15 Mind-Blowing Facts On Shamisen Traditional Music Instrument!

Height, Age, Net Worth, Biography & More

Oluniyi Akande
Oct 05, 2023 By Oluniyi Akande
Originally Published on Nov 16, 2021
In the Japanese country, shamisen is pronounced as 'jamisen'.

The shamisen is a famed Japanese instrument also known by the names samisen or sangen.

An instrument from China famously known as sanxian is what the shamisen's name was derived from in the 16th century. The name of this instrument means 'three strings' and it is played by a small flat tool known as a 'bachi' or plectrum.

The shamisen is a Japanese fretless lute with a long neck. A compact square body which is covered with cat skin from back and front, with three twisted like silk strings, and a curved shaped back pegbox with some side pegs make up this instrument.

Shamisen music is usually played with a big plectrum or 'bachi', a small flat tool.

Different bachis produce varied tone colors for different styles and forms of music.

In this traditional musical instrument, the lowest string touches the fingerboard due to a groove cut into the neck at the higher bridge, causing a buzzing sound known as 'sawari'. The shamisen is also placed in the group of chordophone instruments because it is the strings instrument that produces vibrating and stretched sounds when played.

It is written in history that this instrument originated in China. Then in the 16th century, it came to the island of Ryukyu, also known as Okinawa, and then became widely popular in the country of Japan.

The reason behind their popularity is that shamisen music is played in various folk songs and in puppet theater. This three-stringed instrument has two different shapes in it.

They vary by their neck as the thin-necked shamisen instrument is known as hosozao, while the thick-necked instrument is known as futozao. Tsugaru-jamisen is considered one of the most appreciated and recognized genres of shamisen music, wherein Tsugaru refers to either the genre of shamisen music or the place called the Tsugaru Peninsula.

If you like reading about the mind-blowing facts on shamisen: the three-stringed musical instrument and are curious to know more fun facts, do also check out our other articles on Chinese clothes and born in January.

How to play shamisen?

Shamisen: the three-stringed Japanese instrument is one of the most beautiful and unique sounds among musical instruments worldwide. Although it is centuries old and its popularity is declining nowadays, it is still in practice and learned by all Japanese singers.

In the history of Japanese folk music, the shamisen has its own place and is considered an instrument with one of the best styles, tone, and sound, not only in Japan but also in the whole world.

In order to play the shamisen, your body language must always be straightened up. First, you must sit on the floor in seiza-style, where your knees should be open and aligned to your waist.

Much like meditation, your upper body needs to be relaxed, and you need to take a deep breath in and out. After all this, the next step comes where you need to learn to hold this Japanese sound instrument.

The skin of the shamisen should lean on your body, while the shamisen should be placed across half of your body so that you can play it easily. To play the shamisen, you have to start playing from the bottom string, which is the third string.

Here you have to place your bachi vertically with the instrument. After that, you will come to the second string and lastly to the first one.

Make sure your back is always dropped in the vertical position. If you continue this pattern, then your shamisen sound will come beautifully.

Are shamisen made of cats?

The Japanese instrument known as the shamisen is traditionally made from cat skin. If we look at the fact that the shamisen tends to appear quite like the banjo and the ukulele, people think that the shamisen is also easy to play like these two other instruments, but this is not true.

The reality is that the shamisen is a more difficult instrument because it is made up of dead cat skin and the thick silk string, which makes its style, tone sound very different compared to other wood instruments.

So, the answer to this question is yes, shamisen is hard to learn and play and a little hard to digest considering its base.

Despite this fact, it is considered important for every young geisha or folk singer to learn and master the instrument.

As of today, the Japanese School of Okeiko (Art) continues to teach young girls and boys the shamisen so that they can master it and up their tone skills and their ability to sing songs to greater heights.

Wooden materials like rosewood and oak are used to make the body, but the unique thing is that they are also made up of the skin of dead cats and dogs. If we look back in time, we see the use of cat and dog skin since the Japanese Edo period around 400 years ago.

This use of skins in this generation is not regarded much in favor, but in Japan, it is given the tag of culture, and the debate continues.

What is the sound of shamisen?

The shamisen is difficult to learn, but all Japanese people, mainly singers, make great efforts to master the sound. That is why the shamisen is an important step for a Japanese singer. And because of the resources used to create the delicate sound of this instrument, the shamisen is quite expensive to buy.

This Japanese cat skin instrument has a somewhat similar sound to the American wood instrument, the banjo.

Even if a beginner tries to play it, the sound is so beautiful that anyone could fall in love with it, and it becomes worth the price. That drum-like sound further amplifies and helps the sound of strings to resonate even more.

The sound of the shamisen is very percussive, formed by both string and skin, and thus the most important aspect of the shamisen is its sharp buzzing and resonant sound composed by the overtones of sawari.

What is the shamisen used for?

When shamisen was first introduced in Japan, it was considered the lower class's musical instrument as only street singers used these new instruments. But as time passed, shamisen made its name and slowly entered the theaters and plays like bunraku and kabuki, which are the famous puppet plays and theater forms.

From there, shamisen got famous among the Japanese and began to play in almost all folk music and puppet theaters. Even after so many centuries, shamisen are the principal instruments in kabuki plays.

Shamisen initially became famous because of the puppet theaters but were later used in folk songs, narrative songs, koto chamber music, sangen, and dramas. And as kabuki and bunraku became more attractive during the Edo period, the popularity of this Japanese instrument also ascended.

In bunraku and kabuki, the shamisen player and singer must accompany the narrator who tells the story to give the play more character and depth.

Did You Know...

When shamisen was first introduced, it gained popularity through descriptive puppet shows called bunraku. These are a refined Japanese version of the traditional puppet theater, in which elaborately costumed wooden puppets narrate stories (typically love stories) from popular literature. Thus, both the spread of the shamisen and the creation of bunraku puppet theater go hand in hand.

When both the bunraku and shamisen were in their initial stage, the popular Bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon in the 17th century described the puppet performances and chanting as incredibly beautiful. The shamisen's peculiar sound lends itself elegantly to storytelling.

In fact, when several are played in tandem, the music can convey a wide range of emotions and atmospheres, from sensuous romance to dramatic sequences.

Takemoto Gidayu, a famous singer, was not only good at manipulating the somewhat awkward sounds of the shamisen to fit any story played by Monzaemon's puppets but was also renowned for his excellent chanting, which acted as both story and dialogue.

Similar accompaniment is also used in kabuki, the portrayal of stories through dances and songs, where many spectators get in touch with the shamisen music during the Edo period.

Until the 19th century, learning the shamisen was mainly limited to male players. However, it became popular with geisha and maiko from the late Edo period to the early Meiji period.

Playing the shamisen is still considered one of the basic skills that young geisha must master. Mastering the infamous and difficult shamisen is seen as essential for any savvy geisha, considering young women of the British Victorian era were often encouraged to learn the piano as a sign of sophistication.

The Japanese performing arts school continues to teach young women and men the shamisen and kabuki techniques. Nowadays, when you go to Bunraku and Kabuki theaters, you are more likely to meet female musicians rather than male ones.

Just as all musical instruments are classified into their own families or groups, a shamisen is also classified into the lute family. After all, it is an instrument played by the strings attached to its neck and to the end where the hollow cavity is situated.

When we look at the instrument, we see that it has three strings and has a long neck, similar in style to the ukulele or banjo. Therefore, all these instruments are part of the lute family.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for 15 mind-blowing facts on shamisen traditional music instrument, then why not take a look at German vs American cockroach faceoff: difference facts revealed or flying ants vs termites: difference between insects revealed?


Second image by Rdsmith4.

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Written by Oluniyi Akande

Doctorate specializing in Veterinary Medicine

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Oluniyi AkandeDoctorate specializing in Veterinary Medicine

With an accomplished background as a Veterinarian, SEO content writer, and public speaker, Oluniyi brings a wealth of skills and experience to his work. Holding a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Ibadan, he provides exceptional consulting services to pet owners, animal farms, and agricultural establishments. Oluniyi's impressive writing career spans over five years, during which he has produced over 5000 high-quality short- and long-form pieces of content. His versatility shines through as he tackles a diverse array of topics, including pets, real estate, sports, games, technology, landscaping, healthcare, cosmetics, personal loans, debt management, construction, and agriculture.

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