Music and Instruments of Kabuki

by Will Goodwin

Nagauta--Traditional music of Kabuki theatre. Literally meaning "long song". The schools of shamisen music into two different schools. One is called "sekkyo", while the other is called "jiuta". Both stem from ancient Buddhist music of Japan.
During performance, this music is divided into different sections within the play. There are three of them, each having a different name. Gidayabushi, shimoza ongaku--played in lower seats below stage, and incidental music played onstage called debayashi. Early kabuki music was much like that of Noh music with added singing. Indeed the first performances of kabuki drama used a noh ensemble for the music. Music with the shamisen was previously popular with brothel music and when eventually incorporated into kabuki drama it brought this connotation with it. Hence it gave the newly formed theatre a much more boisterous atmosphere than the aristocratic noh. Debayashi--Naguata ensemble when onstage.


Figure 1-Shamisen player

Three stringed instrument similar to a banjo but without frets. The "doe", or the body of the instrument, is usually made of stretched cat or dog skin; however, many of the newer instruments are made with various types of plastics. The shamisen is the central instrument in the Kabuki music. It's importance lies in that it plays the melody of the Naguata song, which establishes the specific mood of the kabuki scene. Its origins traces to China where a similar, much older instrument called the san-hsien was being played. This instrument was originally an ovular, longer-necked version of the shamisen, but morphed into the modern shamisen when it was exported to Okinawa, Japan in 1392. The shamisen has a characteristic buzzing sound on the lowest pitched string called a "sawari" that is caused by the cutting of a small niche on the head of the guitar. This alteration of the instrument was done by early Japanese musicians who wanted to change the shamisen to play more like their native biwa, a Japanese stringed lyre popular among court nobles of the Heian period. The evolution of the plectrum used to play shamisen has a story of itself as well. Originally the shamisen's plectrum was similar to that of a biwa plectrum, which was small and round-like. As playing styles changed over time, though, a larger more powerful plectrum was necessary to create more volume. This gave way to the much larger, pointed, modern plectrum, which is commonly made of ivory. Although there are many different sizes and variations of the shamisen, the one most typically used in kabuki is a medium-sized one (chuzao), the neck usually measuring 2.5 cm in width, 75 cm in length. The body measures 18.5 cm across and 9.5 cm deep.


Figure 2-Duelist shamisen players



The ko-tsuzumi is the primary drum of the hayashi--the small hand drum. Its hourglass body is necessary for the pitch changes that it creates during performance by the use of the strings on the sides. This is not unlike the African talking drum, which features pitch-changing side strings also, yet it is struck with a mallet instead of the hand. The heads of the drum are made of horsehide, which are stretched across the body with two encircling strings. The ko-tsuzumi is held on the right shoulder with the left hand and struck with the right hand. The tone of the drum may be changed by flexing the strings but also by hitting the drum on different areas of the head. The larger counterpart of the ko-tsuzumi is the o-tsuzumi, which is usually made from cowhide.

There are four types of tones created by the drums:
  1. Pon--created when center of drum is struck while applying, sudden, slight pressure to the surrounding ropes.
  2. Pu--created by hitting center of drum with index finger with a little rope tension.
  3. Chi--created by hitting edge of drum with one finger and slight rope tension.
  4. Ta--played with two fingers on edge and lots of rope tension.

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Figure 3-Ko-tsuzumi Figure 4-O-tsuzumi



The takebue, which is also known as the yokobue or shinobue, is a seven-holed flute that is played with the first joint of the fingers. Typically tuned with the shamisen, a flute is chosen based on in what the music is written and most flutes' root notes are anywhere from E to A flat. The flute's primary duty onstage is embellish the melody the shamisens play. Colorful overtones add different ambiences to the scene onstage while the shamisen keeps the basic rythm. This is not to say, however, that all flute music is dependent on the lead of the shamisen. For example, in part IV of Utsubozaru the flute has a solo that allow it to musically illustrate the imaginary autumn winds onstage. The takebue is bamboo and has been associated with Japanese folk music for centuries. Therefore, it is heard many times during folk scenes with ordinary townspeople.


Like the Bamboo flute, the noh flute is constructed of bamboo and has seven finger holes. However, its usage is much different kabuki performances. The bamboo it is made of is stripped inside out and cherry bark is attatched to it for better tone. The range is two octaves plus a fifth, yet when the upper octave is reached it begins to flatten and a minor seventh is achieved. This musical instrument is used considerably less than the takebue because of its radically different tone compared to the other instruments. It is primarily played with the taiko drums during their rythmic processions.

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Figure 5-Takebue Figure 6-Noh flute


Kabuki plays have a unique musical prelude for each of their shows. The sound of the hyoshigi (wooden clapping sticks) is the first noise heard upon the beginning of the play. Next to join is a melody produced by the noh flute, which is then accopanied by the deep threatening sounds of the o-daiko, symblizing that the play has begun. The shamisens are always to follow with the chorus onstage. Because kabuki drama incorporates almost as much dance in it as lyrics, there are two main types of kabuki music: dance oriented, and lyric oriented. These categories are further subdivided into smaller groups called hanmono (poetic) and danmono (poetic). Each type of music requires different types of training. The different types of historical forms of kabuki music are even more numerable and listed below:

  1. Meriyasu--simple, short melodies played when actor is called to utilize improvisation and express inner emotions.
  2. Shosa--music that accompanies the dance-poses of the actors
  3. Joruri--abbreviated pieces derived from longer joruri type pieces.
  4. ozashiki--non-dance, non-linear music that is composed freely without a designated formula.
  5. ozatsuma--narrative music form.
  6. Yokyoku--music featuring noh-style singing.
  7. Shinkyoku--newer contemporary pieces.


The geza-ongaku is the offstage music heard in Kabuki that is not covered by the onstage musicians. These performers are located behind a bamboo curtain invisible to the audience on the downstage right part of the stage in a room called the Kuromisu or "black curtain". These performers have a plethora of small percussive and other types of instruments at their creative disposal. These instruments are specifically for the creation of atmosphere and sound-effects onstage. The major types (not all, since there are so many) of Geza instruments are listed below:

  1. Okedo--small folk drum with two heads tied together. Used mainly in folk scenes, this drum is played with tapered sticks.
  2. Daiboyoshi--two-headed drum played with thin sticks and is used in Shinto-music.
  3. Gaku-daiko--short bodied drum similar in size to a tambourine. Used in war scenes.
  4. Dora--small gong with a protruding center. Used in temple scenes and for signals.
  5. Soban--gong with grainy surface that is made from thin metal giving it more percussive sound. Used upon the entrance of rough characters.
  6. Atari-gane--small brass gong played with small bone hammer.
  7. Hitotsu-gane--Used in religious scenes, this gong is much like the atari-gane except that it stands on three legs.
  8. Rei--sutra bell used in Bhuddist religious services. The bell is used to indictate, not surprisingly, religious scenes in kabuki drama.
  9. Mokkin--wooden xylophone that is smaller than a western xylophone yet played the same.

Figure 7-Assortment of geza instruments

  1. Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959.
  2. Malm, William P. Naguata: The Heart of Kabuki Music. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1963.
  3. "Traditional Japanese Music". 2007. Dec 2 2009.

  7. Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. (p.159)