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These notes were written as a resource for the AUDIOWORKS project in Cornwall, 2005. The project was organised by Derek Kitt, Music Advisor for Cornwall, and was funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music and supported by other partners including the National Trust, Creative Partnerships and Plymouth Music Zone.

The aim of the project was to give budding teenage composers the chance to work with professional composers and instrumentalists. I was asked to lead a group of 14 -19 year olds in a series of seminars and tutorials, leading to performances of their newly created compositions by an ensemble of professional musicians playing a variety of Western and Japanese instruments.


Music is a universal language, in the sense that every community in the world has music at its heart. And every community has a number of composers living in its midst, who specialise in creating new music. Each culture develops its own instruments, scales, rhythms and performance techniques, which these composers draw upon. But in every culture across the world we will find wind, strings and percussion instruments, playing together in various combinations.

As 21st century composers in the UK we often have the chance to incorporate some of these different instruments from around the world in our work.  Of course we don’t have to imitate “ethnic” music in our compositions, and we can feel free to write for the instruments how we like, but learning something of the traditional music of another culture is usually inspirational for a composer, and it’s very important to understand how any new instrument works and sounds best. Spending time with a good instrumentalist to experiment, learn and collaborate is a bonus for any composer.

The word “compose” literally means, “put together”. When we put sounds together we create music. There are of course infinite ways in which sounds can be put together – that’s what keeps us composers going!  But where do these initial sounds come from? Sometimes a composer might be inspired by natural sounds like birdsong or breaking waves to create a piece of music, other times it might be a visual image like a bird flying across the sky or a sunset. Sometimes the initial impulse will be a strong feeling, like love or heartbreak. Other times the starting point will be other musicians or dancers who might ask us to write new music for them.

Sometimes we can hear a melody, or even a whole piece, inside our head. Other times we might have just a fragment of a melody or a rhythmical idea, which we can gradually develop, expand, add other parts to, and build the piece slowly.  Often we have a strong impulse to write music, but the actual musical ideas are not flowing at all. In fact if you are writing music on a regular basis there will be many times when you feel empty of inspiration, and find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper not knowing what to do next.  But these moments are an important part of the creative process, and unexpected inspiration is usually waiting around the corner.

Keep a record of all your notes and musical sketches.  You never know when a particular idea might come in useful. Sometimes you might work for a long time on a melodic idea, only to come to the conclusion that the first idea you had was the best…so keep all your notes as you go along. You may also find that rejected ideas can be used in later pieces.

It’s a good idea to start this workbook notebook by making a list of the instruments, their pitch ranges and other basic information about the ensemble.


Some questions you might ask yourself when writing for an unfamiliar instrument:

  • How high and how low can it play?
  • How loud or soft can it play?
  • What kind of scales does it normally play?
  • What are its unique sound qualities?
  • How does it articulate sounds, and what different tonal sounds can it make?
  • What is most characteristic about the traditional music of the instrument?
  • How does it compare and contrast with the other instruments in the ensemble?
  • What kind of musical notation will work best for this instrument?


Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute with an ancient history stretching back more than 1,500 years. It was originally played by wandering Buddhist monks, who developed a repertoire of meditative solo pieces. They also developed a unique way of phrasing and ornamenting a melodic line.  This way of playing is sometimes called “a universe within a single note”. It makes use of many subtle ornaments and breathing techniques.

  • Shakuhachi range is about two and a half octaves.
  • The standard flute is in D, and the bottom note is D above middle C.
  • It has five holes and therefore plays a five-note (pentatonic) scale.
  • The five fundamental pitches are D, F, G, A, C.
  • However, traditional shakuhachi music doesn’t use only these five fundamental pitches, it also uses half-holed notes to play other notes from the chromatic scale. These half-holed notes have a very soft sound.
  • For example, a commonly-used pentatonic scale is D, Eb, G, A, Bb.
  • Here the Eb and the Bb would be produced by half-holing, and would sound very soft compared to the D, G and A.

There are also many alternative fingerings used on the shakuhachi, which give tonal contrast to the same pitch. For example there are three fingerings for the note D – one is breathy, one is clear and the other is faint – they are sometimes all used within the same melodic phrase.  It is these differences in timbre which give the shakuhachi melodies a lot of their expressive power, and it is what is meant by the phrase “a universe within a single note”.

It’s useful for composers to bear in mind that these timbral differences will have an affect on melodies written for the shakuhachi, and it’s always good to make practical explorations with an instrumentalist if possible.

The range of different timbres possible on the shakuhachi include:

  • Forceful, breathy sounds
  • Wispy, delicate sounds
  • Bends up or down on notes
  • Slides between notes
  • Trills between 3 or 4 notes
  • Multi-phonics (more than one note sounding at once)
  • Different kinds of vibrato including throat vibrato and head vibrato,
  • Alternative fingerings for the same pitch
  • Different ways of articulating the start a long note.
  • Different ways of articulating the end of a note.
  • Although the standard shakuhachi is in D, the instrument comes in several other lengths/keys, like the penny whistle or the saxophone.

For this course we will be able to write music for the following instruments:

Shakuhachi in D with the fundamental pitches D, F, G, A, C

Shakuhachi in B          ”       ”      ”                 B, D, E, F#, A

Shakuhachi in Bb        ”       ”      ”                 Bb, Db, Eb, F, Ab

Shakuhachi in A          ”       ”      ”                A, C, D, E, G

Shakuhachi in E           ”       ”      ”                E, G, A, B, D


Koto is a harp made from Paulownia wood, often called the Empress Tree. It has a history of over 1200 years and is the official national instrument of Japan. The shape of the koto is said to resemble that of the dragon.

It has 13 strings, each of which is tuned by a small moveable bridge.

The strings are plucked by picks, which are worn on the thumb and two fingers of the right hand.

Koto range is about 3 octaves. The lowest note is D below middle C.

The strings are usually tuned to a pentatonic scale. A common pentatonic scale in koto music is D, Eb, G, A, Bb.  But the tuning of the strings is very flexible and the modern composer can create a whole range of tunings.

Sometimes the bridges may be moved during performance to create different tunings in the course of one piece, or suite of pieces.

Pushing and pulling on the strings and using a number of fingering techniques can produce a wide array of sounds:

  • Vibrato.
  • Bending the note by a semitone or more.
  • Tremolo across one, two or more strings.
  • Two-string swipe.
  • Harmonics.
  • Swirling glissando up and down all or some of the strings.
  • Three to six-note chords played by one or both hands.
  • Plucking with the left hand (no picks) gives a soft sound like Celti harp.
  • Finger plucking with both hands (no picks) to play soft arpeggio figures.
  • Scraping the strings with the pick.
  • Bowing the strings.
  • Striking the strings with chopsticks or similar implements.
  • Tapping the wooden body of the instrument.
  • Glissando – plucking the string and then immediately moving the bridge. This effect can be used as a way or re-tuning the strings during a piece.
  • Playing on the other side of the bridges produces a strange out-of-tune effect.
  • A downward stroke with the pick is stronger than an upward stroke.


Here are some questions you might want to consider at the outset of writing a new piece. You don’t necessarily need to have all the answers.

  • Will it be a single piece or a suite of pieces?
    (For example, it might be one long, beautiful, slowly-unfolding melody, or it might be a sequence of short rhythmical sections.)
  • How long will it be?
  • Will it have a title?
  • Will it feature all the instruments all the time, or will it feature trios, duets and solos?
    (You don’t have to write for all the instruments in the ensemble – somebody may want to write an entire piece for solo koto, or for shakuhachi and cello, or any other combination.)
  • What mood or atmosphere will the music have?
  • Will the piece have clearly defined different sections within it?
  • Could you draw a map or some other graphic/pictorial representation of the overall shape of the piece?
  • Will you complete each section of the piece before going on to the next, or will you work on different sections simultaneously before fitting them together?
  • Will you start at the beginning?… maybe at the end?

It’s useful to think of the form and structure of a piece as an extension of musical dynamics. For just as we write dynamic and expression markings in the score to shape a musical phrase (louds, softs, crescendos, accents, accelerandos etc), so we have control over the overall shape of a whole piece.

But often the bigger picture reveals itself later, and in the beginning we might just want to work on a small  rhythmic or melodic idea.


  • If you have a short melody to play with you could think about how it will sound passed between the different instruments of the ensemble.
    For example, the melody could be played with a very pure sound on the oboe, or a very breathy sound on the shakuhachi, with a deep resonant tone on the cello or with a high tremolo on the koto….
  • Think about different textures you could use to accompany your melody.
    For example:
    —Pizzicato arpeggio accompaniment…
    —A legato chordal sequence…
    —A very sparse empty texture
    —A very busy, energetic texture

If you are finding it difficult to get any initial melodic ideas, there are a few things you can try:

  • Start with a Japanese pentatonic scale, or any other pentatonic scale that you like, and then improvise making up little 3-5 note patterns. Think about the intervals between notes and try variations of the little patterns you find. Short melodic fragments will soon appear. Experiment by making certain notes longer or shorter. Try adding a one or two notes outside of the original pentatonic scale. Make sure to keep musical notes as you go along.
  • Japanese shakuhachi melodies are often very sparse – sometimes called “a universe within a single note”. Try writing a melody that uses few notes and moves along slowly, but has a lot of attention given to the details of articulation, dynamics and tone colour of the notes.
  • You could start by creating a short rhythmic pattern. Write the rhythm on a single repeated note, and then gradually add different pitches until your rhythm has turned into a melody.

Once you have a melodic theme for your piece you could try expanding, developing and transforming it in various ways:

  • You could try it at different speeds
  • In different time signatures (you may need to lengthen or shorten notes to make them fit the new bar length)
  • Play the melody to different rhythms
  • You could keep the original rhythm of the melody, but change the pitches
  • Also try to break down the melody into small units and recombine them in different ways.
  • I also recommend you try writing it backwards
  • You could try writing the melody over a drone – one continually sustained note. If your melody is pentatonic, just choose one of the five notes and write it as a drone. This is the simplest way of harmonizing a melody.
    —Try a 2-note drone, i.e. an open 5th on the cello.
    —Try with a slowly changing drone…
    —Try with a high-register drone.(Japanese Gagaku music has continually sustaining chord clusters in a very high register, and these drone-like textures accompany all the melodies.)
  • Try writing the melody in canon (a round) with two or more parts, to create interwoven lines.
  • Try writing the melody for 2 or more instruments to play simultaneously, but in contrasting style. This technique of melodic development is called Heterophony and it is a very important feature of Japanese music.


Heterophony is a kind of ensemble music where everybody plays the same melody at the same time, but they play it slightly different ways. This is common in Irish folk music, where the violin and whistle have their own way of ornamenting the same basic melody.

In Japanese folk music, Minyo, the two main instruments are shakuhachi and shamisen. The shamisen plays the melody in a very staccato, rhythmical fashion, while the shakuhachi plays the same melody in a very flowing, lyrical style.

In Japanese orchestral music, Gagaku, this idea is taken much further. The flute, oboe, lute, mouth organ and harp all play radically different versions of the same melody at the same time. The end result is a very rich instrumental texture, including chord clusters, short rhythmical figures and long melodic phrases.  Japanese music doesn’t use harmonies and chord progressions in the same way as Western music. All of the parts are created from a central melody line.

Think about how you might use this idea of heterophony in your own composition.

For example, you might have a sustained melody in the shakuhachi with a pizzicato version of the same melody playing in the koto.

Or you might have a highly decorated version of the melody played in the koto, while the sjakuhachi plays an empty, pared-down version.

Or you might create short rhythmical riffs from the main notes of the melody…


You might prefer to start work on rhythmical aspects of your piece first.

The piece could be very rhythmical, using riffs, ostinatos and syncopated figures. The shamisen in particular often plays in this fashion.

  • Try making up short rhythmical ostinatos (repeating patterns), and then adding pitches from a pentatonic scale to make riffs. These can then be looped, layered, and used as building blocks.
  • Try adding a second rhythm to interlock with the first.
  • Experiment with different time signatures and tempi.
  • Think about the rhythmical qualities of the different instruments.

Sometimes, as in Gagaku, the rhythm of Japanese music is very fluid. The piece may start very slowly and then gradually pick up speed, and even within the space of one bar the time may be stretched like elastic.

Sometimes in Japanese music there is no rhythm at all – no bar lines, no time signature and no fixed note durations.

Solo shakuhachi music, or Honkyoku, is like this. The overall melodic shape is fixed, and the fingerings are fixed, but the player determines the precise length and dynamics of individual notes and phrases. This is connected to the Japanese concept of Ma, which means “timing” or “sense of silence”

If you wanted some part or your entire piece to be rhythmically free like this, you would have to think carefully about how to notate the music.


Shakuhachi notation is actually a kind of graphic score. It contains various wavy lines which give a rough indication of the length of notes, how loud or soft they are, what type of breath to use, and what kind of ornaments to put on the notes. There are also symbols, which tell you which fingers to put down.

Musical notation is a form of communication between composers and players.

Some scores are extremely detailed, giving very precise instructions to the players about every aspects of the music: pitch, rhythm, dynamic markings, expression markings, articulation, tempo and other descriptive words.

Other scores are quite minimal giving only the simplest and most basic information, leaving more space for the performer’s interpretation.

Graphic scores consist of lines, diagrams and symbols devised by the composer. They are often used when the composer wishes to give an indication to the performer rather than a clear instruction.

Japanese music is unusual in that every instrument has its own system of notation. In the West there is one conventional music notation system, which is read by all musicians.

Koto shakuhachi and shamisen players cannot read each other’s music. This is because the notation refers to which string you pluck or which holes you cover, and also contains instructions, which are specific to that instrument.

You may wish to write out all the music for your piece in conventional music notation, or you may wish to incorporate some kind of graphic notation. You may even wish to try and incorporate some traditional Japanese notation. The important thing is for you to get your intentions across to the performers.


Japanese traditional music uses pentatonic scales.

There are two main types of scale, known as IN and YO. These correspond to the Chinese terms YIN and YANG.

The YO scale is the brighter mode of the two, like the major scale in Western music. It is used in folk music played on the shamisen and shakuhachi, also in Gagaku – the ancient orchestral music of Japan.

Yo – D, E, G, A, B

The IN scale is used for solo shakuhachi music, for solo koto music and also in folk music. It has a more the feeling of a minor scale.

There are two versions of the IN scale, Kumoi and Hira. These are the two main tunings for most koto music:

Kumoi – D, Eb, G, A, Bb                

Hira    D, E, F, A, Bb

Another Japanese scale, called ZOKUSO comes from the southern islands of Okinawa, which have their own indigenous music and language.

Zokuso – D, F#, G, A, C#

These four scales have several notes in common, and it is relatively simple to change from one to another in the course of a piece.

Any of these scales can also be transposed to other keys, according to the possibilities of the instruments. The shamisen has a much more limited range of keys than the koto or shakuhachi, and the koto and shakuhachi have less range than the oboe and cello.  Refer to the specific instrument ranges and tunings.

MA – sound and silence

One of the most important concepts in Japanese traditional music is Ma  “the sense of silence”.

Ma can be understood as “timing of space,” the duration of sound between two notes in music.

But Ma is not merely a pause or rest; it is silence with an equivalent value to sound. The Japanese tradition values silence just as much, if not more than sound, and Japanese music is composed of an intense balance between the two.

It is very difficult to notate the exact timing of Japanese shakuhachi music. In fact it is not meant to be played exactly the same each time. The piece is considered as a living thing, which comes alive according to each player’s intuitive grasp of the timing or ma of the phrasing.

The concept of ma governs every aspect of Japanese art, including paintings, calligraphy, Japanese gardens, flower arrangements, tea ceremony and poems.  It can be understood as the space between objects or events that gives them definition.