Note: Each school of shakuhachi honkyoku had a slightly or completely different notation system. Most of the notes on these charts will cross over to other schools. I primarily use on an old Seien Ryu system which uses a vertical line on the left of a note to indicate Kan (as seen below). Because of this, extra Kan specific notes are not required.
The natural scale – Minor Pentatonic (read right to left)
Like most shakuhachi notation this chart is read from right-to-left and top-to-bottom. Underneath the Katakana characters you’ll find the name of the note written phonetically in what’s called Romaji or “Romanized Kanji”. The listed pitches are for a 1.8 “D” shakuhachi and are underneath the Romaji. A black dot represents a closed finger-hole, a ring is an open finger-hole, and the horizontal line separates the front four finger-holes from the rear thumb-hole. The atari > symbol shows which hole the standard repeat is performed on. The Japanese number for each of the five finger holes is shown to the far right. Starting with 1 they’re ichi, ni, san, shi, and go (“eetch”, “knee”, “sahn”, “shee”, “goh”).
The shakuhachi has two full octaves and some third octave notes. In Japanese, the first octave is called otsu (乙) while the second octave is called kan (甲). The first sound you get will most likely be in otsu because kan requires more air-pressure. The bottom row shows the same six notes but in Kan which is indicated by a vertical line to the left of a note.
Notice that Ha and I (ee) are played with the bottom two finger-holes closed. This is done because it helps produce a more solid tone on these two notes by raising the pressure. When descending from Ha to Chi, notice that the bottom two fingers must lift-off in sync with the top-hand index finger coming down on the 4th finger-hole. This transition is one of the more tricky ones in the beginning but with practice it will become second nature. Strive for a smooth, clean transition between these two notes.
(Esoteric footnote: Ha is sometimes represented by the katakana character Ri (り). Ha is used in the Seien Ryu of Fudaiji (西園流 譜代寺) which is the first school of honkyoku that I teach. The use of the character Ha in the Seien Ryu pre-dates Nakao Tozan’s use of it in his Tozan Ryu (都山流). Taizan’s Myoan was derived from the Seien Ryu so they also use Ha.)
Common Meri Notes
This chart has the most common meri notes. Meri means to flatten or “lower” the pitch. The listed pitches are for a 1.8 “D” shakuhachi. Most meri notes are ideally played around 25 cents flatter than perfect pitch (-25). Some meri notes are not played 25 cents flatter but rather are at a perfect pitch like Ro dai meri and U dai meri. It takes considerable time to play these notes at the right pitches. I offer key guidance on how to achieve them in one-on-one lessons, especially in the upper octave kan.
(Esoteric footnote: There’s some understandable confusion surrounding proper use of the terms meri and dai meri. Dai simply means “big” or “great” and meri means to “lower”. A dai meri note is one that is flattened two semitones from the natural note while a meri note, such as Chi meri, is only flattened one semitone. However, in speech and in writing dai meri notes are often abbreviated to just “meri”. This is why in the chart dai is in parenthesis. People often mistakenly refer to a Tsu meri at Ro pitch as “Tsu dai meri”. Some have called this note Tsu O’meri in modern times. In the Kinpu Ryu they called this note Ru which I have adopted as well.)
Master Note Chart
*1 Ru is the same fingering as Tsu (Dai) Meri but it’s played one semi-tone deeper by lower the head more. It’s the same pitch as Ro.
*2 Chi kari only works well on shakuhachi with old tuning in which Chi is already sharp by 50~ cents.
*3 Ah is only used in the Kinpu Ryu.
*4 Ko can either be played with hole 1 open or with hole 2 open, as shown.
*5 This note is most often played at the beginning of a breath in Otsu before Ro kan.
*6 Ro-go is played with the thumb hole shaded in Kan but open in Otsu.
*7 Hi in kan should produce the pitch of “Eb”, same as Tsu (Dai) Meri, however, in Otsu Hi is the same pitch as I and Ro which is “D” on a 1.8 shakuhachi.
(Esoteric footnotes: I’ve adopted the old Seien Ryu notation method of using a vertical line to the left-side of a note to indicate that it’s in the upper octave Kan. This eliminates the need for a second Katakana to express Ha in Kan, as is customary in Kinko Ryu notation (Ri and Hi in Kan).
In the Seien Ryu Wii represent what is often called U-san in other schools.
Since I also teach Kinpu Ryu I’ve adopted the use of Ru to express Tsu (dai) meri lowered a bit further to Ro pitch.
Lastly, Ro-go is a common note, however, in most notations the Go or “five” is omitted. The result is that one must take into account surrounding notes in order to determine if it’s not, in fact, a regular Ro. To avoid any confusion I added the go which refers to the open or shaded 5th thumb-hole.)