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Before playing "Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si(Ti) Do" on the shakuhachi

Check the following points. 

1. What is the length of the shakuhachi you have? 

There are various lengths of shakuhachi. 1shaku-8sun = about 54 cm is the standard tube. Shaku and Sun [sun] are units of length. 1shaku is approximately 30.303 centimeters and 1sun is one-tenth of that amount (3.03 centimeters). The length of 1.8shaku became the basis of the name "Shaku"-"Hachi" (Hachi means eight). There are also various lengths of tuned tube, such as 1shaku-6sun, 2shaku, 2shaku-3sun, etc. A short tube covers the upper range, and a longer tube covers the lower range. The tone with all the holes on the shakuhachi plugged is called Tsutsu_Ne (tubular_tone). Shakuhachi of different lengths may be called by the pitch of Tsutsune. The standard tube (1.8shaku) is called "D-kan*" because the pitch of Tsutsune is D. Other shakuhachi are also called "A-kan* " (2.3), "C-kan" (2.0), "E-kan" (1.6), and so on. (*kan means tube)

Figure of Shakuhachi's Length Variations and "TSUTSU-NE" tone

Figure1: Shakuhachi's Length Variations and Tsutsune tone

2. How many holes do you have on your shakuhachi? 
A standard shakuhachi has four holes on the front and one hole on the back. There are other shakuhachi with 7 holes. Here, we will discuss assuming a standard 5-hole shakuhachi. We call 5 holes by number 1, 2, 3, 4 in order from the bottom of the front, number 5 on the back.

Figure of Relationship between the basic five tones and "MERI" tones (1.8_D tube)

Figure2: Shakuhachi's numbering of holes

3. About the five basic tones :RO TSU RE CHI RI/HA
The tones obtained by simply opening and closing the five holes on the instrument are called the basic five notes. The names of the notes (fingerings) are, in order from lowest to highest, Ro Tsu Re Chi Ri (KINKO_school*) or  Ro Tsu Re Chi Ha (TOZAN_school*).


The two major schools of shakuhachi are the Kinko-school and the Tozan-school. There are differences in notation and names of notes (fingerings) between the two schools. As for the instrument, there are differences in the design of the mouthpiece, but the structure is exactly the same. The names of the notes on the shakuhachi do not indicate the pitches, but the fingering. Therefore, even if the sound name is the same, the pitch varies depending on the length (key) of the shakuhachi. In the following diagram, the names of the notes are written in roman characters (the symbols in shakuhachi original notation are omitted).

Regardless of the length(key) of the instrument Shakuhachi is tuned in the order of «La Do Re Mi Sol» from the lowest. Here, «La Do Re Mi Sol» represents the pitch difference (movable-Do) . For 1.8 tube, the pitches of the scale of the basic five notes are «DFGAC».

Figure of Shakuhachi's numbering of holes

Figure3: Pitches of The Basic Five Notes (1.8_D tube)

The shakuhachi used here is 1.8 (D) tube_5holes.

Here, Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si (Ti) Do is relative scale (movable Do)

Some notes with the same fingering may be called differently for KINKO-school and TOZAN-school

4. MERI tones
The technique of lowering the pitch by narrowing the opening space of the mouthpiece, which is blocked by area from the lower lip to the chin, or in conjunction with this action, the 1/2 closing or 3/4 closing of the hole is called "MERU". And the lowered pitch produced by these actions is called MERI-tones. By the way in contrast to MERI action or MERU, the action of increasing the pitch by widening the opening space of the mouthpiece is called KARI action or KARU, and the tones produced by this action is called a KARI-tones.

"MERI" technic reference figure
"KARI" technic reference figure

Figure4: MERU or MERI action

The pitch is lowered by making the area blocking the mouthpiece narrower than in the normal blowing position. Visually, it appears as if the face leans forward, or the tip of the instrument is lifted.  For more information on MERI and  KARI technique, see DVD «THE SHAKUHACHI for BEGINNERS narrated in six languages» etc.

5. The relationship between the basic five tones and the seven MERI_tones.

The notes other than the five basic notes are created by adjusting the closure of the hole with the fingers and, in conjunction with this, adjusting the opening area of the mouthpiece, which is blocked at the area from the lower lip to the chin, to change the pitch of the five basic notes. In shakuhachi music, the act of lowering the pitch is called MERU, and the resulting pitch is called MERI-tone. Conversely, the act of raising the pitch is called KARU, and the resulting pitch is called KARI-tone.

In particular, MERI-tones (notes with a lower reference pitch) are important as a way of thinking when playing the 12 notes that make up the equal temperament (the temperament that divides one octave into 12 equal parts) on the shakuhachi. This is because in shakuhachi music, seven of the twelve tones other than the five basic tones are interpreted as MERI-tones in principle.


Some traditional pieces require unique pitches that do not exist in the Western musical system, and there are a variety of MERI tones that cannot be simply reduced to the 12 intervals. Here, based on the assumption of the equal temperament, we will only review HAN-on MERI (Half Tone MERI: lowering the pitch by a half tone) and ICHI-on MERI (Whole Tone MERI: lowering the pitch by whole tone).

The following diagram shows the relationship between the basic five tones and the two types of MERI tones of the 1.8 (D-tube) shakuhachi.

Figure of Pitches of The Basic Five Notes (1.8_D tube)

Figure5: Relationship between the basic five tones and the MERI tones (1.8_D tube)

The five basic tones and the seven MERI tones make up the 12 tones in Western music system. Of the five basic tones, «Tsu» and «Ri/Ha» have a two-step MERI: a half tone MERI and a whole tone MERI. The pitch of the lowest note of 1.8 tube theoretically is «RO» = D. However, by narrowing the opening of the mouthpiece (MERI action) without changing the fingering (closing all five holes), the pitch can be lowered to D-flat. This note is called  «RO_Meri (Kinko) / RO_Han-on(Tozan)». More details about MERI-tone's will be mentioned when describing some major scales.

6. Note changes in pitch and timbre.
The piano, for example, can easily play the 12 notes (intervals) that make up the equal temperament, and at almost the same volume and quality. In contrast, the shakuhachi has only five notes (pitches) that can be produced by simply plugging or opening the five adjacent holes. All other notes are, in principle, MERI (or KARI) notes. Some of these notes are difficult to stabilize in quality and pitch because the player adjusts the opening area of the finger holes and the mouthpiece. Even if the fingering is the same, including the basic five notes, the pitch of the notes varies considerably depending on how well the opening area of the mouthpiece is adjusted (degree of MERI/KARI). The quality of the sound also depends on how the breath is used. When playing the shakuhachi, it is important to be aware of these characteristics of the shakuhachi and always check the required pitch/quality of sound with your own ears, rather than relying on the notation (fingering).

Now then, let's start by playing "Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si(Ti) Do" of C major!

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