Biwa came to Japan in the form of the Chinese pipa.  There are many types of biwa such as gagaku biwa used in gagaku imperial court music; mōsō biwa used in prayer and storytelling by blind monks; Heike biwa accompanying Tales of Heike; Satsuma biwa that developed in the modern era; and Chikuzen biwa popular since Meiji (1868-1912).

An ancient relic of a straight necked, five-string biwa can be found in the Shosoin treasure house of Todaiji Temple although just one piece remains.  Other than this, there are basic biwa with four-strings and necks that curve backwards.  As for modern biwa, instruments with five or more strings have been invented but the fourth and fifth string on most of the five string instruments produce the same pitch.  Aside from the gagaku biwa used in gagaku imperial court music most biwa are used as accompaniments to storytelling or narration.  Also, apart from attempts in contemporary music, biwa are not found in ensembles with other instruments.

Many narrative biwa pieces recount tales of war showcasing masculine expressions and, especially on the Satsuma biwa, also include thumping strums with the bachi or plectrum.

Frets on a biwa – called jū or chū – are tall and number either four or five.  By pressing down between the frets the modern biwa is able to produce various pitches.


Music Library

Gion Syouja
Yamazaki Kyokusui(1906-2006),
Junko Tahara
Year UNK*
under construction
Nasu no Yoichi
Tachibana Kyokusyu(1848-1919)
Year UNK*
under construction
Youkou no Niwa
Atsuki Sumi
under construction
Hana no Uta
Junko Tahara
under construction
*Name UNK:Name of composer unknown. Year UNK:Year of composition unknown.



Chikuzen Four String Biwa and Five String Biwa

Biwa Score
Classical Biwa Performance
Contemporary Biwa Performance
One Five String Te, Phrase "Sakura"

Performance by Junko Tahara

In each episode, when staff notation is applicable, it is standardized by absolute pitch notation.