Biwa (琵琶)

Biwa (biwa, biba, pipa) is one of the stringed instruments of the lute family in East Asia. It is a plucked string instrument that produces sounds by flicking strings with fingers without using a bow. In ancient times, there were two types of biwa: the four-stringed type with a neck bent backward (Kyokukei Biwa) and the five-stringed type with a straight neck (Chokukei Biwa). The latter is not used any more because its tradition has not been carried on, but the former developed later and had increased the number of its variety in China and Japan and many are still played even today. It was introduced to the Korean Peninsula and divided into the Kyo biwa (five-stringed biwa) and the To biwa (four-stringed biwa) and became basic instruments of court musicians and had been used until the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
(It was played in the 1930s, too.) The four-stringed biwa with more than a dozen frets that was introduced to the Ming Dynasty had been handed down in Vietnam and it is written biwa but pronounced as 'tipa.'
In a broad sense, stringed instruments of the lute family such as genkan (ruanxian) (four or five-stringed Chinese lute) and gekkin (moon harp) are sometimes included in the biwa group.

The four-stringed type of biwa (Kyokukei) has a common origin with the oud (lute-like instrument of Arabic Origin) in West Asia and the lute in Europe and a similar shape to those. It has a sound box shaped like an egg cut in half lengthwise and a neck with a pegbox (the part which the tuning pegs are inserted into) bent roughly 90 degrees backwards. The five-stringed type of biwa with a straight neck (Chokukei) is said to have its origin in India and its pegbox is not bent but straight. The only existing actual biwa, 'Raden shitan Gogen no Biwa' has been preserved in the Shoso-in Treasure Repository (see figure).


Instruments similar to biwa are often found in relief carving decorations of artifacts excavated from remains of Sessanian Persia, though the actual ones do not exist any more. Their pegboxes were bent backward and many were played with a plectrum and these instruments called barbat (an old Persian instrument) are said to be an ancestor of the four-stringed type of biwa, oud, or lute. It was around the Former Han (dynasty of China) when these instruments were introduced to China and at first they were called 'huqin' (any Chinese string instrument played with a bow) which meant a 'Western harp' (stringed instruments) (These instruments are totally different from the ones called huquin from the age of the Sung dynasty to today). Later, 'biwa' transliterated into a word of Chinese origin from barbat in the Uighur language became popular as their name. It is seemed that several biwas preserved in the Shoso-in Treasure Repository are the oldest four-stringed type of biwas in existence presently. They were all made in the Nara period. Scores were also found in the Shoso-in Treasure Repository and Dunhuang City.

Biwa in China

Biwas in the Tang period had almost the same shape as those of present Japanese Gakubiwa Instruments, and musical theory was developed, many tuning systems were defined, musical notation was also established, and the instrument was played in various concerts, ensembles, solo, accompaniment for singing and became very popular from court music to folk music. It is said that the poem 'Biwako' (a biwa song) by Haku Kyoi (Bai Juyi) was very popular and Yang Guifei often played the biwa, too. Biwa used in the Qing Dynasty were different from those used until the Tang Dynasty and had a shape slightly similar to Japanese moso-biwa (blind priests' biwa), having the same number of stings but more frets as many as fourteen. They are played with a spatular pick, not with a plectrum. They were introduced to Japan around the Bunsei era in the Edo period along with gekkin and huqin and had been popular as Ming and Xing-era Chinese music (as popularized in Japan before the First Sino-Japanese war) until around the first year of the Meiji period.
They have been handed down in Nagasaki today and are called 'To biwa.'
In China, this type of biwa had been used and mainly played as accompaniment for folk songs but, in the 20th century, solo music started to be composed by Tianhua LIU (erhu (two-stringed Chinese instrument played with a bow) and biwa player, composer, 1895 - 1932) and others. In the 1950s, this type of biwa was remodeled and the present day biwa (pipa) was made.


It has four metal strings and can produce the chromatic scale with thirty-one frets. The guitar-playing style was incorporated and it is played with all fingers of the right hand and produces sounds with nails or artificial nails.

Biwa in Japan

Biwa (biba) was introduced to Japan from China around the seventh and eighth century. Biwas at the time of introduction were preserved as treasures of Shoso-in Treasure Repository. They are characterized by plucking strings with a plectrum similar to a partly open fan or a ginkgo biloba. There are many types of biwa namely Gogenbiwa Instrument, Gakubiwa Instrument, Heike biwa (a biwa with four strings and five frets used to play Heike Monogatari), moso-biwa, To biwa, Satsuma biwa (Satsuma lute), or Chikuzen biwa (Chikuzen lute). Each instrument has its unique music and in their music world, it is simply called biwa. These different kinds of biwa are never played together.
The music centered on biwa is collectively called 'Biwagaku.'

Gogenbiwa Instrument

The Gogenbiwa Instrument came down from China in the Nara period, but the Yongenbiwa instrument (four-stringed) was considered to have its origin in Persia. Five-string five-fret. Until the early Heian period, this instrument was played by some musicians but extinguished later, though scores from those times are still preserved even today.

Gakubiwa Instrument

The Gakubiwa Instrument is an instrument used in Kangen music, Saibara (genre of Heian-period Japanese court music (primarily consisting of gagaku-styled folk melodies)), of gagaku (ancient Japanese court dance and music). The standard type of this biwa is the biggest among Japanese biwas and the shape of the Tang Dynasty biwa introduced in the Nara period has been handed down to the present day with little modification. On the contrary, it has the smallest plectrum. Today, the instrument plays a role playing arpeggio and supports the rhythm in concerts. There also once existed solo music and 'Yoshinso,' 'Takuboku,' or 'Ryusen' were known as masterpieces but they have not handed down to the present. It is seemed that various playing techniques also existed. It was a popular instrument since ancient times and often appeared in literary works. There were many masters or accomplished players such as KIBI no Makibi, Semimaru, or TAIRA no Tsunemasa, and many great instruments have been handed down. It has easygoing yet rich tones, and there are big differences from many types of biwa in later ages, namely it is played with other instruments, it has different tuning system for each tune, it has no mechanism for a string instrument, it has no playing system to press strings with the left-hand fingers between frets to control the tension to make different tunes, or it is played using even the pinky finger.

Heike biwa

The Heike biwa came from the Gakubiwa and the structure of this instrument is almost the same as the Gakubiwa though smaller ones are preferred. On the other hand, its plectrum is rather big and its fan-out part at the top is wider. It is used as an accompaniment to the chanting of Heike Monogatari (The tale of the Heike). The narrative music of Heike Monogatari accompanied by a Heike biwa is called 'Heikyoku' (the music played on the Heike biwa as accompaniment for the recitation of Heike monogatari) (There are also many songs based on Heike Monogatari for the Satsuma biwa and the Chikuzen biwa but they were composed after the early-modern times and are musically quite different from Heikyoku). According to traditions, it was started by a blind musician called Shobutsu at around the beginning of the Kamakura period and we can see the strong influence of Shomyo (chanting of Buddhist hymns) in its tunes. Later, it was modified and organized by a blind musician, Nyoichi, and his apprentice, Kengyo AKASHI (an another name of Kakuichi AKASHI) (1299 - 1371), in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan) and they established the Ichikata-ryu. On the other hand, the Yasaka-ryu was also established by Jogen. These became very popular along with nogaku (the art of Noh) in the Muromachi period and called classics of medieval Japan. In the early Edo period, the Maeda-ryu and the Hatano-ryu were established by Kengyo MAEDA and Kengyo HATANO respectively and the former developed around Edo and the latter in Kyoto. Performances were exclusively given by blind musicians belonging to Todo-za (the traditional guild for the blind) but in the Edo period, some sighted players also gave performances. However, they had gradually cooled down as Shamisen music and sokyoku (koto music) such as Jiuta (a genre of traditional songs with samisen accompaniment) and Joruri (dramatic narrative chanted to a samisen accompaniment) developed, and the Hatano-ryu was put to an end while the Maeda-ryu was restored by Kengyo OGINO in Nagoya in the middle of the Edo period, and only this school has been handed down to the present in Nagoya and Sendai.
The number of players is very small but we sometimes have an opportunity to enjoy the performances of 'Susuki,' 'Chikubushima mode,' and 'Nasu no Yoichi.'
Gagaku and Heikyoku are music with absolute pitch so the Gakubiwa and the Heike biwa are instruments with perfect pitch, and they are different from the Biwagaku, music with relative pitch, after the early-modern times.

When the original shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese banjo) came down to Japan, it was players of the Heike biwa who first handled it and improved it to make it similar to the present instrument. So shamisen came to be played with a plectrum like biwa. However, there are some differences between biwa and shamisen in the shape of plectrum and the way it's held. As shamisen came down with only an instrument without scores, many new songs were composed one after another by the Heike biwa players and various musical elements of the Heikyoku were reflected.


The moso-biwa was used for Buddhist rituals and it is said that blind priests used to chant sutras to an accompaniment of it, but there were some pieces of entertainment-type music, too. The origin of this type of biwa was found in the Nara period and the guilds of blind priests had been organized from an early stage. Semimaru is said to be one of them. There were these main types of biwas: the Satsuma moso-biwa and the Chikuzen moso-biwa. The Satsuma biwa was created from the Satsuma moso-biwa from the middle of the Muromachi period to the Edo period and the Chikuzen biwa was created from the Chikuzen moso-biwa under the influence of the Satsuma biwa and shamisen music in the 1880s. The moso-biwa has no definite shape and has various shapes and it is slightly different from the Gakubiwa type and many are similar to biwas in modern China. There are Many slender types of biwa and the ones that are especially slender are called sasa biwa (named for its slender 'bamboo leaf' shape and a shorter, rounder-bodied instrument) because they resemble a bamboo leaf. These blind priests belonged to their own guild and had a conflict with Todo-za, an organization of blind musicians of Heikyoku, from the Muromachi period to the Edo period.

Satsuma biwa

It is said that the Satsuma biwa was made by Ryoko FUCHIWAKI, a blind priest in Satsuma, who worked actively in the 16th century, when he was called by Tadayoshi SHIMAZU, a feudal lord at that time, and was ordered to compose Biwa uta (Biwa song) with educational poems and modify the instrument to inspire morals of samurai. He remodeled old moso-biwas and changed their structures to make them suitable for a valiant and dynamic performance singing about samurai's morals, war chronicles, and battles. He changed the wood for the body of moso-biwa from a soft wood back to a hard mulberry wood and made the instrument able to be played by striking it with a plectrum like the playing style of percussion instruments. Plectrums became bigger and their shape were changed from a rice scoop shaped to a sensugata (a folding fan-shaped) shape. With this, players could hold the instrument horizontally and flick their plectrums sideways. These biwas gradually became popular in the Edo period as songs derived from fights such as 'Kizakigahara gassen' were composed, and they spread through not only samurai but also townspeople. So, there established two schools of biwa: shifu biwa (samurai style biwa) and chonin biwa (townsman's biwa). At the end of the Edo period, Jinbee IKEDA brought together the beauty of both schools and established his own school and this has came down to the present time as the Satsuma biwa.

They spread across the country combined with the policy of increasing wealth and military power in the Meiji period when people from Satsuma possessed power, and many super players appeared one after another such as Gakujo YOSHIMURA, Seigo TSUJI, Kokichi NISHI, and Kino YOSHIMIZU. Emperor Meiji also loved this instrument throughout his life and society's valuation of the instrument became even higher when Kokichi NISHI gave a performance in front of the Imperial family at the residence of Tadayoshi SHIMAZU, the former lord of Satsuma Domain, in May, 1881 and "Biwa-bushi" of the head family became a performance only for the Imperial household along with the Chikuzen biwa. Kinshin NAGATA also appeared and established the Kinshin-ryu that was characterized by a sophisticated, townish, and glamorous playing style and this created a sensation and penetrated the nation. In the Showa period, Kinjo SUITO incorporated the music elements of the Chikuzen biwa and started the Nishiki biwa. He improved the instrument by taking in the Chikuzen biwa and remodeled them to five-string five-fret biwa. After that, Kinshi TSURUTA who also came from the Kinshin-ryu, same as Kinjo SUITO, added refinements to the five-string five-fret biwa and made a leap forward into a new musical field. He took in the instrumental elements into biwa that had been used as accompaniment to narration and made fresh approaches such as biwa performances without narration, ensemble with Western musical instruments and other traditional Japanese musical instruments that had never been played with, or refinement of the Biwa uta based on the Kinshin-ryu. The school that followed Kinshi TSURUTA is called the Tsuruta-ryu or Tsuruta-school and is expanding its activities.

To biwa

The To biwa was a biwa that became popular among people in the Qing Dynasty and was introduced into Japan around the Bunsei era along with its music, Qing-era Chinese music (popularized in Japan during the early 19th century), and gekkin and other many instruments. We have to keep in mind that the To biwa was a Japanese name and different from the biwa in the period of the Tang Dynasty. It was a slender type of biwa whose body was made by inserting the 'Omote-Ita,' a table, into the back board materials that were projected to the surface to make the frame. This is common to the moso-biwa and the Chikuzen biwa. It has four strings and fourteen frets and is played with a spatular pick instead of a plectrum. It was mainly played with folk music (Qing-era Chinese music) in the Qing Dynasty.
There are famous songs such as 'Kyurenkan,' 'Matsurika,' and 'Suisenka.'
The Qing-era Chinese music was considered the combination of Ming and Xing-era Chinese music combined with the Ming-era Chinese music (popularized in Japan during the early 17th century) that had been introduced before and became popular from the end of the Edo period to the early Meiji period, but it died down around the Japanese-Sino War and it has slightly been carried on only in Nagasaki.

Chikuzen biwa

Chijo TACHIBANA, a moso-biwa player in Chikuzen, remodeled the Chikuzen moso-biwa after he studied the Satsuma biwa in Satsuma and created new biwa music in the middle of the Meiji period. Biwa players such as Kenjo TSURUSAKI and Takeko YOSHIDA helped promote this biwa music. In 1896, TACHIBANA went to Tokyo and started performing and won attention. He took a second name or alias, Kyokuo, and started the Chikuzen biwa Tachibana-ryu and his name was rapidly known across the country by such as giving a performance in front of the Emperor Meiji. After the first Kyokuo, the founder, died, the Tachibana-ryu was divided into two schools: the Tachibana-kai and the Asahi-kai, and hitherto existing. A disciple of Takeko YOSHIDA, Chikufu TAKAMINE (father of Mieko TAKAMINE) became famous and dominated the biwa world but he had no successor, so his performing style came to an end. Music of the Chikuzen biwa has more gentle melodies compared to ones of the Satsuma biwa and the instrument and its plectrum are smaller. The wood of the body table was changed to paulownia and tones are softer than those of the Satsuma biwa. The tuning system conformed to the one of shamisen. Women biwa players gained in popularity and were touted as "musume biwa," namely maiden biwa. Biwa was popular also in the karyukai (world of the geisha) and so-called 'biwa geisha' appeared during a certain period. In Satsuma biwa music, songs (narrative parts) and the instrument were played alternately while the music of the Chikuzen biwa took in the musical elements of shamisen and had a part of biwa as accompaniment for songs.
Famous songs are 'Kosuiwatari,' 'Dokan,' 'Gishi no Honkai,' 'Atsumori,' 'Honno-ji Temple,' or 'Ishidomaru.'
The types of Chikuzen biwa are Yongenbiwa Instrument (four-stringed) and Gogenbiwa Instrument (five-stringed) that were designed by the first Kyokuo and his biological child, Kyokuso TACHIBANA the first, and this Gogenbiwa Instrument is overall slightly bigger. The plectrum for Gogenbiwa Instrument has a slightly wider fan-out part at the top and is similar in some degree to the Satsuma biwa's plectrum. Both have five frets (four-string five-fret, five-string five-fret). In addition to these, 'shogen' for high pitched tones and 'daigen' for low pitched tones were made but they have been generally unknown.

Biwa today

Attempts have been made to compose not only classical-style songs but also new songs as well as solos and ensembles. There are some songs composed according to a classical style but the Satsuma biwa that has a major effect like percussion instruments is often used in modern music. November Steps' and 'Eclipse' composed by Toru TAKEMITSU are well known. In addition, the Satsuma biwa and the Chikuzen biwa often play one or two parts in wagakki orchestra (orchestra of the traditional Japanese musical instrument). In the Gakubiwa, players are attempting to not only play parts in new Gagaku-kyoku (Gagaku music) but also reproduce the music of the Nara period.

Some common elements of Japanese biwa

The moso-biwa, the Satsuma biwa, and the Chikuzen biwa have high frets (called 'ju'). So, players can press strings deeper and change the tension to have a wider range when controlling music intervals (up to a major third depending on frets). Japanese biwa favored nuanced performances by making the most of a player's techniques rather than increasing the number of frets (reducing frets according to circumstance) while Chinese biwa increased frets and enhanced its powers of expression by improving functions as an instrument. Japanese biwa values the sensitive tones of silk strings but Chinese biwa used metal strings. Lutes abandoned plectrums and developed polyphony by playing with fingers and increased the number of strings, but Japanese biwa made its plectrum bigger and tried to express all tones in one tone and also give a percussion-like effect.

Impact on things other than music

It is commonly said that the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa, is named after biwa as their shapes are similar. We often see ceramics that represent biwa.