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! 🙂

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.

Why Group Improvisation?

Some years ago I wrote “When creatively engaged, we are not comparing ourselves to anyone else, measuring ourselves against external standards. We can contribute, give of ourselves, in the humility that is truth, and rejoice in the contribution of others, untainted by envy or disdain” (Creativity and Inclusion) It’s impossible to be immersed in the creative process whilst in critical mode, so creative music-making can be profoundly liberating.  The only obstacle to sharing is our fear of opening our personal creative world to others because that is to reveal our vulnerability with the ‘humility that is truth‘.  I wonder how many people there are who improvise, but only in the privacy of their bedroom, or have composed pieces that will never see the light of day. And writing on a blog can be pretty scarey, too! I’ve just been pondering these things again after revisiting my earlier post, (Failure, the Price of Success) . One commentator described, what he considered, an irrational fear of participating in an open jam session. I wasn’t focusing on improvisation in that post but his was, perhaps, a perfect example of the principle: he would have to accept the death of failure in order to participate but having  accepted that, he would be free. Once improvising in a group (where everyone has had to  make the same acceptance and commitment) he would, of necessity, be absorbed in the shared moment of creation (success). Any thoughts of ‘failure’ would be down to ‘outsiders’ listening in (an audience) – and that’s their problem! Because everyone, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, must make the same commitment and have the same opportunity for discovery, creative music-making in a group can be truly inclusive. Wouldn’t all musicians benefit greatly from group improvisation (without an audience)?

The Joy of a Community Musical

I spent yesterday at an event that clearly underlined how rewarding and joyful inclusive music-making can be! I arrived at 10.15 for a 10.30 start on a workshop preparation of ‘The Haslemere Highwayman’ to find that some early birds were already eagerly getting the feel of the perfoming space in the St. Bartholomew’s Church. A core team from the cast, which aged from 3-87 and included children from the primary school, members of the church choir and local talent from other choirs and amateur dramatic societies, had done some work on learning the songs and principal roles. At the designated time, they would be joined by anyone who cared to come in and take part.

The daunting task of rehearsing this motley crew for a Haslemere Festival performance in the evening fell to composer Stella Coussell and musical director Clive Osgood, assisted with props and slick stage management by Zoë Clarke. Except that this talented trio didn’t appear to be in the least daunted! There were lots of songs with catchy tunes and lyrics, as well as more challenging music for experienced singers. At the evening performance, there was also plenty of opportunity for audience participation, with Zoë holding up large cue cards.Stella drew great performances from the younger cast members, who rehearsed all day with amazing enthusiasm and concentration, tribute to the engaging quality of both her writing and direction!

The story goes that the the Haslemere Rector in the 1790s was also a highwayman: Well, a pile of brass tags from stolen mail sacks were found in the house of Rector, James Fielding, so he must have been! After much research, composer and librettist, Stella Coussell, deftly wove this tale together with others from local history and legend to create an exciting and atmospheric storyline. This embraced, amongst other things, the Great Storm of 1795, which was recreated by Clive Osgood on the organ, with enthusiastic sound effects from the audience. Everyone was challenged and successful, the ‘goodies’ in the story triumphed and it had a romantic ending – what more could one ask? Thanks, Stella, for a great day!

A Sol-fa Song and Activities (Ages 3-7)

Here’s a song with which to step the beat, sing a do-mi-so tune to tonic sol-fa and lyrics and improvise 3-note tunes and accompaniments. “The Grand Old Duke of York’s Soldier” is one of two tunes included in the “Marching” grid (a grid is like a mini-app) from our software “GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 1. (See the YouTube video below) This song can now be found on our updated ‘Kids’ Pages‘ with audio playback.

“What a grumpy soldier, I,
Tired of marching – me, oh my!
Up the hill and then march down,
Marching all the way to town.

Marching Song Score

Marching Song Score


Get Creative with 2-Chord Tunes!

2-chord tunes are a wonderful resource for a creative approach to music teaching! A vast number of melodies can be harmonised with just chords I and V – folk tunes, of course, but also melodies by major composers. See the teacher notes for a classroom project based on “Carnival of Venice”, which can be downoaded from our Easy/Classroom Ensembles page. This uses classroom, or other available,  instruments and body percussion. In my software package, GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 2, though, one of the fifteen grids (mini-apps) is IVTUNES, in which I’ve designed a self-contained resource for exploring the subject. Teacher notes in the accompanying e-book make it even easier for a non-specialist teacher to introduce a project, with suggestions for using the computer as an integrated classroom resource.

A first step to improvising and composing 2-chord melodies is aural recognition of the chord changes. In IVTUNES, I have designed a grid with which pupils can practise this skill. Words, music and chord symbols for these tunes are included in the e-book. As each tune plays back, accompaniment patterns based on the the two chords can be triggered, allowing experimentation until pupils are confident that all sounds right. Beneath each chord’s accompaniments, cells contain individual notes of the chord, stacked vertically. Pupils can use these chord tones to accompany one of the melodies. Later they can record a 2-chord backing track over which to improvise their own melodies.




Summer concert item with audience participation?

Looking for a real mixed ability piece to challenge able players whilst remaining accessible for all? Then this arrangement of “One Man Went to Mow” might fit the bill. It’s a flexible 4-part arrangement. The melody of the children’s song can be sung or played alongside the arrangement, so it could be included in a summer concert featuring audience participation. This and other seasonal songs can be found on our “Summer Fun” page, where melody and lyrics can be downloaded. The 4-part arrangement is available for purchase on the “Miscellaneous Music” page and can be supplied (at very low cost) with custom parts. Contact us for details.


Christmas Carols – Creative Exploration and Flexible Ensembles

Christmas carols are some of the tunes most readily played by ear, so giving the performer a sense of comfortable familiarity and ‘ownership’ which paves the way for improvisation and creative arrangement. In the early stages, improvisation doesn’t need to wander far, if at all, from familiar melodies. The carols in my personal CD collection, for example,  take on subtle changes of character when performed, in turn, by a cathedral choir, a Celtic band, a pop singer and a flute soloist. Rhythmic ‘feel’, dynamics, changes of register, timbre and articulation all enable us to hear a tune anew.

It can be daunting for a teacher or music-leader to be presented with an ad-hoc mixed ability group but, at Christmas time, players of many different persuasions and skill-levels are united in a desire to share traditional music with their communities. This is a wonderful opportunity for creativity and cooperation, taking simple melodies and harmony parts and fashioning them into a group’s unique arrangement.

The Full Pitcher’s “Simply Carols” download series provides flexible arrangements of familiar carols for mixed ability groups of mixed instruments. The full score for each shows just one way in which the song can be performed by a group of instruments, with different parts combining in each verse. Groups can use this version, if they wish, or experiment with the timbres and characteristics of the group’s specific instrumentation to arrive at their own version. Silent Night (below) is one example. You can listen and download this score and a refreshing range of other seasonal music at http://fullpitcher.co.uk/christmas_music.htm.