Shakuhachi Flute: History & Music

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many musical traditions are defined by the instruments used to perform them. In this lesson, we'll talk about the shakuhachi flute, and examine its role in Japanese history.

The Shakuhachi

Imagine a scene from medieval Japan. Two samurai warriors stoically face off. Cherry blossoms float on the breeze. Somewhere, a flute is playing. Although this Hollywood version of Japanese history may not be the most accurate in every regard, there are elements of truth to it. For example, there's a reason for the presence of the flute. While the samurai probably didn't spend a lot of time providing background music to their fights, most were practiced musicians, and the flute is one of Japan's traditional instruments. Specifically, much of Japan's traditional music is written for the shakuhachi, an end-blown flute that has been popular in the country since the 8th century CE. For many, the shakuhachi is simply the sound of historic Japan.

Physical Attributes

Before we talk about what the shakuhachi sounds like, let's talk about what it looks like. The traditional flute is made from bamboo root, although modern ones may be made from hardwood as well. Unlike other flutes, which produce a pitch by blowing across the top, the shakuhachi is played by blowing straight into the end. It is a versatile instrument, capable of playing a wide range of notes, but is naturally tuned to a minor pentatonic scale, common in East Asian music. Another notable trait of this flute is its length. The term shakuhachi actually means 1.8 shaku, which is a traditional unit of measurement. A single shaku is about 30.3 centimeters, so the average shakuhachi is a little under two feet long.

Front and back of the shakuhachi
Shakuhachi

History

Throughout Japanese history, many cultural traditions entered the islands from China and Korea, then were interpreted through uniquely Japanese innovations. The shakuhachi is no exception. During China's Tang Dynasty, which had a strong policy of cultural expansion, the first flute of this style arrived in Japan, likely via Korea in the 6th century. It was called the gagaku sakuhachi and was part of an array of Chinese musical instruments to be sent from the imperial court of China to that of Japan. The gagaku shakahuchi became popular amongst the Japanese nobility for some time. However, the same flute fell out of style in China. By the 10th century, shakuhachi flutes could only be found in Japan.

By this time, the shakuhachi had developed into a distinctly Japanese instrument. While the Chinese flute had six holes, the Japanese version had five, giving it a different sound. It was also being used to play very different melodies than those found in China. Japan's medieval period, noted for the rise of the feudal system, powerful warlords, and of course their samurai warriors, is when the Japanese sakuhachi really became a definitive part of Japanese culture. Several varieties of the flute were developed, many of which can be found today, and there are written accounts of the flute being used widely by princes, aristocrats, monks, and warriors alike. Many stories associate various princes and rulers with a high level of skill playing the shakuhachi.

Woman playing the shakuhachi
Shakuhachi

Uses

The shakuhachi was widely played throughout medieval Japan, but its fame was particularly associated with Zen Buddhism, a religion that (like the flute) was based in Chinese origins and uniquely interpreted for Japanese people over centuries. In particular, the shakuhachi was a favored instrument of the Fuke sect of Buddhism. In the 13th century, the Fuke monks decided to replace their tradition chanting with the shakuhachi, developing a tradition of sui zen, or blowing zen. The shakuhachi became an integral part of Fuke meditation practices, and some of the classic works of Zen music were composed for this instrument. For a glimpse of what the shakuhachi meant to people of the time, consider this 16th century poem:

I take out the shakuhachi from beneath my sleeve, to blow it while waiting and the the wind through the pine- scatters flowers as though a dream; How much longer will I have to play until my heart is quiet again?

Of course, we can also look at another poem from the same collection:

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