predecessor to the mōsō-biwa, was the principle instrument of the biwa hōshi, who were blind Buddhist priests.

  • Biwa Aesthetics

Generally speaking, biwas have four strings. That being said, modern satsuma and chikuzen biwas might have five strings. The first string is thickest and the fourth string is thinnest (the second string is the thickest on the chikuzen-biwa, and the fourth and fifth strings are the same thickness on five-stringed chikuzen and satsuma-biwas) [Minoru Miki 75]. The varying string thickness creates different timbres when stroked from different directions.

In biwa, tuning is not fixed. General tones and pitches can fluctuate up or down entire steps or microtones [Dean 157]. When singing in a chorus, biwa singers often stagger their entry and often sing through non-synchronized, heterophony accompaniment [Dean 149]. In solo performances, a biwa performer sings monophonically, with melismatic emphasis throughout the performance. These monophonic do not follow a set harmony. Instead biwa singers tend to sing with a flexible pitch without distinguishing soprano, alto, tenor, or bass roles. This singing style is complemented by the biwa, which biwa players use to produce short glissandi throughout the performance [Morton Feldman 181]. Biwa singing style tends to be nasal, particularly when singing vowels, the consonant , and notes containing “g” (e.g., , , , , , ぎゃ, ぎゅ, ぎょ). Also, biwa performers vary the volume of their voice between barely audible to very loud (rarely deafening). Since biwa performances were generally for small groups, singers did not need to project their voices as do opera singers in the Western tradition

Biwa music is based on a pentatonic scale (sometimes referred to as a five-tone or five-note scale), meaning that each octave contains five notes. This scale sometimes includes supplementary notes, but the core remains pentatonic. The rhythm in biwa performances allows for a broad flexibility of pulse. Songs are not always metered, although more modern collaborations are metered. Notes played on the biwa usually begin slow and thin and progress through gradual accelerations, increasing and decreasing tempo throughout the performance. The texture of biwa singing is often described as “sparse.”

The plectrum also contributes to the texture of biwa music. Different sized plectrums produced different textures; for example, the plectrum used on a moso-biwa was much larger than that used on a gaku-biwa, producing a harsher, more vigorous sound [Morley 51]. The plectrum is also critical to creating the sawari sound, which is particularly utilized with satsuma-biwas [Rossing 181]. What the plectrum is made of also changes the texture, with ivory and plastic plectrums creating a more resilient texture to the wooden plectrum`s twangy hum [Malm 215].

Use in modern music

Biwa usage in Japan has declined greatly since the Heian period. Outside influence, internal pressures, and socio-political turmoil redefined biwa patronage and biwa image; for example, the Onin War during the Muromachi period (1338–1573) and the subsequent Warring States period (15th-17th centuries) disrupted the cycle of tutelage for heikyoku performers. As a result, younger musicians turned to other instruments and interest in biwa music decreased. Even the biwa hoshi transitioned to other instruments such as the shamisen (a three stringed lute) [Gish 143].

Interest in the biwa revived during the Edo period (1600–1868) when Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan and established the Tokugawa Shogunate. Ieyasu favored biwa music and became a major patron. He helped strengthen biwa guilds (called Todo) by financing them and allowing them special privileges (142). Shamisen players and other musicians found it financially beneficial to switch to the biwa, and, as they crossed over, they brought new styles. The Edo period proved to be one of the most prolific and artistically creative periods for the biwa in its long history in Japan (143).

In 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed, giving way to the Meiji period and the Meiji Restoration. In Meiji, the samurai class was abolished, and the Todo lost their patronage. Biwa players no longer enjoyed special privileges and were forced to support themselves. At the beginning of Meiji (1868), it was estimated that there were at least one hundred traditional court musicians in Tokyo. Yet, by the 1930s, there were only forty-six traditional court musicians in Tokyo. A quarter of these musicians died in the war. Life in Post-war Japan was difficult, and many musicians abandoned their music in favor of more sustainable livelihoods [Garfias, Gradual Modifications of the Gagaku Tradition 18].

While many styles of biwa flourished in the early 1900s (e.g., Kindai-biwa from the 1900s-1930s), the cycle of tutelage was broken yet again. Currently, there are no direct means of studying biwa in many biwa traditions [Ferranti, Relations between Music and Text in "Higo Biwa"_ The "Nagashi" Pattern as a Text-MusicSystem 150]. Even higo-biwa players, who were quite popular in the early 20th century, may no longer have a direct means of studying oral composition, as the bearers of the tradition have either died or are no longer able to play. Kindai biwa still retains a significant number of professional and amateur practitioners, but zato, heike, and moso-biwa styles have all but died out [Tokita 83].

As biwa music declined in post-Pacific War Japan, many Japanese composers and musicians found ways to revitalize interest in it. They recognized that studies in music theory and music composition in Japan almost entirely consisted in Western theory and instruction. Beginning in the late 1960s, these musicians and composers began to incorporate Japanese music and Japanese instruments into their compositions; for example, one composer, Toru Takemitsu, collaborated with Western composers and compositions to include the distinctly Asian biwa. His well-received compositions such as November Steps, which incorporates biwa heikyoku with Western orchestral performance, revitalized interest in the biwa and sparked a series of collaborative efforts by other musician in genres ranging from jpop and enza to shin-hougaku and gendaigaku [Tonai 25].

Other musicians, such as Yamashika Yoshiyuki, who is considered by most ethnomusicologists to be the last of the biwa hoshi, preserved scores of songs that were almost lost forever. Yamashika, born in the late Meiji, continued the biwa hoshi tradition until his death in 1996. Beginning in the late sixties to the late eighties, composers and historians from all over the world visited Yamashika and recorded many of his songs. Up to that time, the biwa hoshi tradition of songs was completely an oral tradition. When Yamashika died in 1996, the era of the biwa hoshi tutelage died with him, but the music and genius of that era continues thanks to his recordings [Sanger].


See also


  1. ^ biwa from Britannica
  2. ^ ALM Records ALCD-76

External links

  • Introduction to the Hei-kyoku
  • Picture of Biwa school about 1900
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