Exploring Japanese Folk Music


In online instrumental lessons I’m currently finding a focus on exploring new genres and creative activities very helpful in enriching the learning situation for pupils when so many of the normal teaching resources are not readily available. I thought it might be helpful to other teachers to update this project and make it available here.

These are some ideas for creative exploration of a Japanese folk scale by classes/ groups. They may also be of interest to instrumental teachers and individual musicians.

Pentatonic, or 5-note scales, are common in Japanese music. The version of the pentatonic scale, encountered in Western folk tunes contains no semitones but these are extremely important in the Japanese pentatonic scales. In this little exploration, we will work with a scale using:

D Eb G A Bb D (C instruments)
E F A B C E (Bb instruments)

It will be seen that, like our own major scale, this divides up into two identical patterns of intervals. Here, though, each group, is comprised of a semitone and a major 3 .

a) The scale can be played on any melodic instruments available. Practise it
several times, until everyone can play it from memory. Play it at different
dynamics and with crescendi/ diminuendi. (As we will see later, dynamic variation is an important feature of this genre).

b) When everyone is familiar with the scale, it can be used for some ‘call and response’ improvisation. Try this first of all using the A Bb D group for the call and D Eb G group for the response. In this ‘limited note’
improvisation, it is rhythmic assurance and appreciation of phrase length that make for convincing melodies. If pupils are not familiar with this way of working, some practice with predetermined rhythms may be necessary. Actually, in Japanese melodies, the rhythmic conventions differ from those to which we are accustomed.

Later, after some exposure to recorded examples, it would be good to draw pupils attention to these differences in rhythmic organisation. In Japanese melodies, phrases tend to start with long notes and have lots of faster notes towards the end of the phrase. When players are confident with this, more satisfying melodic phrases can be made by adding A to the lower tetrachord and G to the upper tetrachord.

The islands which make up Japan are very mountainous and space for building is scarce. Consequently, the lowlands which skirt the mountains have become an almost continuous ribbon of urban development. Land on which to garden is very precious. Does this, perhaps, account for the preponderance of nature themes in the arts of this most industrialised country?.

c) The scale might be used in group improvisations based on nature themes, e.g.

“Gardens in the Moonlight”, “At the Sea’s Edge”, “Cherry Blossoms”. The latter is the English translation of “Sakura”, probably Japan’s best-known folk song.

In these, pupils should play sparingly, only when they feel their own instrumental sound has something to add at that particular point in the unfolding piece. At other times, giving way to the ideas of others. And always, always listening! It is often a good idea to have a volunteer start with others joining in, as and when they feel it is appropriate. Later, individual melodies can be composed for these titles.

d) If at all possible, listen to recordings of Japanese folk music. Of course, you could do this first but pupils will probably listen with more interest if they have explored the scale and have something in common with the oriental composers. There are many new ideas to take on board.

Two of the most frequently encountered Japanese instruments are the shakuhachi and the koto. Because these instruments have attracted so much interest from pop musicians, every General Midi keyboard has preset sounds for them. If pupils try playing these ‘voices’ after listening to real recordings, though, they are likely to be disappointed. Why do they sound so different? What is missing from the keyboard version? There are, quite likely, three aspects of Japanese performance practice missing or inadequately represented.. These are : pitch bend (microtonal sharpening or, more often, flattening of notes), producing a smeared
effect; vibrato (a wobble in the sound) and lots of swells and falls in the
dynamics. These all feature in Jazz, as well, and are probably the things that have attracted pop musicians to the music.

e) Players of stringed and wind instruments can now try out ways of incorporating these performance practices into their own improvisations and compositions. Here, at last, is a new use for those recorders they thought they had outgrown!) On wind instruments pitch bend is brought about (too often, unintentionally!) By changing the lip formation or making small movements with the mouthpiece of the instrument. Vibrato, as commonly used in flute playing nowadays, is best achieved by creating a pulsation in the air-flow by ha-ha-ha-ing, pushing from the diaphragm. In videos of traditional Japanese shakuhachi playing, though, it seems to be achieved by a skaking of the head and there are several other ways of producing vibrato. These techniques are difficult to do really well but everyone will have a lot of fun trying them out! (We shouldn’t forget that voices are musical instruments and this sort of thing can sometimes free up reluctant singers.)

f ) Pitch-bend and changes in the rate of vibrato are not possible on most
classroom keyboards but if your department has more ezpensive keyboards or dedicated synthesizers these will probably have pitch-bend and modulation (vibrato) wheels to add these effects to
the sound. Try playing your ‘shakuhachi’ with these controls and hear how
different it sounds.


g) Individual pupils may now like to try incorporating these effects into their own compositions.

h) Finally, listen to any available recordings of pieces in which contemporary and pop composers borrow ideas from, traditional Japanese music.

Notes on Inclusion
Tuned percussion with removable bars may make the activities more accessible for pupils unable to find and play the pitches on other instruments. If a switch system is available, switches can also be programmed to sound the pitches. A switch system may also afford opportunities to explore pitch-bend.

© Audrey Podmore, 2001,2021

Useful Resources
Many examples of Japanese Folk Music can now be found on YouTube

“The Enchanted Forest – Melodies of Japan” James Galway – Flute. Hiro Fujikake – synthesizers. Japanese folk songs arranged by Galway and original, folk inspired compositions by Hiro Fujikake. Track 6 (Song of the Deep Forest) is an improvisation.
RCA Victor RD87893
(CD/MP3s available from various online sources)

Flute players {and players of many other C instruments) will find free scores for several Japanese folk tunes on the wonderful flutetunes.com.

See also numerous compositions by Toru Takemitsu

Are We Excited About Making Music?

At the end of last term, I received a “Thank You” card from an elementary level pupil, which expressed that most joy-inducing of pupil responses: “I’m excited about next year!” It really motivated me to discover new things about the music I teach and play and rediscover things I take for granted after a lifetime immersed in music. I’m so happy to share the excitement of the beginner and awed by the responsibility to ensure that the journey matches expectations!

The first thing I have to bear in mind is that lessons aren’t about what and how I want to teach, rather, what and how the pupil wants to learn. That’s fairly easy to ascertain by presenting the adult with choices of repertoire and trying different approaches to see how they respond. I think it’s more difficult, though, to get ‘under the skin’ of children. The latter do not have too many preconceptions about their tuition, they are reluctant to tell a teacher if things are not to their liking, and they have had limited exposure to the range of musical genres. Yet music is not a distinct body of knowledge to be parcelled up in portions digestible by the young, but a world which each experiences in a uniquely personal way.

How can we relive the discoveries of our own musical journeys and open the door on new experiences for our pupils? With that in mind, a few of the things I’m going to work on are

  • introducing pupils to new genres and styles through ‘quick study’ pieces, using arrangements that make few demands on the current level of technical development, through pupil/teacher duets and listening activities.
  • exploring scales through simple improvisation activities, taking a small chunk of the mode at a time.
  • where appropriate, linking pieces to more developed works of similar character on listening sites, also the same piece in different arragements.
  • focusing on the central role of rhythm in melodic structure and character and exploring this in improvisation.
  • as younger pupils seem to spend a lot of time on YouTube and similar sites, I will be encouraging them to share their favourite links with me, so that I can build on their discoveries.

My search for strategies to enhance pupil experience goes on and, meanwhile, I’m now excited about this new academic year! 🙂

Taking An ‘Adult’ Approach To Music Lessons

I must confess that I much prefer to teach adults! For a start, they’re usually taking lessons for the right (for them) reasons and so have a much clearer idea of what they want to achieve. Often, they will have had lessons as children and, when they stopped taking them, their music-making stopped with them. These prospective pupils are disappointed that they have so little, if anything, to show for their efforts and are ready for a fresh start music tuition.

With all my pupils I endeavour to take a creative and holistic approach to their programme of study but adults, being less pressured by other people’s expectations of them, are better able to relax and enter into the spirit of it. The creative approach isn’t just about improvisation and composition, although we certainly do those things if the pupil is interested. It is also about being able to adapt learning to new situations, being open to new styles, taking a fresh approach to the music at each performance and making it one’s own. If they have had lessons previously, we look at new ways of using whatever skills they already have; we explore what opportunities there are for local music-making and, where appropriate, ways of making music within the family.

Adults often feel it’s too late to begin lessons but, truly it is never too late! They are far better equipped to benefit from tuition than are their young counterparts and, certainly, the benefits of music-making for older people are both great and numerous. So, if you have been secretly envious of your young relations’ music-making, delay no longer and find yourself a teacher!

Pentatonic Magic for Beginner Improvisers

Years ago, when I used to run a lot of creative workshops, the car load of equipment  used to resource them included a Casio CTK 650 keyboard. This, to my mind, inspired piece of kit had a function called “Magical Presets”. Thirty-six of these were “Free Session” presets, or chord sequences for auto playback (Blues, Major/Long, Major/Short, Minor/Long, Minor/Short). When a  chord sequence preset was combined with one of the CTK 650’s “Rhythms”, playback could be started by holding down the “Intro” button while pressing the root note of the tonic chord. Over a familiar rhythmic style, we would improvise, using the notes of a pentatonic scale (a major scale omitting the 4th and 7th degrees).

Pentatonic scales are familiar to most music teachers because the lack of semitones in these scales means that several random melodies can be played simultaneously without sounding too horribly discordant, often a great advantage in the average junior classroom! I don’t think too many, apart from jazz musicians, use them with music that is not pentatonic. I found that they work well in a fully diatonic context (music that uses only notes of the major/relative minor scale) because dissonances are resolved n the original musical arrangement. That covers lots of folk and pop.

I hadn’t used the CTK 650, in this way, for a long time but recently dug it out and asked some creative-approach instrumental pupils if they would like to explore some of the unfamiliar rhythmic styles. We hadn’t heard of half of them but they were ‘game’, having been asked to do plenty of bizarre stuff in their time with me! I thought we would have fun – and we did, but I wasn’t prepared for the assured and satisfying improvisations that they came up with! I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, because a pentatonic scale seems to be part of the musical heritage of all cultures. Each has additional ways of organising melodic material and notes are used in different melodic patterns but the pentatonic is recognised and absorbed.

You might enjoy this TED video of Bobby McFerrin using an audience to ‘play’ a pentatonic scale:

The CTK 650 has been obsolete for a long time and I don’t know if any keyboards have this function nowadays but there are many pieces of software which allow for quick creation of chord sequences and improvisers can also try adding their pentatonic ‘two- pennyworth’ in live jamming sessions and to recorded music. It may not always work but often it will and you can have a lot of fun finding out!

At What Age Can My Child Learn Clarinet?

It’s very easy for a young child to to fall in love with the clarinet: its sound is creamy and mellow in the lower register, while exciting and trumpet-like at higher pitches. The first encounter may happen when a marching band comes down the street, one or two musicians play jazz in a subway or, sadly, less-common nowadays, at a classical concert. The clarinet has a leading role in all these situations and many more. It may be at a school concert that it is first heard but it is less commonly offered in primary schools. This is down to size and weight, along with the complexity of assembling the instrument, which all make it better suited to a start at 11+.

I usually recommend delaying lessons till the child is about nine. However, there can be no hard and fast rules, as children come in a range of sizes and rates of physical development and some can cope earlier. However, with a plastic instrument, designed for younger players, a start can be made much sooner by many. The tone quality of these instruments is very good and they are real clarinets. Here’s the international soloist, Julian Bliss, playing, as a 5-year old, on a plastic instrument:


Graham Lyons, the inventor of this clarinet has now produced a new model, marketed as ‘Clarineo’ and available in white, black or silver. These instruments will serve the child well in the first few years of tuition and are accepted by UK examining boards for performance up to and including Grade Three.

Want some music for absolute beginners on clarinet? Then visit my
Clarinet for Beginners Downloads page.

A More Accessible and Versatile Clarinet?

Would you like to play a simple, versatile instrument with a good clarinet sound that’s light and easy to carry around and works great for playing jazz and folk? Yes?- then you need a chalumeau. This isn’t, as you may think, some newfangled instrument but, rather, a very old one. The chalumeau seems to have been the forerunner of the clarinet. It is a a recorder-like instrument but played with a single reed. It was essentially a diatonic instrument with a range of a ninth and came in various sizes, each producing the notes of a different scale. Some chalumeaux have pairs of half-holes for the lower notes, as do recorders, and this allows for some chromatic notes. Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with adding one or two keys and, eventually, this led to the instrument we recognise today as a clarinet.

Early music afficionados have often had reproductions made of chalumeaux and early clarinets. Naturally, these were expensive to produce and so were available only to a small circle of people. Then, a few years ago, a British firm created a chalumeau tailor-made for the “Wider Opportunities” scheme introduced in UK schools. This was a very modestly priced instrument in one piece and virtually indestructible. I blogged about it in my post “Chalumeau Clarinets and Wider Opportunities”  There are now several thousand of these instruments in use in UK schools. It is not only children who can benefit from these instruments, though. Anyone who wants to achieve a clarinet sound without the weight and complexity of the modern instrument will appreciate this alternative.

Having no keys and rings, the chalumeau responds much more readily to pitch modifications as practised in jazz and many folk music styles. Several instrument manufacturers have created their own versions, with or without one or two keys to extend the range. Online stores for folk instruments are good places to look for them initially.

To whet your appetite and demonstrate its versatility, here’s the response of clarinetist Heribert Eckert when he encountered one at a trade fair:

Using Tonic Sol-fa in the Classroom

Here’s a great opportunity for UK teachers to find out about tonic sol-fa in class teaching: “Kodaly in the Klassroom” is a weekend course (14th – 15th May) set up under the auspices of the British Kodaly Academy. The website says that the course is suitable for

“Anyone interested in classroom music teaching (preschool and primary). There is no need to be a music reader. This workshop is also suitable for instrumental teachers who want learn the Kodaly principles. Very useful for “whole class” teaching.”

The Kodaly Approach is today’s most wide-spread tonic sol-fa based teaching ‘method’ and there are associations and music schools dedicated to promoting it in many countries. So, if you are not in the UK, the chances are that there will be a group offering similar ‘introduction to Kodaly’ opportunities in your own country.

Of course, the Kodaly Method is about so much more than sol-fa! It is, rather,  an holistic approach to music education through singing. ‘Method’ is a misnomer and the term is no longer used by Kodaly practitioners. It is extremely difficult to capture this approach and pin it down within the confines of a textbook but those seeking a brief introduction may find Susan Brumhill’s “First, We Sing! Kodály-Inspired Teaching for the Music Classroom!” helpful.

iPad and a Christmas Singalong for Seniors

At this time of year, care homes, lunch clubs and community groups often want to have a a good singalong. All too often, though, they don’t have anyone with sufficient confidence to lead one and provide instrumental support. That was the obstacle encountered by the ladies who put on tea parties for the senior members of our parish. For some reason, all those they usually call upon were unavailable and I was asked, at the last minute, to step in. My solution was a simple one that’s available to many carers, so I thought I’d share it here.

We don’t have a piano in the church hall at the moment and, if we did, I would have been reluctant to use it. I know from experience that making eye contact with members of a group and singing, even unaccompanied, engenders confidence and involvement far in excess of anything possible when dividing my attention between direct communication and providing an accompaniment. In the past, when lacking an accompanist, I have kept myself free to facilitate by providing accompaniments through a computer system running professional music software. That was some years ago, though, and the technology has all changed, with the result that many of the Christmas music files don’t play back correctly on my current software and equipment. The old stuff is buried, deep in the garage, underneath the remnants of my old kitchen! Then, “Yippee!!!” – the iPad came to the rescue.



For a singalong, it’s important to be able to quickly adjust the speed and pitch of the music to suit the assembly. On the iPad I used the very simple Jam Player app to do this. The app also allowed me to move very quickly between pieces, which is another important consideration in this context. The accompaniments were nearly all  my own musical arrangements but a less experienced musician could use music downloaded from iTunes or other online sources. Jam Player will load the music from the Music folder into which the iPad automatically saves downloaded music files. My only quibble with this was that the first playback started automatically as soon as the file loaded, so I had to get in quickly and click “Stop”, so that music started at my convenience, not that of the iPad! That isn’t too big a deal, though, in an informal gathering.

I have been looking, without success,  for  equally simple audio playback with pitch and speed options for PC and Android. There are, though, several players for both operating systems and many non-specialists will be familiar with one or more of them and use them to play their own music collections. Some like  Microsoft’s Media Player will allow the user to edit the speed but the controls aren’t all on one screen like Jam Player’s simple knobs. Slightly more tech-savvy folk may be happy to use a separate app like “Amazing Slowdowner” for editing  files prior to use.

On the PC, Full Pitcher’s “MIDIgrid” and “GridPlay” software provides a very simple playback facility for midifiles, where numerous tracks can be presented on a single screen, ready for playback in quick succession. The end-user doesn’t have to know anything about MIDI or music to use this software but can just “click and play”.

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Sol-fa Syllables for Some Major Scales

Here is another screen capture from the free “Learn Tonic Solfa with GridPlay” software. This grid allows you to play the notes of four major scales on a modulator which is labelled with both letter names and sol-fa syllables:


The various grids included in the software present scales in different inversions for different learning situations. For example, simple songs often use a range from low ‘so’ to the ‘mi’ above the tonic.

Ashampoo_Snap_2015.02.02_17h28m54s_007_GridPlay- -MRDTLSx4-grd-

Teachers could edit these grids in the parent program, MIDIgrid, to add other keys or ranges.

Below is a PDF file showing both sol-fa symbols (Kodaly) and notation for several major scales:

Solfa and notation

Fireworks – A Round for Bonfire Night


The lyrics of this piece also work well as a spoken round and repeated phrases. We can play with words like “fizzling”, “spitting”, “whoosh”, “shoots” to create sound pictures, so even non-singers can get creative with this one!

This can be sung in unison or as a round. Place lots of emphasis on the consonants of the words, creating vocal sound effects. Selected words and phrases can be used as a repeated accompaniment. Create your own ‘firework-display’ by singing or reciting sections, in your own sequences or combinations.


Bonfire Night is lots of fun,
Launching fresh fireworks one by one.
Fizzling sparklers’ silver light,
Spitting, spinning Catherine Wheels, spirals bright!
Whoosh, bang! Rocket shoots up high.
Then a shower of fiery rain falls from the sky.
Splutter, splutter, whizza, boom! Up into the sky
Shoots another rocket,  speeding high, so high!
© Audrey Podmore, 2003

Click Here to listen to the audio and download melody and lyrics of this, and other seasonal songs, from the Autumn Fun page