The koto (琴 or 箏) is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument, similar to the Chinese guzheng. The koto is the national instrument of Japan. Koto are about 180 centimetres (71 in) width, and made from kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa). They have 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, index finger, and middle finger) to pluck the strings.
One of the characters for koto, 箏, is also read as sō in certain contexts. Though often called by a number of other names, these terms almost always refer to similar, but different instruments, such as the Chinese guzheng (箏) or guqin (琴, called kin in Japanese).
The ancestor of the koto originated in its earliest form in the 5th century and was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century. The first known version had five strings, which eventually increased to seven strings. (It had twelve strings when it was introduced to Japan in the early Nara Period (710–784) and increased to thirteen strings). This particular instrument is known throughout Asia but in different forms: the Japanese so or koto which is a distant relative to the qin, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese dan tranh. This variety of instrument came in two basic forms, a type that had bridges and those types without bridges. The type that was most known in China was the qin, similar in design to many other instruments in Asia.
Originally, when the so, or koto, was imported to Japan, the word koto was a generic term for any and all Japanese stringed instruments. Over time the definition of koto could not describe the wide variety of these stringed instruments and the names were changed. The Azuma goto or yamatogoto became the wagon, the kin no koto became the kin, and the sau no koto was changed to the so or koto.
The modern koto originates from the so, or gakuso, used in Japanese court music. It was a popular instrument among the wealthy; the instrument koto was considered a romantic one. Some literary and historical records solo pieces for koto existed centuries before sokyoku or the music of the solo koto genre was established. According to Japanese literature, the koto was used as imagery and other extra music significance. In one part of "The Tales of Genji (Genji monogatari)", Genji falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman, who he has never seen before, after he hears her playing koto from a distance.
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