Honkyoku are the most venerated pieces for the shakuhachi and are considered to be a Zen art form. They were mostly composed by the Komuso monks during the Edo period and many distinct regional styles developed, though few have survived to this day. Honkyoku (本曲) literally means “original/true/real music” and the word can refer to a single piece or to the genre as a whole. “Hon” can also refer to Hon-joshi which is the most common joshi or “mode” of the Insempo or “dark-scale” used in honkyoku (Insempo is the only scale used for honkyoku). Honkyoku are also unique in that they’re mostly solo pieces with pauses of silence or Ma.
Additionally, honkyoku are highly nuanced making it virtually impossible to transcribe them to staff notation. In fact, even the various Japanese systems of notation for the shakuhachi cannot convey many of the subtleties found in a honkyoku. For example, it would be like trying to infer or convey the accent of a regional dialect through written text alone. For this reason, the passing down of honkyoku must occur between teacher and student or orally.
Honkyoku for Zen/meditation/mindfulness
Honkyoku have a unique structure that is well suited to meditation. They typically have no set rhythm and barely any melody. The phrases are fallowed by moments of relative silence in which the player takes a breath. The quality of these rests can be as important as the phrases. These pauses are often called Ma which means “space”. This structure allows the player to focus on the breath, the quality of the shakuhachi sound, and the relative silence in between. Let’s take a look below.
Above you’ll find the a honkyoku piece called Kyorei. It’s widely revered as one of the most calming or meditative pieces and it’s also one of the more easier pieces to learn. Although, it’s of course difficult to perfect! Kyorei comes from Fudaiji (temple) and this version was arranged by Jin Nyodo. The small excerpt is of me playing the first 5 phrases on a large bass shakuhachi nearly 3 feet long. Honkyoku are read right to left, top to bottom. You’ll notice that I’ve numbered the lines or columns for convenience. Each phrase is separated by a circle which is where one takes a breath. These breaths create that unique relative silence I mentioned.
Honkyoku are written using the Japanese katakana alphabet. Each katakana represents a certain finger-position. For example, the character Ro (ロ) corresponds to having all finger holes covered. The scale used for honkyoku is called the In-senpo or “dark-scale”. “Dark” refers to the unique flattened notes which have a quieter, subdued quality. These notes are indicated by a small me (メ). The relative length of a note in a given phrase is indicated by a line drawn downward or outward from the note (above I used an old obscure Seien Ryu/Fudaiji style where the lines go outward diagonally).
Basically, if there is no line the note is short but if there’s a line the note is extended. Because each phrase is meant to last one full exhalation, at least ideally, the notes written for one phrase are divided proportionally based on the length of our exhalation. This makes pieces automatically “customized” to each person’s skill level and/or physical ability. Each phrase/breath is separated by either a horizontal line or a circle.
While honkyoku scores may look intimidating at first to someone unfamiliar with katakana, in my opinion it is significantly easier to read than Western notation. Honkyoku notation is basically tablature because it’s very visual and learning to read it from scratch can be done in a matter of hours.