What Is a Koto Instrument? (Explained)

Learn about the koto instrument, its unique construction, playing techniques, and the rich history behind this captivating Japanese musical treasure.

Ready to dive into the world of enchanting strings and mystical tunes? Let’s pluck the strings of curiosity and get to know one of the coolest traditional instruments – the koto! In this blog post, you’ll learn all about its unique construction, the captivating sound it produces, and the techniques used to play it. We’ll also talk about its rich history and cultural significance in Japan and how you can learn to play this mesmerizing instrument.

What is a koto instrument? The koto is a traditional Japanese stringed instrument known for its unique construction and captivating sound, which is often compared to a zither or a horizontal harp.

Why is the koto so special?

The koto stands out from other traditional instruments because of its unique design and the distinctive sound it produces. It typically has 13 strings, each with its own movable bridge, allowing for various tunings and pitches. It is crafted from a hollowed-out wooden body, often made of kiri (paulownia) wood.

Image of koto a japanese stringed instrument upclose. Source: wiki images
Image of koto a japanese stringed instrument upclose. Source: wiki images

As an example, consider the famous piece “Rokudan no Shirabe,” composed by the legendary Yatsuhashi Kengyo. The way the koto’s strings are plucked in this piece, combined with its unique construction, produces a sound that transports listeners to a serene Japanese garden, evoking images of cherry blossoms gently floating in the breeze.

While I might have mentioned the koto’s unique construction earlier, it’s essential to reiterate that it plays a significant role in setting it apart from other stringed instruments. Renowned musicians and experts in the field have praised the koto for its versatility and expressiveness, making it a revered instrument in traditional Japanese music.

As an outdoor enthusiast, I love exploring nature and new places. It was during a hiking trip in Japan when I first stumbled upon the enchanting world of the koto. I had just reached a quaint little tea house tucked away in the mountains, and as I sipped my matcha tea, I heard the most mesmerizing sounds.

The hostess explained that a local koto player was practicing nearby. Intrigued, I couldn’t resist the urge to learn more about this captivating instrument, and that’s how my journey into the world of the koto began.

My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is a koto instrument? (explained) | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What is the koto made of?

So, what’s the secret behind the koto’s captivating sound? It’s all in the construction and materials, my friends! As I mentioned earlier, the koto has a hollow wooden body, typically made from kiri (paulownia) wood. This choice of wood is crucial, as it’s lightweight yet strong, allowing the instrument to resonate deeply and produce those ethereal tones.

The koto’s 13 strings are traditionally made from silk, though some modern versions use synthetic materials like nylon or tetron. A movable bridge supports each string called a “ji.” The ability to adjust these bridges enables musicians to create various tunings and experiment with different tonalities.

One fantastic example of how koto construction and materials work together to create magic is in the piece “Tori no Yoni” by Michio Miyagi. The combination of the koto’s hollow wooden body, silk strings, and adjustable bridges creates a soundscape that evokes the fluttering of birds in flight.

Image of a japanese stringed instrument koto being played on the street source wiki images
Image of a japanese stringed instrument, koto, being played on the street. Source: wiki images

How is the koto played?

To master playing the koto, musicians use a combination of plucking, sliding, and muting techniques to create an incredible range of dynamics and expressions. Koto players typically wear finger picks called “tsume” on their right hand’s thumb, index, and middle fingers.

They use these picks to pluck the strings while their left hand is free to slide along the strings, altering the pitch and adding vibrato. In addition to plucking and sliding, koto players also use muting techniques by gently touching the strings to create a dampened or staccato effect.

One great example of koto playing techniques in action is the piece “Kumoijishi” by Yamase Shoin. In this piece, the musician utilizes various plucking, sliding, and muting techniques to create a dynamic soundscape. Mastering the koto is all about understanding and combining techniques to create a captivating musical experience!

Koto’s popularity in traditional Japanese music (2000-2020)

In this data table, we explore the popularity of the koto in traditional Japanese music from 2000 to 2020. The table presents the percentage of traditional Japanese music albums featuring koto as the main instrument, as well as the number of koto performances and workshops held annually in Japan during this period.

Year% of Albums Featuring KotoKoto PerformancesKoto Workshops
The popularity of the koto instrument in traditional Japanese music from 2000 to 2020

Advantages and disadvantages of playing the koto

Now that you’ve learned all about the koto, you might be interested in learning how to play this fascinating instrument. Learning how to play the koto can be a rewarding experience. Like any endeavor, it comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Let’s explore some of them below.

Advantages of playing the koto

Learning to play the koto offers several advantages that can enhance your musical journey:

  • Cultural Enrichment: The koto is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and learning to play it provides a unique opportunity to explore and appreciate traditional Japanese music.
  • Mindful Relaxation: Playing the koto requires concentration and focus, allowing you to enter a state of mindfulness and relaxation as you become immersed in the music.
  • Expressive Melodies: The koto’s versatile nature allows you to create beautiful and expressive melodies, evoking a wide range of emotions through its resonant tones.
  • Physical Coordination: Mastering the koto involves precise finger movements and coordination, improving your dexterity and fine motor skills.
  • Musical Understanding: By learning the koto, you gain a deeper understanding of music theory, as the instrument encompasses various playing techniques and scales.
  • Personal Creativity: Once you’ve acquired the foundational skills, the koto offers room for personal creativity, enabling you to compose and arrange your own music.
  • Community Connection: Joining koto classes or ensembles can introduce you to a supportive community of fellow musicians, fostering new friendships and shared musical experiences.

Like any musical instrument, mastering the koto takes time and consistent practice.

Disadvantages of playing the koto

While learning the koto can be a fulfilling pursuit, there are a few disadvantages to consider:

  • Initial Complexity: The koto has a unique playing technique involving plucking strings with picks and using movable bridges. This may pose a learning curve for beginners.
  • Physical Demands: Playing the koto requires good posture, as it is a large instrument that needs to be properly balanced on your knees. Maintaining a comfortable playing position may take some time to adjust to.
  • Cost and Availability: Acquiring a koto and its accessories can be a financial investment, especially if you’re looking for high-quality instruments. Additionally, finding koto instructors or classes may be challenging in certain regions outside of Japan.
  • Limited Repertoire: Compared to other popular instruments, the repertoire for the koto may be relatively niche, which means you might have fewer options for sheet music and performance opportunities.
  • Maintenance and Tuning: The koto requires regular maintenance, including string replacement, cleaning, and occasional tuning adjustments, which may require professional assistance.
  • Time Commitment: Like any musical instrument, mastering the koto takes time and consistent practice. Depending on your goals, you may need to allocate dedicated practice sessions to make progress.

Understanding both the advantages and disadvantages of learning the koto can help you make an informed decision about pursuing this fascinating instrument. Embrace the joys it offers while being mindful of the challenges, and enjoy your musical journey!

If you want even more tips and insights, watch this video called “The Koto (13 string Japanese traditional instrument)” from the Rob Scallon YouTube channel.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you still have questions about what a koto is? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions.

How long does it take to learn the koto?

The time it takes to learn the koto varies depending on the individual’s dedication and practice habits. Generally, it can take a few months to learn basic techniques, while becoming proficient may take several years. Like any instrument, consistent practice and commitment are key to mastering the koto.

Can I learn the koto outside of Japan?

Yes, you can learn the koto outside of Japan. Although resources may be more limited, there are koto teachers and workshops available in many countries. Online tutorials and video lessons have also made it easier to access koto instruction from anywhere in the world.

What is the price range for a koto instrument?

The price of a koto can vary widely, depending on the materials, craftsmanship, and quality. Beginners may find kotos in the range of $500 to $1,000, while professional-grade kotos can cost upwards of $5,000 or more.

Keep in mind that additional accessories, such as bridges, finger picks, and tuning devices, may add to the overall cost.


There you have it, fellow music lovers – a complete lowdown on the mesmerizing koto instrument! We hope this post struck the right chord with you and inspired you to explore the captivating world of traditional Japanese music.

Have I struck the right chord about the koto instrument? And did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below. I read and reply to every comment. If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend, and check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on the koto and other music topics. Thanks for reading, and happy plucking!

Key takeaways

This article covered the fascinating world of the koto instrument, a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument. Here are some key takeaways:

  • The koto is a 13-stringed instrument with a hollow wooden body and movable bridges.
  • The koto’s construction and materials contribute to its unique sound and versatility.
  • The koto’s playing techniques include plucking, sliding, and muting, which creates a wide range of expressions.
  • The popularity of the koto instrument in traditional Japanese music has increased over the past two decades.
  • Learning the koto comes with both advantages and disadvantages, which are important to consider before committing to the instrument.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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