C.92 - [T] "Sakura Sakura" Transcription

Transcribed: 1st January 2016

     The first of many transcriptions to come, this was the second part of my portfolio submission to the university module ‘World Music’ which gave us the freedom to do any task relevant to us so long as it has some connection to the world musics discussed during lectures: African rhythms, Indian ragas, Javanese gamelan, Japanese pentatonicism, Arabic maqam, Bulgarian horo, Spanish flamenco, jazz – quite a lot of choice!

     As you read from the previous composition, “C.91”, I decided to do my portfolio on Japanese music. The greatest influence on "C.91" was this traditional composition that I have transcribed here – “Sakura Sakura” (“Cherry Blossom, Cherry Blossom”) – a piece for 4 or 5 zithers based on a traditional Japanese melody.

     Here is the 2nd part of my portfolio commentary, which presented and analysed the transcription (submitted on 4th January 2016):

Part 2 (Contextual analysis)

Context and Analysis ("Sakura" and "Sakura Sakura")

     In this analysis, I will contextualise and compare two pieces of Japanese music: the first, a traditional folk melody from 1888, and the second, an arrangement of this melody created in 1988.

     “Sakura” – the “Cherry Blossom” – is arguably Japan’s most distinctive flower, and so it makes no surprise that there has been a plethora of artistic work that has derived from its influence. While a musical interpretation of the flower was popularized during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), its first appearance as an instrumental piece for the koto was with its transcription for the 1888 ‘Collection of Japanese Koto Music’ by the Tokyo Academy of Music (Gen’ichi, 1986) appearing thus as (figure 1):

Figure 1:

C.92 Sakura Sakura 1888 Original

Cited from:

[Izawa 1888] Shūji Izawa, Collection of Japanese Koto Music, published by the Department of Education, Tokyo, in English and Japanese, October 28, 1888, 212 pages.


     The      symbol to the left of the upper stave was difficult to match with a translation, but a potential match indicated that it translates as ‘first’ or ‘first tone’ or ‘foremost’, perhaps indicating the main performer, which in this case would be a singer as the upper stave contains lyrics and melisma slurring notation. The      symbol to the left of the lower stave translates to ‘music’, and among other things, ‘song, tune, composition, piece of music’ (Jisho, 2015). Additionally, the numbers appearing above and below the note heads indicate fingering markings for a koto performer. So it is the lower stave that holds the folk melody that we are interested in. The melody uses the ‘In’ scale on E (E♮, F♮, A♮, B♮, C♮), with one fleeting use of a non-diatonic note - D♮ (figure 2):

Figure 2:

C.92 - Symbol 1
C.92 - Symbol 2
C.92 - Figure 2

     This departure is not unheard of, and demonstrates that the choice of pentatonic scale acts more as a guideline to what notes should be considered prominent, and what notes should be considered less (Fletcher, 2001:333).

      Another point of interest lies towards the conclusion (figure 3):

Figure 3:

C.92 - Figure 3

     This is the only appearance of two voices simultaneously – a small form of homophony or heterophony. However, it is the intervals between the notes in the initial two bars that holds more interest – the hemitonic interval of the semitone. There is no definitive explanation for the sudden appearance of this jarring interval. Perhaps this could be an expressive event to enhance the meditations of the listener? Or perhaps even a reference to Gagaku or Shinto festival music, which often has its flutes playing in semitones apart (Fletcher, 2001:393)? Or maybe it is just an expansion of material on the scale to signal the conclusion of the piece? It is difficult to tell.

     A final point to note before moving onto the later arrangement, it appears this particular transcription was intended for a 13 or 14-stringed koto, as evidenced from the total pitches used (figure 4):

Figure 4:

C.92 - Figure 4

     If a 13-stringed koto was used, one string must be re-tuned during a performance.


     One hundred years later, a vinyl recording was released by Nippon Columbia during 1988. Entitled ‘Flûte & Koto Du Japon’, one track in particular was an arrangement and variations of the traditional “Sakura” melody for numerous koto instruments. The vinyl itself credits five koto performers:

  • Toshiko Yonekawa and her two daughters:

    • Megumi Yonekawa

    • Hiroe Yonekawa

  • Masumi Yonekawa

  • Chikatoyo Tsujimoto

     As to whether or not all five were present for the “Sakura” recording is not detailed. Toshiko Yonekawa is credited as the main koto performer of the album, so it can be assumed that she is certainly one of the performers of the “Sakura” recording, and thus it is quite possible she was the one to create the arrangement. The transcription I made of this recording (seen in full in Appendix G or alternatively as a separate .pdf document) suggests that there were a total of four koto parts, but it is entirely possible that a fifth part was present but difficult to discern from the recording, seen towards the end at bb. 62 as the melody begins in three voices highlighted in red, alluding to five parts in total (figure 5):

Figure 5:

C.92 - Figure 5 Sakura Sakura - Koto Tra

     Similarly, as opposed to a 13 or 14-stringed koto, the instrument used here is instead a 17-stringed koto, as detailed on the vinyl’s cover (Appendix H). However, it can be seen that each koto is tuned to a unique set of pitches as opposed to a universal standard for this performance, as the total range of all pitches I transcribed were seen to stretch across 21 notes in total (figure 6). Thus it is likely that the koto parts are divided into two upper pitched parts to grasp the highest B♭, and two lower pitched parts to reach the lowest E♭ and possibly even lower D♮.

Figure 6:

C.92 - Figure 6 - 17-string notes.png

     So to compare the 1988 “Sakura” melody’s first statement with the original 1888 “Sakura” melody we have this (figure 7):

Figure 7:

C.92 - Figure 7 - Sakura Melody Comparis

     We can quickly identify that the 1988 arrangement has been transposed to the ‘In’ scale starting on D. This later version does follow the original remarkably close, until we come to the ending bars where the 1988 arrangement ends more abruptly to begin leading into a new variation of the melody. The 1888 version continues, as we have already discussed, to its conclusion. The two notes highlighted in red reveal the non-diatonic passing notes that are fleetingly used, which similarly match the highlighting in the previous figure 5.

     While it would appear that the 1988 arrangement ignores the concluding material of the 1888 version, it turns out that this material is saved until the conclusion of the 1988 arrangement, where it appears almost identically in its transposed form (figure 8):

Figure 8:

C.92 - Figure 8 - Endings.png
C.92 - Figure 8a - Sakura Sakura Ending_

     So the entirety of the original material has been used in the later 1988 arrangement. The variations around this material are seemingly focused largely on tempo and timbral variation as opposed to melodic development:

     By looking at the full transcription (Appendix G), the first “Sakura” statement runs from bb. 6 – 20 and begins in simple monophony for the first half of the melody with the latter half continuing alongside a heterophonic variation. The second statement (bb. 21 – 35) restates the “Sakura” melody and speeds up the heterophony to semiquavers, still largely following the “Sakura’s” melody but with more occasional decoration. The third statement (bb. 36 – 49) slows down to the first statement’s tempo, and similarly returns to a heterophonic quaver melody alongside the “Sakura” statement. However, this time the timbre of the heterophonic statement has been changed from a nasally sound to a muted sound similar to the western acoustic guitar. The fourth and final statement (bb. 50 – 67) combines all previous heterophonic material, using both quavers, semiquavers and muted notes to sound alongside the “Sakura” melody, which this time is extended to include the original 1888 concluding material as well.

     The introductory section is also worth a brief mention. Spanning briefly from bb. 1 – 5, the function of this introduction is to set out the scale that is being used (figure 9):

Figure 9:

C.92 - Figure 9 -Introduction_0002.png

    Whereas the “Sakura” statements that occur after this section are metred, this introduction lacks a time signature and is pulseless due to persistent tempo sways. Thus it is quite possible that this arrangement adopts elements of the ‘Jo – Ha – Kyū’ structure, with this introduction being the ‘Jo’ and the later measured “Sakura” statements being the ‘Ha’.


      In conclusion, it is surprising how closely the 1988 arrangement uses the material from the original 1888 melody, and it is further surprising that each restatement of the “Sakura” melody never appears to tire, as if the variations around it could be endless. It never ceases to amaze me how such a limited amount of material can be expanded into such a glorious succession of sounds, and similarly how the restraint to five or six notes can persistently keep you engrossed. The traditional melody of “Sakura” is sure to find its place in many future variations and compositions.

Appendix D – Bibliography for Part 2

  • Fletcher, P. (2001) World musics in context: a comprehensive survey of the world’s major musical cultures, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 333, 393

  • Izawa S. (1888) Collection of Japanese Koto Music, Tokyo: Department of Education, October 28, 1888, 212 pages.

  • Jisho (2015) Japanese Dictionary: Song, available at: http://jisho.org/search/song (Accessed 3rd January 2016)

Appendix E – Discography for Part 2

Appendix F – Other Information for Part 2

  • The final word count for part 2 (Contextual analysis; pages 7 - 14) is 1,340.

    • This includes all text within the analysis, all figure headings, subheadings and all in-text references.

    • It does not include italicized text within the figures, nor text within appendices, bibliographies, discographies and the ‘Note before Part 2’, nor the full reference below figure 1.

  • The total word count of the introduction, part 1 and part 2 combined is 2,809.

Appendix G – Full Transcription of 1988 “Sakura Sakura”

[Removed score as it is in the video below!]

Appendix H – The vinyl covers of the 1988 LP “Flûte & Koto du Japon”

The three following pictures are my own:

The front cover of the vinyl.

C.92 - Appendix H - Front.jpg

The back cover of the vinyl. “Sakura Sakura” has been highlighted in a black box with information, a zoomed image appears below:

C.92 - Appendix H - Back.jpg

The previous image zoomed in on the “Sakura Sakura” information, highlighted with a black box, reading:

“Il s’agit d’un des thèmes les plus populaires du Japon décrivant le climat d’une journée de printemps à travers la floraison immaculée des cerisiers. Le thème date de la période EDO (1600 – 1867). Il est interprété au koto à 17 cordes.”

A loose translation reads as:

“It is one of the most popular themes of Japan, describing the climate of a spring day through the immaculate flowering of cherry trees. The theme dates from the Edo period (1600 – 1867) and is interpreted on a 17-stringed koto.”

C.92 - Appendix H - Sakura Sakura.jpg

     As you can see from the appendices, I even went so far as to purchase a vinyl of the piece I was transcribing – even though I had no record player at the time. I still have that vinyl in its packaging, collecting dust beside one of my bookshelves. Perhaps I should give it to someone who will have a use for it. Or I should buy a record player!

Reminiscence written on 17th January 2018

Last updated: 17th January 2018