Biwa (instrument)

Biwa (instrument)
Biwa (instrument)

Biwa is a Japanese stringed plucked musical instrument. Biwa emerged from an adaptation of the Chinese pipa instrument brought to Japan no later than the 8th century. The most common types of biwa are satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa.

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The term biwa comes from the Chinese word “pipa” and combines a number of Japanese musical instruments of the lute family. The body is pear-shaped, has 4 or 5 frets, the lower fret is wooden, the headstock is tilted back almost 90 degrees. On the body of all biva types there are two crescent-shaped resonator holes, as well as another hidden resonator hole under the tailpiece. A characteristic feature of biva is “savari” jap.さ わ り, special “ringing” tone of strings The tune of the biwa depends on the genre, there are options for the order for religious and secular works.

Most of the genres of biwa music accompany storytellers, but there are a few purely instrumental genres. Modern biwa can play along with the voice, which has led to the emergence of musicians who also do not perform the vocal part. At an early stage, biwa was associated with the aristocracy, Buddhist priests, samurai, and in the 20th century it became the instrument of educated young urban women. Biwa’s popularity declined after the end of World War II and the abandonment of the glorification of fallen Japanese warriors; the situation was changed by the emergence of the bigin yap genre.琵 吟. Attempts to mix biwa with Western musical traditions have failed.

Only one of the biwa performers received the status of a Living National Treasure of Japan, Kyokusui Yamazaki Yap.山崎 旭 萃.


A characteristic feature of the biwa, which has intensified throughout its history, is the far-reaching frets that raise the strings high above the neck. This feature does not allow playing the biwa similarly to the guitar, leaving two possible techniques: pressing the strings at the frets, which gives a known pitch, but limits the number of sounds emitted by the string by the number of frets; another option is to press the strings between the frets, and the pitch of the sound obtained in this way depends on the force of pressing. Playing between the frets requires an instrument with elastic strings, the vibration of which creates the much-prized “savari” sound.

Biwa (instrument) 2
Biwa (instrument) 2

The biwa consists of two main elements: the back of the body is hollowed out from a single piece of wood, the neck and the top with two crescent-shaped holes are glued to it in front. A horizontal strip of wood, fabric, leather or varnish is often placed on the deck to protect it from the strikes of the plectrum, although in modern satsuma and chikuzen biwe the plectrum strikes the strings above the strip, and it does not fulfill its function.

Gaku-biwa and gogen-biwa

Biwa comes from the Chinese pipa instrument brought there in the 3rd century from India and influenced by Central Asian music. Pipa arrived in Japan in the 8th century, when she was first mentioned in written sources. The biwa was the first Japanese musical instrument to retain notes, it was created no later than 747 and is in the Shosoin vault along with 5 early ornate biwa. Playing the bive quickly became one of the most important skills for courtiers; she is mentioned several times in The Tale of Prince Genji and genre painting.

The first varieties of biwa that became widespread in Japan were gaku-biwa, also called gagaku-biwa and gogen-biwa. Gaku-biwa is a pear-shaped instrument closest to the pipa with a short neck, on which there are 4 frets, and a head bent back, equipped with four tuning pegs for tuning four silk strings. The tuning is consistent with the six modes of classical Japanese gagaku music.

The length of the gaku-biva is about a meter, the width is 41 cm. The performer sits straight, legs crossed in front of him, the instrument is placed on his knees horizontally. Sound is produced using a small bone plectrum. A wide leather tape, usually black, is glued across the central part of the instrument. When playing, the fingers of your left hand press the string to the fret.

Gaku-biwa accompanied the ensemble with slow arpeggios played with a downbeat. Its purpose was mainly to establish a rhythm. Also, apparently this instrument was used solo to accompany the voice. Gaku-biwa continues to be used to this day, although it has become an exclusively solo instrument. Neither the body nor the ribbon of the gaku-biva are adorned, unlike the Chinese pip, which survived in Japan.

Gogen biwa was used in gagaku music until the 9th century. The head of this biwa is not bent, it has 5 strings.

Biwa (instrument) 3
Biwa (instrument) 3


In the 7th – 10th centuries in the south of Kyushu, a number of new small varieties of biwa appeared, used for accompaniment when singing Buddhist parables, during purification rituals and performing military legends. The biwa was often played by blind monks, moso yap.盲 僧, and their musical instruments are collectively called moso-biwa.

Moso-biwa is the smallest of the varieties. It does not have a standard shape, but all instruments of this type have 4 strings and 4 – 6 frets; the plectrum of the moso-biva is closer to the heavy and narrow plectrum of the chikuzen-biva. Frequently, the deck and frets were detachable so that the Moso Biwa could be packed in a back bag. The “yo” and “in” tunings used in the works of the moso-biva betray the peasant origin of the instrument. The theory that the moso-biwa entered Japan separately during the Nara period was refuted by Haruko Komoda yap.薦 田治子.

Since the 14th century, the moso performing tradition has been controlled by the Todo-za guild of blind musicians, who assigned ranks to musicians and paid salaries to the most skilled craftsmen. At the very bottom of the hierarchy, the biwa-hoshi yap.琵琶 法師 had to earn money on their own, often they did massage and moxibustion. The most important work for this biwa is the 9th chapter of the Sutra of Golden Glitter, “The Goddess of the Earth, Wise Firmness” yap.地 神 経 jishin kyo.


One of the types of moso-biwa, sasa-biwa, has an even smaller size, since it was taken with them to go around peasant houses and conduct a ritual there to cleanse the Yap hearth.竈 祓 い kamadobarai accompanied by the chanting of the Kojina yap sutra.荒 神 経 ko: jinkyo: and cleansing songs jap.鎮 魂 tinkon. After the end of the ritual, the monks entertained the owners with the performance of ballads about the fallen kuzure warriors and epic legends, from this tradition a narrative genre of playing the biwa arose. By the beginning of the Kamakura period, most of the itinerant performers had settled down and begged at Buddhist temples.

To control the savari, the sasa-biwa used a strip of bamboo inserted between the strings and the saddle, as well as additional dusters. There is also a large variety of sasa-biva, which was used in the province of Higo, present-day Kumamoto, among blind performers who did not have Buddhist dignity.

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The rise of the heike-biva dates back to the Kamakura period and coincides with the extinction of the moso-biva tradition. The name heike-biva comes from the famous military legend The Tale of the House of Taira Heike-monogatari, which was very popular and was performed under the biva for many centuries. The exact history of this instrument is unknown; according to the legend recorded by Yoshida Kenko, a certain noble man of Yukinaga created the “Tale” at the beginning of the 13th century, having taken monastic vows from Jien, and taught a blind musician to perform it.

The performing tradition of the heike-biva combined the performing traditions of the gagaku, the Buddhist chanting of the kosika, and the music of the wandering moso monks. Music for heike-biva is called heikyoku yap.平 曲.

Several decades later, the musicians of this performing tradition split into two schools: Ichikata Yap.市 形 and Yasakagata Jap.八 坂 形, and in the 14th century, Akashi Kakuichi, a representative of the Ichikata school, wrote down the canonical version of the text of the Tale, created new heikyoku musical techniques, and created the Ichikata guild. The 14th – 15th centuries became a golden time for the heike-biva, which could be heard both in public places and in Buddhist temples and in private homes.

Biwa (instrument) 4
Biwa (instrument) 4

The Onin War worsened the position of the musicians. At the beginning of the 17th century, the shamisen came to Japan, quickly supplanting the biwa and becoming the most popular folk instrument; since that time biwa has become more popular in high society among the sighted. Many performers of the “Tale” switched to the joruri genre. Despite this, the heikyoku genre continued to enjoy popularity among the military, the unifier of Japan Tokugawa Ieyasu was a fan of it and officially gave heikyoku the status of ceremonial music; this, on the one hand, made this genre more sophisticated, on the other, it almost destroyed improvisation. During the Edo period, the Maeda-ryu and Hatano-ryu schools arose.

During the Meiji period, Todo-za was eliminated and almost all musicians left the heike-biva. Several Maeda-ryu performers have continued to perform “The Tale” in Nagoya, the former center of heike-biwa, but their repertoire includes only 8 complete pieces and 2 unfinished pieces. At the end of the 18th century, the Maeda-ryu school began to promote the haikyoku tradition in the Tsugaru region.

In 1955 and 1959, performers of both branches of the Maeda-ryu received the status of bearers of intangible cultural heritage, but as of 2008 they all have already died. As of 2001, there were only about 10 haikyoku performers in Japan.

Appearance and notes

Heike-biwa looks almost like the gaku-biwa and also has 4 strings, but it has 5 frets and is smaller than the gaku-biwa in size: the average length of this instrument is 80 cm. Documents from the 14th century confirm that the biwa-hoshi was originally performed “Tale” on biwas, analogous to the gaku-biwa of the nobles In the early images of the 1299 heike-biva, a fifth fret can already be seen, probably added to extract the “mi” of a small octave. The frets are quite low, and their position varies from instrument to instrument. The first fret is flexible and is adjusted prior to performance to provide an optimal savari. The third fret should sound a large third above the open string, the fourth fret a fourth, the fifth fret a fifth; the second fret is rarely used, it is approximately halfway between the first and third.

Heike-biva is also held horizontally when playing. Unlike gaku-biva, in heike-biva, the fingers of the left hand press the string between the frets, and not the frets themselves. Heike-biva plectrum is large in size; like the gaku-biva plectrum, it is thin, but its ends are pointed; when executed, they also touch the body.

Heike-biwa savari is made with 1 and 3 strings due to the neck design: it has an A-shaped shape and touches the second string, while the other strings lag behind it. In this case, the 4 string is very far away and does not produce savari. The Heike-biwa of the Nagoya Maeda-ryu school probably received savari at the same time as the shamisen, at the end of the 17th century, while the Tsugar current did not use savari until the 1980s.

Blind biwa performers did not use musical notation, so the first sheet music for heike biwa appeared in the aid of sighted non-professional performers. The first known recording of notes for this instrument dates back to 1687, it is marked on the margins of the text of the work. The Maeda-ryu school transformed this notation into the Heike-gimpu text, published in 1737 by the sighted amateur musician Okamura Gensen in collaboration with a blind musician from Todo-za; in 1776, the guild issued a new edition of the sheet music called Heike-mabushi. The Hatano-ryu school also released its own sheet music, Shin ongyoku sho, in 1729.

Musical form, playing technique

The tuning of the heike-biva is a development of the “osiki-cho” tuning of the gaku-biva, but unlike the latter, when tuning the heike-biva, the relative, not absolute, pitch is used.

Heikyoku pieces have a dominant tone that complements the tone one fourth higher. The sound order of the piece is built in one of two ways:

  • in the formulas of shoju, chuon, sanju, the basis of the work is made up of shi – mi, but this construction is more complicated
  • the first two trichords correspond to “miyako-bushi” according to the classification of Fumio Koizumi – shi – do – mi, mi – fa – la
  • notes si – re – mi – sol – la – do – re are used in the melodic formulas of kudoki, hiroi and yomimono; additional notes differ from the main ones by 2 or 3 tones;
  • then follows the “plug-in” trichord “minyo”: f-sharp – la – si.

Heikyoku compositions are a combination of yap musical formulas.曲 節 kyokusetsu, and each formula is characterized by a specific vocal style: recitation, arioso or melismatic aria. Some formulas are used depending on what is happening in the text of “hiroi” – for battle scenes and descriptions of military clothing, as well as disasters; “kamiuta” sounds when reading waka poems.

Most of the musical formulas are preceded by a short introduction, which is played in an abbreviated form, when the formula is repeated several times. The names of the introductions consist of the names of the corresponding formulas and the word bati yap .: “hiroi-bati”, “kamiuta-bati”. There are sometimes interludes between vocal segments within the same formula, which melodically echo the vocal part. Between vocal phrases, the performer strikes the string once, which is called “ai no te”; often this note corresponds to the first note of the next phrase.

The technique for performing Heike-monogatari on early biwa is unknown; most likely they played rhythmic accompaniment in parallel with the beats of the folding fan. In the modern heikyoku of the Nagoya movement of the Maeda-ryu school, the following sound production techniques are used:

  • arpeggio on two or four strings;
  • osikomi, pressing the string with your finger behind the fret so that the sound of the string after the main tone becomes higher.
  • hadziki, pizzicato with the left hand;
  • sukui, blow from the bottom up;
  • hisigi, hitting the string followed by stopping it;
  • normal plectrum strike from top to bottom;

Over time, performers gradually increased the number of used musical phrases, their number increased from 13 to 23. As a rule, the biwa does not play simultaneously with the voice: first, the biwa plays the notes from which the vocal fragment begins, then the voice enters, after which either the notes are played for next fragment, or perform a short interlude in the mood of the past. For its time, the heike-biva technique was fresh and expressive, it played an important role in the development of Japanese narrative music.

When learning to play the heike-biwa, the student was required to learn to sing the text of the work, and the blind had to memorize it, while the sighted could rely on the recording. After that, they were taught to accompany themselves on the biwa.

Biwa to Kyushu

The musical tradition of the biwa in Kyushu was developed by blind men: the moso and zato monks who were ordained monks who performed Buddhist rituals without being priests; the blind goze women in Kyushu did not play the biwa. The secular repertoire of the blind with Kyushu formed the basis of the repertoire of the satsuma and chikuzen biwa. Both of these types of biva are very popular at the beginning of the 21st century, but their popularity is primarily associated with large cities, where they became fashionable at the beginning of the 20th century and developed into their current form, and not with their place of origin. In general, as of the end of the 2000s, about 10,000 amateurs play biws with Kyushu.

The early history of the Kyushu biwa is poorly known; There is a widespread unconfirmed legend that the practice of reciting Buddhist sutras under the biwa came to Japan from China or Korea in the 8th century. It is possible that the practice of ritual playing on the biwa, as well as the goddess Benzaiten associated with it, was really borrowed in China by the court musicians who went there to study.

Moso in Kyushu was ruled by two organizations: the Satsuma Jёrakuin-horyu, which operated in the temples of Kagoshima and Miyazaki, and the Chikuzen Gensei-horyu yap.玄清 法 流 centered at J Дjūin Yap Temple.成就 院 in Fukuoka and managed temples in Fukuoka, Oita, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Shimana, and Yamaguchi.

The founder of the Jраrakuin Horyu is considered to be Hodzan Kengyo Yap.山 検 校, a moso from Kyoto, who went to Chikuzen with Shimazu Tadahisa, when he was granted power over the Satsuma principality Thanks to the support of the Shimazu clan, the moso province of Chikuzen flourished as they were immune to Todo-za attacks. The existence of this organization has been documented since the end of the 16th century.

The founder of Gensei-horyu is considered to be a Tendai priest named Gensei Yap.玄清 766 – 823, tonsured by the founder of the school, Saitho. Historically, the moso of the central and northern regions of Kyushu and the western tip of Honshu were divided and consolidated under the wing of the Tendai school only after the central government banned independent moso rituals in 1871.

Biwa (instrument) 5
Biwa (instrument) 5


Its own variety of biwa originated in the south of Kyushu in the Satsuma principality. The region’s performing tradition has flourished for centuries as blind monks can travel freely throughout Japan and bring information from distant lands useful to the samurai clans. Satsuma-biwa appeared at the end of the 16th century as a type of moso-biwa. She is narrower than the heike-biwa, but the curl on her neck is much more massive. Its characteristic details are a large and thin wooden plectrum, very high frets and a slightly curved body. The distance between the first and second frets of this biwa variety is greater than that of the others. The most famous piece for this instrument is the ballad Shiroyama yap.城 山, which tells about the last hours of Saigo Takamori’s life before his death at the Battle of Shiroyama.

Performing pieces of satsuma biwa involves improvisation and is often painful for a musician, as it requires a strong pressing on the strings, and the position of the hand holding the plectrum is unnatural. Due to the absence of a protective strip of skin on the body of this variety, the sound of the strings of the satsuma-biwa is accompanied by a sharp blow of the plectrum on the tree. Techniques such as vibrato and pizzicato are used, as well as striking the strings in the opposite direction; the fingers of the left hand fall on the strings either one or two at a time. Also, during battle scenes, the “kuzure” technique is used: the plectrum quickly alternates between the low and high strings, similar to a violin tremolo. There should also be tension in the voice of a singer playing the satsuma biwa, which persists throughout the piece. Satsuma-biwa is considered a “masculine” instrument, unlike chikuzen-biwa.

During the Muromachi period, the usefulness of blind musicians to samurai declined, and the satsuma biwa came to be seen as a didactic tool to protect warriors from the pernicious influence of popular music and theater. The melodies for this instrument were more fashionable than the outdated heike-biwa music. Gradually, the variety of genres of satsuma biwa gave way to epic military ballads, and the growing popularity of this type of biwa led to the fact that her music became more dramatic and less pompous.

In the 19th century, satsuma-biwa became popular among the Satsuma traders and, together with former samurai who moved to Tokyo, from where it spread throughout Japan during the period of the country’s militarization; Soldiers who went to war with Russia often took satsuma-biwa with them. Emperor Meiji himself loved to play this instrument, which is confirmed by several photographs.

A new, more sophisticated style of playing satsuma biwa, Kinshin-ryu, named after its founder, Kinshin Nagata, has emerged in Tokyo. The conservative style of performance as of the beginning of the 21st century has less than 50 followers, while more than 450 musicians belong to the Kinshin school. The Kinshin school is most actively experimenting with form and often borrows from the narrative genres of the shamisen. After Nagata’s death, his student, Kinjo Suito, set about 120 songs to music and helped found the Biva Yap Music Society.琵琶 楽 協会. She also invented her own five-string and five-fret version of the instrument, called nishiki-biwa.

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An important figure in the development of the performing tradition of the satsuma biva is the Kinshin Kinshi Tsuruta who studied at the Kinshin School; she created an innovative playing technique and founded the Tsuruta school. In addition, Tsuruta worked with contemporary Japanese composers in the second half of the 20th century.

Biwa (instrument) 6
Biwa (instrument) 6


In the 1890s, in the north of Kyushu, the last variety of this type of instrument finally took shape – the four-string chikuzen-biwa, also developed from the instruments played by the blind moso monks. The word “chikuzen” in the name refers to the region of the same name in which the instrument appeared. It should be noted that differences in the performing technique of Satsuma and Chikuzen existed much earlier, although the original manner of performing the sutras in Chikuzen was interrupted.

Unlike satsuma-biva, chikuzen-biwa was intended primarily for accompaniment in the performance of legends. After the liquidation of the Todo-za moso guild, they were forced to earn by any means, many of them began to perform obscene songs of low quality for the public. The discontented monks of Tachibana Kyokuo yap.橘 旭 翁 and Tsurusaki Kenjo yap.鶴 崎 賢 定 with shamisen performer Yoshida Takeko yap who worked in the red light district.吉 田竹子 worked together to create a four-string chikuzen biva and, together with a local journalist known to them, composed several pieces for it. The instrument got its name only in 1899, when Kyokuo brought it to Tokyo and began to promote it among the urban population.

The split among the students of Tachibana led to the emergence of two schools that still exist today: the more popular with the public Asahikai with about 300 works and Tachibanakai, which gravitates towards “high” art.

The body of the chikuzen biva is made of soft paulownia wood, which requires a delicate manner of playing, in contrast to the hard body of the satsuma biva. Configurable similar to shamisen. Due to the fact that the distance between the first and second frets of chikuzen-biva is not as great as that of satsuma-biva, it is played by placing fingers on the strings between the frets; this means the strings do not have to be pulled that tight. The diagonal position of the biwa on the performer’s lap is reminiscent of the shamisen. The shape of the thick and heavy plectrum of chikuzen-biva is closer to the plectrum of moso-biva and the heat of music for the shamisen “gidayu-bushi”. The chikuzen biva pegs have strips of bamboo that reinforce the savari. In the second half of the 20th century, the 4-string tikuzen biva was gradually replaced by the 5-string.

The works for the four-string chikuzen-biva were divided into three genres: short lyrical interludes of ban and go, depicting scenes from poems; and also the seme used in battle scenes. With the addition of the fifth string, genres were rethought: lyrical interludes were filled with symbolism, and battle ones – with pathos.

Biwa (instrument) 7
Biwa (instrument) 7
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