Composing for shakuhachi

This is a guide for composers who want to write for shakuhachi. There are many styles of shakuhachi as well as different forms of shakuhachi construction. These may affect the type of piece suitable for the performer.

Shakuhachi range

The standard size shakuhachi is pitched in D above middle C. It has a range of nearly three octaves. However, the following should be noted:

The other standard sizes are the 1.6 shakuhachi (pitched in E above middle C) and 2.4 shakuhachi (pitched in A below middle C). Some performers use other sizes from 1.3 (pitched in G above middle C) to 3.0 (pitched in F below middle C) or longer.

The shakuhachi can play any type of scale or arpeggio (but not too fast due to a mixture of partially covered holes). The miyako scale or a version of it is used in much of the traditional repertoire.

Japanese musical aesthetics

Pieces may be written in any style. However, composers may wish to borrow or interpret Japanese musical idioms or aesthetics:

Japanese rhythm representation

Shakuhachi timbre

The shakuhachi is unique in the variation of timbre within a single tone. There are various ways to vary the timbre:

Technique Description Sound file
Fingering Most pitches can be played used a variety of fingerings. Each has a different timbre. This is illustrated on the acoustical comparison of fingerings page.
Vibrato There are various types illustrated on the shakuhachi vibrato comparison page. These can be specified within a piece or left to the discretion of the performer.
  • Tonguing is not usually used as part of the traditional repertoire but can be specified. Repeated notes are normally articulated by opening and closing a hole.
  • The beginning of notes are often articulated with a finger hit or atari: This form of ornamentation is very typical of honkyoku. It can be notated using grace notes.
Click on this icon to hear or download the sound file
Pitch Pitch oscillation is a feature of traditional honkyoku repertoire. The shakuhachi player can lower the pitch by a tone or semitone or raise by up to a tone by changing the head position. Glissando are also available between neighbouring pitches. The pitch can be displayed using wavy lines.
Breath sounds The breath is the distinguishing characteristic of shakuhachi and can be used in many ways:
  • Muraiki
  • Wind tones
  • Blowing into the shakuhachi in an unconventional way (blow into the wrong hole).
Extended shakuhachi techniques Anything is possible! Here are some common examples of shakuhachi extended techniques.

Other possibilities include the following:

  • Strongly hitting the finger hole or base of shakuhachi for a percussive effect.
  • Singing while playing.
Multiphonics The multiphonics available depend on the instrument of the performer.

Shakuhachi notation

Each school of shakuhachi uses a different version of notation using Japanese characters. Composers can use western notation using lines and marks to illustrate pitch fluctuations, finger hits and special effects.

Final thoughts

The shakuhachi is famed for the variation of timbre within a single tone. Many of the most effective compositions for shakuhachi utilise the unique timbral tone of the shakuhachi through single tones. Even though a skilled performer can play many note sequences fast, this not does make the best use of the instrument. A piece that only uses special effects runs the risk of losing out on the depth of expression available within a single tone.

Contemporary shakuhachi recordings

Composing for shakuhachi reading list

Contemporary Music review 8/2: Flute and shakuhachi

Composing for shakuhachi online resources

Composers and shakuhachi scores and CDs

Please contact me if you have any questions about composing for shakuhachi or would be interested in seeing your piece performed in Ireland.