If there was one instrument I would love to learn how to play, it would be the koto.

The koto is to Japanese society what the piano is to Western societies. The instrument has thirteen silk or nylon strings, each with a movable bridge, stretched over a hollow sound board that is about 6 feet long. The strings are plucked with ivory plectra worn on your thumb, index finger, and middle finger. The koto player can also strike and scrape the plectra on the strings to produce different tone colors and other effects. Sometimes a finger will waver on the strings to make a tremolo effect.

Most of the koto masterpieces – usually solos like this one – are from the Edo period (1615 – 1868). This is when Japan isolated itself from foreign cultures and developed new kinds of art, like Kabuki theater and color woodblock prints. This incubation period gave time to change the cultural ideas and inventions that it had received from China: the koto was something Japan gained through trade with China. Edo period koto-playing was mostly for entertainment rather than religion and aristocratic events as was the case in the preceding periods. Blind musicians became really good at playing the koto and began forming their own special guilds. Someone who was considered a master of the koto was known as a kengyo. Japanese musicians mastered koto-playing.

The most famous kengyo in Japanese culture of all time is Yatsuhashi Kengyo, whose most famous piece is known as Rokudan. Rokudan uses a specific kind of koto music style that is known for “themes” and “variations” – called danmono. The theme is presented in the first section of the piece. Then, in all the other sections there are variations of that theme, each time speeding up the tempo. Rokudan has six sections. This is what it sounds like:

When the koto is part of a chamber ensemble, no instrument is supposed to outshine the others. They are supposed to blend together without losing any individual qualities. The heterophonic texture, as it’s called, has a very mellow sound to it. Sometimes, however, when the individual instruments start drifting off in different directions, they start to create a polyphonic texture.

Ebay – 21-stringed Guzheng, a Chinese zither koto harp: $250.00. hmmm.