The Shamisen – An Accompanying Instrument in Much Japanese Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The shamisen is a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument. It is played with a plectrum called a bachi. The shamisen originated from the Chinese instrument sanxian. It is used to accompany songs, dances, and story telling.

What is the Shamisen?

The shamisen, sometimes also referred to as a samisen or sangen, is a three-stringed plucked musical instrument originating from China that was later introduced to Okinawa and then to mainland Japan. The shamisen is commonly used as an accompaniment instrument in much Japanese folk music. It has a long neck and a body that is covered with skin. The three strings are traditionally made of catskin.

The Shamisen in Folk Music

The shamisen is a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument. It is sometimes referred to as a Japanese banjo. The shamisen is used as an accompanying instrument in a wide variety of Japanese folk music styles. It is also used in the Japanese theater tradition of Kabuki and in the Japanese court music tradition of gagaku.

The Shamisen in Tsugaru-jamisen

The shamisen is a three-stringed, long-necked instrument played with a plectrum. It has a rectangular body that is covered with skin on the front, and it is plucked like a guitar. The shamisen originated in China and was introduced to Okinawa in the 16th century. It quickly became popular in folk music and is still used today in many different genres of music.

The shamisen was originally used as an accompanying instrument in much Japanese folk music, but it has since become a solo instrument as well. The most popular style of shamisen music today is tsugaru-jamisen, which originated in the Tsugaru region of Aomori prefecture. Tsugaru-jamisen is characterized by its fast tempo and aggressive playing style. The music often features complex strumming patterns and rapid changes in tempo and dynamics.

The Shamisen in Okinawan music

The shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese banjo, is an accompanying instrument in much Japanese folk music, including Okinawan music. The shamisen originally came to Okinawa from China during the Ryukyu Kingdom period (15th – 19th centuries). In Okinawa, the shamisen was further developed and became an essential part of traditional musical performances.

The shamisen is used to accompany songs as well as dances. It is also used in solo performances. In Okinawan music, the shamisen often takes on the role of the main melody instrument, while in other types of Japanese folk music, it typically plays a supportive role accompanying the singers or other melodic instruments.

One of the most distinctive features of Okinawan music is the use of the pentatonic minor scale. This scale gives Okinawan music its characteristic sound, which is quite different from the major scale used in much Western music. The minor third interval is especially important in giving Okinawan music its distinctive sound.

The use of the pentatonic minor scale creates a sense of sadness or longing in much Okinawan music. This reflects the history of Okinawa as a place that has often been invaded or occupied by outside forces. The minor third interval also adds tension to themusic, which can be used to intensify particular emotions or moments in a song or dance.

The Shamisen in Kabuki

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese form of theater. It is known for its highly stylized performance and the use of traditional instruments, such as the shamisen. The shamisen is a three-stringed instrument that has a long, slim neck and a small body. It is believed to have originated in China and was brought to Japan in the 16th century. It quickly became popular in folk music and Kabuki theater.

In Kabuki, the shamisen is used to provide accompaniment to the singing and dancing. It is also used to create sound effects, such as the sound of rain or thunder. The shamisen player must be able to switch between different playing styles quickly and easily.

The Shamisen in Modern Times

The Shamisen is still used in much traditional Japanese Folk Music, but has also become popular in a wide range of other genres in recent years. The Shamisen has been featured prominently in many film scores, such as Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”. It has also been used in a number of rock and pop songs, most notably by George Harrison on The Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”.

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