Composing for Shō

1. Introduction

   Shō is a Japanese free reed mouth organ. Seventeen bamboo pipes of different lengths are attached to the wind chest, neatly and securely bundled together by an outer metal ring [Figure 1] [Figure 2]. Its’ shape resembles a Ho-Oh, or Chinese phoenix, folding its’ wings, and the sound, a cry of that legendary bird. Boasting a history of over a millennium, it is one of the three wind instruments used in the Gagaku orchestra of Japan. Performers breathe through the mouthpiece of the instrument while inhaling and exhaling, and the instrument’s primary role in the Gagaku orchestra is to play the chord accompaniment for the melodies.

A mouth organ is defined by Grove Music Online as “a free-reed aerophone typically consisting of a wind-chest penetrated by one or more tubes, each fitted with a free reed of metal or bamboo.” (Miller, T. 2001. Mouth organ. Grove Music Online.) Families of the shō exist widely in East and South East Asia, including the sheng of China, saenghwang of Korea, khene of Thailand, sompoton of Malaysia, among others.

Figure 1. Shō. Photo by Author

Figure 2. Shō. Photo by Author

   Today, fifteen out of the seventeen bamboo pipes are equipped with reeds, although many compositions of today require the instrument to have reeds on all seventeen pipes. The pipes are named as shown in [Figure 3]. A common misconception is that the height of the pipe is roughly equivalent to the height of the pitch. However, this is untrue, as it is the height of where the byōjō (a rectangular window on each pipe) is placed, which determines the pitch. This is a result of the preservation of the structural beauty of the symmetricity seen in the shō.

Figure 3. Pipe arrangements of the shō, seen from top

   Each pipe is assigned to a pitch, as shown in [Figure 4]. Pipes mō and ya have not had reeds attached since the Nara Period (710-794), as it was deemed unnecessary in Gagaku. However, the pipes remain on shō to preserve its’ physical beauty. As such, William P. Malm (1928-), a distinguished scholar of Japanese music, calls the instrument “an interesting compromise of beauty and practicality”.

   Attaching reeds on these two pipes are often necessary when performing music for shō composed after the 1950s. Pitches were often relative to each other, during much of history. Therefore, the otsu (乙) in modern Gagaku and the otsu in the Fourteenth Century most likely are a set of different pitches in our modern understanding of scales. In today’s Gagaku music, gyō (行) is tuned to 430 Hz – slightly lower than that of Stuttgart tuning (A=440 to 444Hz), utilized in most European-style orchestras.

Figure 4. Pitch assignments to each pipe, transcribed in Western notation system

   As a chord instrument, shō primarily plays eleven types of aitake, or tone clusters, in Gagaku. Each chord accommodates five to six notes in the tone clusters, mainly dissonant when viewed from the conventional Western music harmony. The name of each chord is titled after the name of the pipe of its fundamental tone. [Figure 5] shows the eleven types of aitake in the Western notation. With the repetitive usage of the breathing techniques, these chords act as a continuous textural soundscape for the melody, and they are by no means a harmonization of the melody.

Figure 5. Transcription of the eleven types of aitake used in Gagaku

   Shō is performed by covering specific finger holes, located on each bamboo near to the wind chest, and breathing through the instrument, while inhaling or exhaling. The aitake of otsu, for example, is played while covering the finger holes on the pipes otsu (fundamental note), gyō, shichi, jyō, hachi, and sen, in order from the lowest to the highest pitch. Due to the structure of the instrument, its inflexible fingering system, and the small size of the finger holes, techniques not used in Gagaku, such as glissando, is extremely difficult even for skilled performers. Composers are advised to study the fingering thoroughly, as the fingering systems makes it difficult or impossible to play fast passages, depending on the sequence of the notes. The conventional fingering is presented in a chart in [Figure 6]. Since many notes are to be played with the same finger, composers may assign non-conventional fingering on a note, upon discussion with the performer. Furthermore, it is possible to place clay or tape to on a finger hole, when it is not possible for the performer to play the note with fingers. It will take at least five seconds for a performer to place or remove clay or tape on a finger hole.

Figure 6. Conventional fingering for shō

   The shō is tuned in the Pythagorean temperament to A=430Hz in Gagaku, and A=440Hz (or A=442Hz) when performed with Western instruments. When preparing a shō for performance, all pipes are detached from the wind chest, and the metal reeds are carefully lifted off from the lower ends of the pipes. Next, the reed is painted with grated malachite in liquid state, and is dried. A small weight created with lead and wax will then be fixed on the reed. This miniature weight is highly important, as the slightest alteration of weight affects the tuning. The process is a lengthy and arduous task, which could take days to complete. Therefore, it is common for shō performers specializing in both Gagaku and the Western art music to own two or more shō, each tuned accordingly to the relevant pitches of the musical styles.

2. Brief Overview of S in Gagaku


   Gagaku, which is literally defined as “elegant music”, is the Japanese court music, oftentimes associated and performed in Shinto and Buddhist rituals. Scholars believe that the music traveled to Japan from Tang Dynasty China, through the Korean peninsula, as early as the sixth century. Gagaku repertoires are often categorized in three genres; Kuniburi-no-Utamai (Japanese indigenous music), Komagaku (music originating from Goguryeo, modern-day Korea), and Tōgaku (music originating from Tang China).

   Due to its nature as court music, Gagaku music has been out of reach from the general public for over a millennium. The learning of Gagaku was limited to the aristocracy and the lineage of court musicians until 1873, and carefully preserved by the imperial court over the centuries. Although top-down reformations can be seen throughout history, such as in the Heian Period (794-1185) and after the Meiji Restoration (1868), the changes were minimal, compared to the dynamic progression and the bottom-up diversification of European-born music, with changes made by individual composers throughout history.

   Shō player and composer Naoyuki Manabe believes that the “evolution” of Western and Gagaku music are incomparable. In an interview I had with him, he stated, "The definition of ‘evolution of music’ is contrastive when seen from a Western perspective and a Japanese perspective. I believe that Japanese traditional music, too, is constantly evolving. Perhaps, the word ‘refinement’ better expresses the notion here. For example, one composer cannot possibly compete with the music that has been building up for over one thousand years. It is not just about the quality of the pieces – it is the weight of the history that has been performed throughout the centuries".

   Gagaku music today consists of four types of wind instruments (shō, ryūteki, komabue, and hichiriki), two string instruments (biwa and koto), and percussion instruments (kakko, san no tsuzumi, taiko, and shōko). The Tōgaku ensemble is made up of shō, ryūteki, hichiriki, gakusō, gakubiwa, kakko, taiko, and shōko. However, the Komagaku ensembles consist of different instrumentation; komabue, hichiriki, gakusō, gakubiwa, san no tsuzumi, taiko, and shōko. The Gagaku ensemble can be classified as an orchestra from an instrumentation perspective, as it consists of each of the basic families of the instruments: the percussion, the winds, and the strings. By definition, this makes it one of the oldest forms of orchestras in the world.

   Both ryūteki and hichiriki are responsible for the melody of a piece. The two wind instruments weave through each other on top of the continuous chord sounds, dissonant to the ears familiar in Western classical music, produced by shō. Similar to the Western harmonica, the shō is performed by alternatively repeating inhale and exhale into the instrument. The most unique aural characteristic of this mouth organ is the constant swells leading to a kigae, or a quick change of breath. It is this kigae that determines the tempo of the piece being performed. The strings and the percussions in the ensemble mark off time units for the piece, which is not to be confused with setting the time flow of the music.

   Tōgaku music boasts six different scales, or Rokuchōshi (六調子); Roku being the “six”, and Chōshi meaning the “scale”, while Komagaku can be analyzed in three scales. Each scale is known to have a fundamental tone. [Figure 7] displays names of the Rokuchōshi with both kanji characters and English transcriptions.

Figure 7. Rokuchōshi names

   One essential characteristic of Gagaku is the ma. According to the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Vol. 7: East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, ma is explained as follows: “silence, is actually a unit consisting of a single sound and its lingering ‘after sound’, considered an introduction to the next sound”. In Gagaku, ma is experienced during the kigae of the shō.   

   Interestingly, ma is a concept not just used in Japanese music, but it is also seen in the actions and the conversations of the Japanese people. Minami Hiroshi (1914-2001), one of Japan’s most acclaimed social psychologist, has stated in his book The Research of Ma, “The concept of ma is found not only in the traditional arts, but is seen in the everyday lives and activities of the Japanese”. Because ma is such a common and natural occurrence in Japanese arts, Gagaku performers will not find ma notated in their scores.

3. Notation and Time Identity


   The traditional notation for Gagaku music exists as a memorandum that describes key points of the music, therefore, performers are not able to play a Gagaku piece only based on the information acquired from the score. The transcription also varies from instrument to instrument. The notation of ryūteki is based on two systems; a set of larger katakana characters, which represent a solfege system, and a set of smaller characters, which represents the finger positions on the instrument. Written in the same format as ryūteki, hichiriki is notated with a contrasting solfege. The fingering system is also notated on the score, but since multiple pitches can be played in the notated fingering, the traditional score is not sufficient in learning the music.

   Shō scores are notated with kanji characters, each representing a chord. The score is read vertically from right to left, and similarly with the scores of ryūteki and hichiriki, no indication of phrasing, dynamics, and other expressive notations, commonly used in the Western music scores, is transcribed in the traditional score. The shō score of Etenraku in Hyō-Jō is shown in [Figure 8].

Figure 8. score excerpt of Etenraku in Hyō-Jō, shō part score. Transcribed by author

   Compared to modern Western music scores, the traditional notation of Gagaku music gives no information about the tempo. As explained earlier, shō plays an important role in setting the tempo of the Gagaku ensemble, by switching breath from inhale to exhale, or from exhale to inhale, in between the Western equivalent of measures. Each kanji represents a chord (see Figure 4 for the Western transcription of the notes in the chord), and a dot can be identified in between every two or three kanji, representing the end of a measure. This is where the player changes his or her breath, navigating the speed of the ensemble.

   A basic rhythmic unit, much like the Western time signature is present, in this case the Haya-yo-hyōshi (早四拍子), or four beats per chord. An exception is made where two kanji characters are crammed together, such as -ge (十-下) on the first line of Etenraku. In this case, each chord is to be counted to two beats, resulting in the total of four beats during the course of playing these two chords.

   The rule of four beats per chord, in case of Haya-yo-hyōshi, is not to be taken in a metronomic sense, as the third and the fourth beat often fluctuates and decelerates in speed. The delays in the steadiness of the beats are caused by many factors, such as the swells made by the shō leading to the kigae and the teutsuri (the changing of fingering to move to a different chord), as well as the enbai, a characteristic form of portamento, of the hichiriki. Malm further describes the characteristic of this rhythmic style as “breath rhythm”. With the seating arrangements of the performers prohibiting each other from giving clear visual signals, and no conductor to keep the ensemble together, Malm concludes that the only way the performers “executes such a beat together is to breath together”.

   Today, when composing new pieces for Gagaku instruments, it is very common to see composers notating the score in Western notation. There are countless benefits to this, as composers can articulately notate the pitch, rhythm, and dynamics, present expressive and characteristic musicality, and control the flow of time. The possibility of having their music read and studied by a larger pool of musicians, scholars, and audience is also an attractive fact for composers.

   However, a question remains on whether it is possible to transcribe Gagaku’s unique time identity into Western notation. In an interview I have conducted regarding the topic of notation of Gagaku instruments in today’s compositions, Hitomi Nakamura - a prominent hichiriki performer based in Tokyo - says she has never encountered a Western notation-based score for Gagaku instruments that gives attention to the special time flow of Gagaku music. “I have never seen a Western style score that successfully notates the naturally changing length of the beats, as seen in Gagaku music.” Nakamura continues, “I have seen scores with repetitive markings of accelerando and ritardando in short spans, but I did not feel as though the piece consciously revived the time identity of Gagaku. I have, however, received comments verbally from composers, that they would prefer the beats to shrink and expand as it does in Gagaku. Even if we performers are not advised to do so, I believe that there are many instances where we unconsciously expand the beat, as we are used to do in Gagaku.”

   Manabe believes that it is impossible to recreate Gagaku music into Western notation system, and therefore impractical for musicians who have not studied the characteristics of time flow of Gagaku to perform the music by reading a Western transcription. He brings up his personal experience as a shō performer, stating “I put immense importance on my breathing when performing shō, and the tempo will be decided at the timing of my kigae”. Both Manabe and Nakamura agree that when the special time identity of Gagaku ceases to exist in the performance of Gagaku instruments, the music is no longer Gagaku. Manabe continues, “a shō performance not affiliated with Gagaku aesthetics is just a performance by an instrument called the shō; in this case, the performer is not playing on a Gagaku instrument, but on an instrument called the shō”.

   With a unique time identity nurtured throughout history, it is a rigorous task for Western art music composers to score the flow of time for Gagaku instruments. Composers have agonized over the balance between decontextualizing Gagaku, and simultaneously identifying justification to use shō in their new works.

   Composer and ethnomusicologist Massumoto Kikuko (1937-) does not use a time signature in her 1983 work TSUKI for shō and shakuhachi. In part A of the piece, a tempo marking of a quarter note = 60, equivalent to a beat per second, is only applied on the shakuhachi. Numbers are written on top of the staff, signifying the beats of the shakuhachi, thus allowing the shō player to be aware of his/her location on score [Figure 9; top staff is for shō, and bottom staff is for shakuhachi].

Figure 9. score excerpt of TSUKI by Massumoto Kikuko

   The continuous chords produced by the mouth-organ hovers over the melodic end-blown shakuhachi flute in a time-less state. Both instruments perform in a delicate and quiet manner throughout most of the piece, intertwined with one another intimately at times, and frantically at other times. We can observe a number of instances where ma is present – expressed in the symbol of fermata. The ma consequently allows the two performers to adjust their individual flow of time, and calm down the flow of music.

   The notation of this piece is based on Western notation, but we see the traditional notation over shō, which itself can partially act as a shō score for those who cannot read the Western notation system. The approximate lengths of shō chords are visually represented by a horizontal line, minimizing the shō performer’s efforts to count the beats in a metronomic sense. The horizontal line also allows both performers to mutually listen to each other’s parts, without the need of a strict sense of beats.

   On the other hand, composer Ishii Maki (1936-2003) separates his music into sections in his 1988 work Musik für Shō und Violoncello. Each section is notated with a time span in seconds, and the instrumentalists play the scored notes within the notated time, unchallenged by the metrically binding time signature. Similar to Massumoto’s TSUKI, this work does not specify the time signature. This work also offers performers no tempo indication in bpm and is segmented in fourteen musical phrases that the composer concedes. Each musical phrase is notated with a number, as well as an approximate performance time in seconds. The approximate length of each note is exhibited by the horizontal line, which extends from the note, and is to be interpreted by the performer. Whenever timing relationships between the two instruments are of importance, the composer connects the notes with a vertical dotted line, as shown in [Figure 10; top staff is for shō, and bottom staff is for cello].

   Without bars and measures, both instrumentalists are required to listen to each other’s musical parts, in order to collectively perform the music. While this is true to most musical cultures around the world, it can be speculated that Ishii had the Gagaku ensemble technique in his mind, when notating this score. By placing vertical dotted lines in his scores, connecting both staves’ musical note or the horizontal line extension extending from the note, it facilitates the speed of the music, similarly to the function of the taiko in Gagaku music.

Figure 10. Score excerpt of Musik für Shō und Violoncello by Ishii Maki

   In the program notes of this piece, Ishii describes the shō used in Gagaku as a kind of a haze. He explains how Gagaku of today binds the style of shō as “static clusters locked in the upper realms of pitch”. However, the instrument was more expressive and - to borrow his word - vulgar before the Heian Period (794-1185), when Gagaku was still considered as foreign music. As Manabe's states that "one composer cannot match the historical weight of Gagaku", Ishii was well aware of this, and instead of pursuing new sounds in the context of Gagaku, he struggles to break free of the thousand-year old tradition by going even further back in history in search of lost musical characteristics of shō. He writes in his program note, "In Musik für Shō und Violoncello I have attempted to break free from the coagulated resonance which characterizes the use of the shō in Gagaku today. I explore how the instrument might have been used before the Heian Period, and combine this attempt to resurrect long defunct techniques with contemporary performance methods. My aim in so doing is to create a new mode of expression, one which permits an encounter with that most perfect of Western instruments, the cello. The shō here descends from its hazy pedestal in the heavens into the vulgar world, its richly expressive voice mingling with the expressive cello to reach out into a new world of sound." (Musik für Shō und Violoncello, Edition Moeck Nr. 5388. 1988).

   John Cage’s approach to accommodating shō’s unique time identity can be another helpful guide for composers. In his 1991 work Two4 for violin and piano or shō, Cage notates flexible time frames for the shō player to perform a passage within. As [Figure 11] demonstrates, the time frames are written on top of the staves, and the player can choose their tempo if it does not protrude the notated time. This piece is one of Cage’s Number Pieces, therefore, it is not the case that Cage has specifically adjusted the performance time notation in order to conform to the time flow of shō. Additionally, unrelated from the topic of time identity, the first chord at 0’00” is nearly impossible for shō players to perform with conventional fingering, as both hi (C6) and ge (F#5) are to be played with R2.

Figure 11. Score excerpt of Two4 by John Cage

   TSUKI, Musik für Shō und Violoncello, and Two4 are just three of the many works composed for shō after the 1950s. However, these three works display diverse methods of accommodating the time identity of shō into the context of contemporary music. Although these three works stem from extremely different composition processes, they successfully decontextualize the context of Gagaku without eradicating what makes shō a shō, that is, keeping the volatile time flow of the mouth organ. For more information, see Shō in New Music: Time Identity and Notation.

4. Unconventional Performance Techniques

   Throughout the history of Western music, instruments were modified, and new performance techniques were created to fit the needs of new compositional ideas. While shō is thought to have had relatively minute changes made in the performance methods during the course of history, it has been amended in multiple instances, leading to changes in performance techniques. Here, however, outline the performance techniques used in post-war compositions, and not used in Gagaku music.


4-1. Voicing

   Numerous composers of post-war shō music has incorporated voice. [Figure 12] shows an excerpt from La Matrice des Vents by Paul Méfano (1937-), where he notates a specific pitch to be voiced on the top stave. Composers may use this technique to create a new sonic layer contrary to that of shō. Voicing a specific pitch is possible only when exhaling. Since the performer’s mouth is attached to shō, forming audible words while playing a note on the instrument is a troublesome task for the performer. While it is possible to use this technique while both inhaling and exhaling, when hitting the exact pitch is of importance, it is recommended to only use voice while exhaling.

Figure 12. Score excerpt of La Matrice des Vents by Paul Méfano

4-2. Staccato

   A staccato can be made on shō, both with a single note or as a chord. While it is possible to create a staccato by both inhaling and exhaling, the exhaling method is recommended when notating multiple sequences of staccatos in an extremely separated and superlative mood. A staccato can be notated with the conventional staccato dot on the note, or a staccattissimo signal, as shown in [Figure 13]. Performers are able to execute this technique with volumes ranging from very quietly to very loud. 

Figure 13. Score excerpt of Spectral by Daryl Jamieson

4-3. Glissando

   An upward glissando of about half step to a full step is possible by slowly sliding the finger off the sound hole. A downward glissando is not possible. Due to the small size of the sound holes of shō, one should not expect to successfully produce a glissando effect consistently. As this technique requires high concentration of the performer, it is recommended for the composer to use glissando on one note at a time. Producing a glissando effect on all notes of a chord simultaneously is not possible, however, it is feasible to shift the pitch one note at a time, as illustrated in Iván Solano’s Kotsu-Shichi [Figure 14]. When using conventional fingering, glissando on hi (C6; played with side of R2) is discouraged due to the fingering complexity, however, it is possible when using alternative fingering of R1. While performers must increase air pressure into the embouchure while performing this technique, the sounding pitch will be played in diminuendo or diminuendo al niente while the glissando takes place.

Figure 14. Score excerpt of Kotsu-Shichi by Iván Solano

4-4. Trill

   While a trill between two notes is possible, due to the complicated finger positions of the instrument, it is not recommended for composers to use a conventional trill, where the performer rapidly alternates between two notes. Instead, composers are suggested to notate a held note, while simultaneously playing short and repetitive notes above, which acts as if the instrument is playing a trill [Figure 15].  The tempo of the trill can range from very slow to extremely fast, and the dynamics from very quiet to very loud. However, keep in mind that, depending on the tuning of the instrument, the higher notes might sound weaker when played with a continuous chords of lower notes.

Figure 15. Score excerpt of sans couleurs à souffler by Jean-Patrick Besingrand

   A trill between multiple notes, also known as a "tickle" effect, is possible on shō. Enclose all notes in a box of which you would like to apply the tickle effect on [Figure 16]. This effect is possible as long as the performer is able to play the notes as a chord with or without conventional fingerings. It is also possible to enclose several notes in a box, and notate continuous notes outside the box. The tempo of the trill can range from very slow to extremely fast, which will result in a randomized order of notes. Performers are able to execute this technique with volumes ranging from very quietly to very loud. 

Figure 16. Score excerpt of Mimi Spelunking by Chatori Shimizu

4-5. Flutter tongue 

   While flutter tonguing on shō is possible, not all performers are able to execute a flutter tongue on the instrument. Unlike the Chinese sheng, the technique is only possible when exhaling, and can be applied on both single notes as well as chords. It is also feasible for the performer to smoothly switch from one note to another, or one chord to another. Due to increased usage of breath, performers are unable to sustain a note or a chord with flutter tongue effects to the same length as a note or a chord produced with normal exhalation. This technique can be notated using words or a standard tremolo marking on a note [Figure 17].

Figure 17. Score excerpt of Plus bleu que l'indigo by Jean-Patrick Besingrand

4-6. Double tonguing 

   Double Tonguing can be played while inhaling, however, the performer can assert more control over intensity and tempo while exhaling. Similarly with flutter tonguing, this technique can be used on both single notes and chords, and the performer is able to switch from one not to another, and likewise from one chord to another [Figure 18]. A number of composers use onomatopoeia to notate double tonguing, describing it as “TKTKTK…”. A small break of about less than a second is necessary for a performer to change breath, therefore, this technique is not possible to continue for more than about twenty seconds. The frequency, or the speed of double tonguing can also be controlled, and can be notated with differing distances between “T” and “K”.

Figure 18. Score excerpt of Akane by Jean-Louis Agobet

5. Publications on Shō (English Translations)

2021    Shō in New Music: Thoughts on Cultural Labels on Compositions. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 65

2021    Shō in New Music: Perspectives on Japanese Instruments from Academia. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 64

2020   Shō in New Music: "Exotic Expressions" in Free Improvisations. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 63

2020   Shō in New Music: Study on Cultural Appropriation. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 62

2020   Shō in New Music: Acoustic Analysis and Composition. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 61

2020   Shō in New Music: Time Identity and Notation. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 60

2019    A Study on Japanese Instrumental Training Methods for Non-Japanese Students. Senzoku Ronsou Vol. 47 (Co-Authored)

2017    Shō in New Music: Perspectives from New York. Gagaku Dayori Vol. 49

6. Useful Resources for Composers (English)

A. Orchestration in Gagaku Music (Stanford University)

B. About the Shō (Atlas Ensemble)

C. Giving Voice to the Natural World (The Japan Foundation)

D. Instrumentation for Shō (Manabe Naoyuki)

E. Introduction to Gagaku (Japan Arts Council)

F. The Japanese Shō (Henry Doktorski)

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