Infobox Instrument

*Necked bowl lutes
*String instruments
*Angélique (instrument)
*Barbat (lute)
*Chitarra Italiana
*Đàn tỳ bà
*Electric pipa
*Irish bouzouki
*Tanbur (Turkish)

The biwa () is a Japanese short-necked fretted lute, and a close variant of the Chinese "pipa". The "biwa" is the chosen instrument of Benten, Goddess of music, eloquence, poetry, and education in Japanese Buddhism.


The "biwa" derives from a Chinese lute called "pipa", which itself derives from a Persian/Middle Eastern lute called "barbat" (whose modern descendant in Arabic regions is called "oud"). The biwa reached Japan from China during the Nara Period (710-759 AD), and five instruments from that time are kept in the Shōsōin, the national treasure house of Japan. One of them, a rare, five-stringed "gogenbiwa" (五玄琵琶) , is decorated with Central Asian themes, including a camel. This instrument is literally one of its kind in Asia, being the only one preserved from the period, although similar instruments are manufactured in small numbers today. Wandering biwa players, similar to minstrels, were known as biwa hōshi (琵琶法師).

The playing of the biwa nearly became extinct during the Meiji period as Western music and instruments became popular.

Types of biwa

There are seven types of biwa, chacterized by number of strings, sounds it could produce, type of plectrum, and their use. As the biwa does not play in tempered tuning, pitches are approximated to the nearest note.

Classic biwa

* Gagaku biwa (雅楽琵琶) - A large and heavy biwa with four strings and four frets used exclusively for gagaku. It produces distinctive Ichikotsuchō (壱越調) and Hyōjō (平調). Its plectrum is small and thin, often rounded, and made from a hard material such as boxwood or ivory. It is not used to accompany singing. Like the heike biwa, it is played held on its side, similar to a guitar, with the player sitting cross-legged. In gagaku, it is called "gakubiwa" (楽琵琶).
* Gogenbiwa (五絃琵琶) - This T'ang variant of Biwa can be seen in paintings of court orchestras and was used in the context of gagaku, however was removed with the reforms and standardisations made to the court orchestra during the late 10th Century. It is assumed that the performance traditions died out by the 10th or 11th century (William P. Malm). This is instrument also disappeared in the Chinese court orchestras. Recently, this instrument, much like the Kugo harp has been revived for historically informed performances and historical reconstructions. Not to be confused with the five-stringed variants of modern biwa, such as chikuzen biwa.

* Mōsō biwa (盲僧琵琶) - A biwa with four strings used to play Buddhist mantra and songs. It is similar in shape to the chikuzen biwa but with a much more narrow body. Its plectrum varies in both size and materials. The four fret type is tuned to E, B, E, A, and the five fret type is tuned to B, e, f-sharp, and f-sharp. The six fret type is tuned to B-flat, E-flat, B-flat, and b-flat.

Middle and Edo biwa

* Heike biwa (平家琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and five frets used to play Heike Monogatari. Its plectrum is slightly larger than that of the gagaku biwa, but the instrument itself is much smaller, comparable to a Chikuzen biwa in size. It was originally used by traveling biwa minstrels, and its small size lent it to indoor play and improved portability. Its tuning is A, c, e, a or A, c-sharp, e, a.

* Satsuma biwa (薩摩琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four frets popularized during the Edo Period in Satsuma Province (present day Kagoshima) by "Shimazu Nisshinsai". Modern biwas used for contemporary compositions often have five or more frets, and some have a doubled fourth string. The frets of the Satsuma biwa are raised 4 centimeters from the neck allowing notes to be bent several steps higher, each one producing the instrument's characteristic sawari, or buzzing drone. Its boxwood plectrum is much wider than others, often reaching widths of 25 centimeters or more. According to popular belief, this was due to its popularity among samurai - the plectrum having to double as a weapon (William P. Malm, Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments), although its size and construction influences the sound of the instrument as the curved body is often struck percussively with the plectrum during play. The Satsuma biwa is traditionally made from Japanese mulberry , although other hard woods such as Japanese zelkova are sometimes used in its construction. Due to the slow growth of the Japanese mulberry, the wood must be taken from at least a 120 year old tree and dried for ten years before construction can begin. The strings are made of wound silk. Notes are adjusted to the player's voice and its tuning is A, E, A, B, for traditional biwa, G, G, c, g, or G, G, d, g for contemporary compositions, among many other tunings. The most eminent 20th century "Satsuma biwa" performer was Tsuruta Kinshi, who developed her own version of the instrument, which she called the "Tsuruta biwa". This biwa usually has five strings and five or more frets, and the construction of the tuning head and frets vary slightly. Ueda Junko and Tanaka Yukio, two of Tsuruta's best students, continue the tradition of the modern Satsuma biwa.

Modern biwa

* Chikuzen biwa (琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four frets or five strings and five frets popularized in the Meiji Period by Tachibana Satosada. Most contemporary performers use the five string version. Its plectrum is much smaller than that of the Satsuma biwa, usually about 13 centimeters in width, although its size, shape, and weight depends on the sex of the player. The plectrum is usually made from rosewood with boxwood or ivory tips for plucking the strings. The instrument itself also varies in size, depending on the player. Male players use biwas that are slightly wider and/or longer than those used by females or children. The body of the instrument is never struck with the plectrum during play, and the five string instrument is played upright, while the four string is played held on its side. The tuning of the four string version is B, e, f-sharp, b and the five string instrument is tuned C, G, C, d, g or E, B, e, f-sharp, b. "Asahikai" and "Tachibanakai" are two schools of chikuzen biwa. Popularly used by female biwa players such as Uehara Mari.

* Nishiki biwa (錦琵琶) - A modern biwa with five strings and five frets popularized by "Suitō Kinjō". Its plectrum is the same as that used for the Satsuma biwa. Its tuning is C, G, c, g, g.


* Suda Seishu (須田誠舟)

Use in popular music

Although the "biwa" has been little used in popular music, the Japanese progressive rock band Paikappu used it in the 1980s, and the Japanese American pop music group Rin' has used it since 2003.

See also


External links

* [ Introduction to the Hei-kyoku]
* [ Biwa page from Kotos and More]
* [ Images of Historical reconstruction performances - Includes one image of a woman playing Gogenbiwa]


* [ "Biwa" video]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • biwa — [ biwa ] n. m. • av. 1895; mot jap. ♦ Didact. Luth japonais utilisé dans la musique traditionnelle. Des biwas. ● biwa nom masculin (mot japonais) Luth japonais piriforme à plusieurs touches et cordes en soie. biwa [biwa] n. m. ÉTYM. XXe, attesté; …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Biwa —   die, / s, eine mit Plektron gezupfte, birnenförmige japanische Kurzhalslaute mit 4 6 Saiten, abgewinkeltem Wirbelkasten, langen seitenständigen Wirbeln und 2 5 Bünden. Die Biwa, ein Abkömmling der chinesischen Pipa, erklingt als… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Biwa — Biwa, mandolinenartiges, viersaitiges, japanisches Musikinstrument mit vier Bünden, wird mit einem breiten Plektrum (Batsi) gespielt …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Biwa — Biwa, japan. Gitarre [Tafel: Musik I, 19] …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

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