The Shaku and Shakuhachi

The shaku 尺 or 'Japanese foot' is an antiquated unit of length that’s 30.3 centimeters or 11.9 inches (tailors use a different shaku which is 37.9 centimeters or 14.9 inches). The word shakuhachi 尺八 refers to the standardized length of the shakuhachi Japanese bamboo flute. It's abbreviated from ichi-shaku hachi-sun, or roughly one-foot and eight-inches. Shakuhachi works out to be about 54.5 cm (1.8*30.3). However, the length often varies slightly from instrument to instrument. This is due to flute acoustics and bamboo.

The word shakuhachi is a bit of an umbrella term in that it's commonly used to refer to any and all lengths or keys. Literally shakuhachi or "1.8’s" are almost always in the key of D4 above middle C4 (C4 being the key of the standard silver Boehm flute). However, all is not always clear-cut when it comes to the relationship between the length and the pitch.

Various factors can cause minor or major discrepancies between the length and the expected pitch. Particularly, the width of the bamboo or bore volume, the size of the bottom opening, and whether or not the shaku length is rounded up or down. For example, a shakuhachi with a larger bore volume for the length or a smaller opening at the bottom will play flatter than a more standard instrument. For these reasons, it’s often necessary to provide the precise pitch at room temperature (73° F / 22.7° C).

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