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Title: Japanese Noh Music--Otokomai; Hiroshi Sowa, kotsuzuni, Katsuho Taniguchi, ōtsuzumi, Mitsuharu Morita, nōkan. Label: Lyrichord. Format: CD. Catalogue#: LYRCD 7137. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The kotsuzumi is a double-headed hourglass-shaped membranophone of Japan. Its primary contexts of use are in the (noh) drama hayashi (ensemble), the kabuki theatre (for both the onstage nagauta or debayashi ensemble and the offstage geza ensemble), and some folk music genres. The knowledge necessary to perform successfully as a professional kotsuzumi player in the drama context is acquired through a lengthy apprenticeship in guild or school headed by a master (iemoto). Four such schools exist for the nō kotsuzumi players: Kô, Kôsei, Okura, and Kanze. As a student rises through the ranks of a school they are granted a professional name, which includes the license to teach students, even amateur enthusiasts. Many kotsuzumi shells are decorated in lacquer with mythological or other culturally significant figures. There exists a lively group of collectors in Japan who treasure such objects as works of art. Rendered on the shell of the kotsuzumi pictured here is a gold phoenix against a black background (detail #1). For the Japanese, the phoenix (hō-ō) symbolizes, amongst other things, immortality and the southern direction, and is associated with the imperial household.


A kostuzumi is typically stored between performances in three pieces (see detail #2)--the hourglass-shaped shell () and the two framed membranes (kawa)--and assembled before being played with two lengths of braided rope: the tateshirabe, used to lash the two heads to the shell (about twelve feet in length); and the yokoshirabe, used to encircle the lashing (approximately six feet in length). These ropes are traditionally made from brightly died hemp, although on the drum pictured here synthetic rope is used. At the core of the instrument is its shell, carved from a solid block of cherry wood into an hourglass shape that is hollowed out to form two bowls (wan or uke) connected by a cylindrical shaft (su or chūshin). On the inside walls of the shell bowls are etched thousands of short lines (kaname or kana) organized, on this specimen, into rings of rows (a pattern called dan kaname) (see detail #3); this texturing of the walls of the resonating space is believed to enhance the quality of the instrument’s sound. Two nearly identical framed membranes are attached to the open ends of the . Each drumhead’s frame (fuchi) is an iron ring wrapped in bamboo or cherry bark before the membrane of horsehide, which is a few inches greater in radius than the fuchi itself, is sewn around it. The membranes differ slightly in their thickness, the thinner of the two being used for the playing head (uchikawa) and the thicker one for the back head (uragawa). Each membrane (see detail #4, showing the outfacing side of a head) is stitched to itself twice, once with about a thousand stitches just inside the fuchi, and again with sixteen broad stitches in a circle a few inches closer to the center of the head (these two rows of stitches are called sentōchi and bumawashi, respectively). Six equidistantly spaced lacing-holes are punched through the membrane just inside the fuchi. The fuchi and the bumawashi are covered with a thick coat of black lacquer, which is also used to decorate the lacing holes with stylized flower patterns (hanagata). On the reverse side of a head (detail #5), clay is used to coat the surface area between the fuchi and the bumawashi and to build up a circular lip (koshigi, see detail #6) the diameter of which is slightly greater than that of the rim of the shell. This clay coating is then covered with lacquer.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player either sits in the seiza position (on the knees, legs folded under) on the floor or on a stool. With precisely choreographed movement the drummer, holding the kotsuzumi by its yokoshirabe rope with his left hand, gracefully raises the drum from its resting position on the left thigh to its playing position on the right shoulder. In this position the playing head is facing forward and at a noticeably downward angle. The right hand is used to strike the playing head with an upward motion from the right side of the right thigh; the other head rings sympathetically but is not directly struck. The striking hand is cup-shaped and it is mostly the middle fingertips that actually strike the active part of the playing head. Four basic drum strokes/timbres are produced through controlling the energy in the striking motion, the placement of the fingertips on the active circle of the membrane, and the tension of the membrane as controlled by squeezing and relaxing the yokoshirabe rope. These basic sounds, along with vocal interjections by the drummer called kakegoe, are the building blocks of some 200 named patterns a kotsuzumi player must master. In the audio example we hear a kotsuzumi player drawing upon these patterns, interlocking with a second drummer playing another hourglass-shaped drum (the ōtsuzumi, which sounds almost like a woodblock) and a side-blown flute (nōkan).


A Japanese adaptation of imported Korean and/or Chinese drums, the kotsuzumi is known to have been an integral instrument in 13th century CE Japanese theatrical forms. These entertainments were drawn upon in the 14th century by the creators of drama, and elements of drama were subsequently absorbed into the development of kabuki theatre in the 17th century. The use of the kotsuzumi appears to have been a common thread in the evolution of all these Japanese theatrics and remains in use today both in and the kabuki theatre genres, as well as several folk music traditions that are less well documented. Although throughout its history there has been obvious visual differences between kotsuzumi used in, say, folk music settings and for drama in terms of the lavishness of surface decoration on the shells of instruments, sources do not reveal any significant design changes to the instrument over its long history.

Bibliographic Citations

Hughes, David. W. 1984. “Kotsuzumi,” NGDMI v.2: 471-472.

Kanô Mari. 2002. "Social Groups and Institutions in Japan." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 755-762.

Malm, William P. 1959. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

________. 1986. Six Hidden Views of Japanese Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

“Phoenix.” In Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System (JAANUS) website, accessed February 1 2016:

Tamba, Akira. 1981. The Musical Structure of Nô. Tokyo: Tokai University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: Japan

Formation: Japanese

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.242.11 membranophone--individual double-skin hourglass shaped drum, one skin used for playing

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - hourglass

Number and function of membranes: two, one for sounding and one for resonance

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop connected by lacing to framed membrane hoop

Membrane tension control: hugging/squeezing lacing

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with one hand

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


10.2 in. length of shell 3.3 in. diameter of shell rims 7.8 in. diameter of heads

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
rope - braided

Entry Author

Roger Vetter