Shinobue (Japanese Bamboo Flute) (篠笛)

The shinobue is one of the Japanese woodwind instruments. The shinobue is a transverse flute with a simple structure, and it is made from shinodake (small bamboo); Simon bamboo (Pleioblastus simonii), whose inner side is coated either in lacquer or synthetic resin, having two openings for Utaguchi (the mouthpiece of the shakuhachi) and tone holes. In traditional performing arts, the shinobue is often called the 'fue' or 'takebue' for short. It is categorized as a reed instrument such as the shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown flute) or the flute.

In this article, the names of musical notes in western music are described using the British/American method (German H written as B, German B written as Bb). Refer to pitch name and solfa (names of notes of musical scale) notation.


The shinobue has a simple form which resembles a piece of bamboo and do not usually have any decoration aside from being wrapped in to (Japanese wisteria) and coated in lacquer to prevent bamboo from cracking. This is probably the major reason why the shinobue was favored among the common people. The ryuteki flute and nohkan flute, which were used by the upper classes such as court nobles and samurai, differ greatly from the shinobue in that they are adorned with decoration requiring time and care such as wrapping and paintings.

Since the shinobue is an instrument of the common people, there are numerous variations in appearance (presence of wrapping, the extent of wrapping, materials, the extent of painting, and color), the number of finger holes (six or seven), length, and tuning type (variation). There are many types of fue (flute) in the various regions of Japan.

Comparison with other wind instruments

As an instrument, the shinobue is a type of yokobue (transverse flute), and is very similar to the Western flute family. Although there are differences with regard to scale and fingering, the shinobue can, in principle, be considered an instrument which uses bamboo in place of the tube of the flute, with the flute structures removed, with the same number of tone holes as the number of fingers on the human hand, and made in a length that makes it easy to handle.
(Photo 2)

[Photo 2] From above, concert flute (C), shakuhachi bamboo flute (isshaku hassun (the full name for the standard length of shakuhachi) (D), woodwind seven- hole), seven-hole flute for songs (from above, sanbon-joshi scale (G), roppon-joshi scale (Bb), happon-joshi scale (C), six-hole flute for musical accompaniment (played on traditional Japanese instruments) (roppon-joshi scale), soprano recorder (C), piccolo (D). The lowest tones or reference tones are given in parenthesis. The reference tone of the shinobue for songs is not the lowest tone (tube tone), but is the tone when the first hole is opened.

Western flutes originally had a simple form like the shinobue, but underwent modern improvements so that current western flutes include a gold tube and key equipment.

The shinobue is a yokobue (transverse flute) which has retained its original shape. It is also very interesting as a modern instrument.

As shown in the photograph, the shinobue is between the concert flute and the piccolo in terms of length. The range of the shinobue is usually between that of the concert flute and the piccolo.

The length from the mouthpiece to the first hole of the shinobue for happon-joshi scale songs which have a reference tone is C is almost equal to the length from the edge of the sound generator to the end of C tube recorder (28-29 cm). Both instruments produce the same pitch because the method of adjusting the tone pitch of woodwind instruments is the same for both instruments. Because the length of the shinobue is about half the length from the mouthpiece to the beginning of the leg joint of a concert flute (its fundamental tone is an octave lower) (around 60 cm), it produces a sound that is an octave higher than that of the concert flute. Halving the resonance tube produces a sound that is an octave higher.

For reference, the resonance tube of the piccolo (D) is about 26.5 cm in length, almost half the length of the resonance tube of the shakuhachi bamboo flute (isshaku hassun (the full name for the standard length of shakuhachi), D) (about 54 cm). The relationship between the two is also interesting. Since the shakuhachi bamboo flute is an end-blown flute, the length of its resonance tube is considered to be from the upper part (precisely, the part of Shakuhachi bamboo flute) to the lower part of the tube (the end of tube).


The shinobue is not thought to have been created in Japan but is rather thought to have developed from the ryuteki flute imported from China as a yokobue (transverse flute) for gagaku (ancient Japanese court dance and music) and simplified as it spread throughout the common people. Further back in history, it is said that transverse flutes around the world originated in the ancient India.

The shinobue that are widely used today have six or seven finger holes. The ryuteki flute, which is said to be the predecessor of the shinobue is a seven-hole flute but the seven-hole shinobue and the ryuteki flute differ in their basic scale and internal structure. It is therefore unlikely that undecorated ryuteki simply developed into seven-hole shinobue.

Historical artifacts that have been studied include a transverse flute kept at Shosoin, Nara Prefecture; a transverse flute which was excavated at the Shimizu Ruins in Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture (circa 9th century, Heian period), a transverse flute which was excavated at the Edaira Ruins in Tamagawa-mura Village, Fukushima Prefecture (circa 9th century, Nara period). However, they differ slightly in scale and structure, and therefore, perspectives on the history of Japanese transverse flutes have not yet been unified.

The shino-bue, which will be described later, was developed from the Taisho period to the early Showa period by Hyakunosuke FUKUHARA V and VI. Hyakunosuke FUKUHARA V named this new instrument 'Shino-bue' around that time.

Festival music

In Japan, the term 'o-matsuri no fue' (lit. festival flute) often refers to the shinobue. In some regions, the ryuteki flute, nohkan flute, kagurabue flute and other unique flutes are used during festivals.

These flutes are combined with percussion instruments such as a Japanese drums or bells, and are used to play the melody in 'matsuri-bayashi' (Japanese music), 'kagura' (sacred music and dancing performed at shrines), and 'shishimai' (lion dance). The shino-bue that is played for matsuri-bayashi (Japanese music for festivals) has finger holes that are equally spaced, making it easier to make as well as to play; however, the musical scale of the shino-bue does not conform to that of Japanese or Western music. The scale of the shino-bue, which is different from the meantone temperament, contains microtones.

Folk music

Shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese banjo) are generally used as an accompaniment for folk songs and folk dances. To enhance performances, instruments such as the shinobue, shakuhachi bamboo flute, kokyu (Japanese string instrument played using a bow) and percussion instruments are often used. Since priority is given to the ease of songs, the reference tone of shamisen, shinobue, or shakuhachi bamboo flutes is usually adjusted to match the singer's range. The tones of shamisen and kokyu are changed by adjusting the tension of the strings, while the tones of shinobue and shakuhachi bamboo flutes cannot be adjusted on the instrument itself. It is for this reason that several types of flute (bamboo) are prepared and replaced during the performance.

Stage music

It was common that popular music like joruri (dramatic narrative chanted to a shamisen accompaniment), which contained narration or songs with a distinct melody played by shamisen, composed of up-tempo tunes and slow-tempo tunes, was used for traditional performing arts that became popular during the Edo period such as kabuki (traditional drama performed by male actors), bunraku (Japanese puppet theater), and classical Japanese dance, especially for performances for the common people in a theater or on an outdoor stage. In full-fledged performances in theaters or on stage, fue (Nohkan flutes, shinobue), kotsuzumi (shoulder drums), otsuzumi (hip drums) and shime-daiko drums are often played in addition to shamisen. These four instruments are called 'ohayashi' (Japanese orchestra) (hogaku-bayashi (orchestra of Japanese traditional music), nagauta (long epic song with shamisen accompaniment) bayashi). As is the case in minyo (traditional folk song), it is common to tune shamisen to match the voice range of the narrator or singer. Therefore, several types of shinobue are prepared and replaced during the performance when the tune of the song changes.

Many pieces of 'Shamisen music' are such stage music (some Shamisen music like jiuta (a genre of traditional songs with samisen accompaniment) are not directly related to a stage).
It's not a mere accompaniment (background music), but is characteristic in that it has dialogue and explanations
In many plays and songs, dialogues are assigned to a narrator (tayu) and singer, while actors and dancers don't speak at all. Gidayu-bushi (musical narrative of puppet theatre), tokiwazu-bushi (theatrical music), and kiyomoto-bushi (theatrical music) are the examples that represent narration-like performance (joruri). Nagauta (long epic songs with shamisen accompaniment) is an example representative of song-like performance. There is no clear distinction between narration-like performance and song-like performance, and kiyomoto bushi (theatrical music) similar to song-like performance and nagauta similar to narration-like performance are also created.

In kabuki, the music for stage effects called 'geza ongaku' (music for plays) developed. Odaiko (large drums), bells and dora (gongs) are played together with Shamisen and ohayashi (the four instruments described earlier). The four ohayashi instruments, and the percussion instruments that were additionally played are often collectively called 'narimono' (musical instruments). Geza ongaku is also called 'kuromisu' (black bamboo screen) music because the performer plays while hidden behind a black bamboo screen called a 'kuromisu' from where he peeks at the actions of the actors on the stage while playing.

Zashiki and banquets

Stage music became available among the common people and was often played alone, not as a part of play or dance.
Stage music and genres of music such as minyo and matsuri-bayashi (Japanese festival music) influenced each other, and short kouta (ballads sung to shamisen accompaniment) and hauta (traditional Japanese song or ballad sung to the accompaniment of the shamisen) were created to be performed at banquets called 'ozashiki.'
There are also cases in which ohayashi is played as banquet music. High-class Japanese-style restaurants and yukaku (red-light districts) in which maiko (apprentice geisha) dance in time to songs by geisha, shamisen and ohayashi became popular among the common people.

Modern times

Many 'shino-bue' solos and ensembles have been written in recent years, and ensembles featuring Japanese musical instruments other than those described above as well as western musical instruments (including folk music instruments from abroad) have been frequently played. Shinobue are often played by groups that play original music using Japanese drums. It is also played as a part of the accompaniment to Enka (Japanese ballads).

Materials and manufacture

The mouthpiece and tone holes are made in a piece of shinodake (small bamboo) (Pleioblastus simonii) which is then wrapped the tube in to (Japanese wisteria) and the inside coated with lacquer to protect it and enhance the sound. Nowadays, nylon thread is often used instead of to (Japanese wisteria,) and man-made lacquer is often used instead of lacquer tree sap. Cheap shinobue made from synthetic resin (plastic tubes) for beginners are also available. In general, bamboo tubes produce an excellent sound and performance, but tuning is not stable. On the other hand, shinobue made from plastic, wood or synthetic resin are stable for tuning, but produce a different from bamboo shinobue.

The size and location of finger holes vary depending on the manufacturer. Various coatings and decorations are used.
The two most common styles of shinobue are the 'tenchimaki' on which the left and right parts are wrapped in to (Japanese wisteria), and the 'shiratake' (plain bamboo flute) which is not wrapped
There are also the 'somaki' which has a lot of wrapping, and 'nuribue' which is entirely coated in lacquer or paint.


Shinobue are classified according to the number of finger holes, the length of the resonance tube (frequency of fundamental tone), usage and tuning. The finger hole farthest from mouthpiece is generally called the first hole.

Classification by the number of finger holes (tone holes)
The number of finger holes is often either six or seven. Those with six holes are called rokko (rokketsu) shinobue, and those with seven holes are called shichiko (nanaketsu) shinobue. Some improved shinobue such as the 'misatobue' have more or fewer finger holes. Such shinobue should be classified based on the manufacturer name or proprietary name.

Classification by fundamental tone
The fundamental tone or reference tone (the sound produced when the first finger hole is open in the case of a seven-hole shinobue) is expressed using the 'nanbon-joshi' scale. The lowest tone (tsutsune), which is produced when all the finger holes are closed, is not regarded as the fundamental tone as it varies greatly depending on the manufacturer, and it is rarely used in musical composition. As the 'nanbon-joshi' scale is reduced by one degree, the fundamental tone will be lower by a half tone, and the length of the tube proportionally longer. Happon-joshi (the eighth degree) corresponds to C, shichihon-joshi (the seventh degree) corresponds to B, and roppon-joshi (the sixth degree) corresponds to Bb. There are also shinobue that are tuned to half of a Western semitone such as the 'ropponhan' note. Shinobue ranging from 'ippon-joshi' (the first degree) (low F) to 'jusanbon-joshi' (the thirteenth degree) (high F) are commonly used, but those which produce even lower tones can rarely be seen. The character '笨' is used instead of '本' in the notation of 'nanbon-joshi' in some schools (there is the practice of specifying the fundamental tone using nanbon-joshi even in shamisen music, sokyoku (koto music), sankyoku (music performed by a shamisen (three-stringed Japanese guitar), so (thirteen-stringed Japanese zither), and shakuhachi (bamboo flute) trio), and biwa (Japanese flute) music, but attention is required because the actual tones vary according to the instrument).

Classification by use and tuning
Shinobue which have been used since ancient times for the rites and festivals in various places such as matsuri-bayashi (Japanese music), kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrines), and shishimai (lion dance) are called 'hayashi-yo' (lit. for hayashi (musical accompaniment played on traditional Japanese instruments)) shinobue or 'koten-cho' (lit. classical style) shinobue. The hayashi-yo shinobue has finger holes that are the same size and evenly spaced, making it easy to play. However, it is difficult to play together with instruments, such as the shamisen, which have a distinct scale as it is not tuned according to a scale. It is for this reason that, in the early Showa period, the uta-yo (lit. for songs) shinobue was developed by improving the layout and size of the finger holes, making it easy to play along to songs (folk songs and nagauta) of traditional Japanese music. The third hole of the uta-yo shinobue was made larger and slightly closer to the mouthpiece, while the first hole was made slightly smaller. As a result of this, the scale of uta-yo shinobue changed so that the tone produced when the first hole is open became 'do,' the tone produced when the first and second holes are open became 're,' the tone produced when the first, second and third holes are open became close to 'mi,' and fa, so, la and ti were produced when subsequent holes are open. As the opportunity to play the shino-bue together with western musical instruments increases, 'improved versions of the shino-bue' with a musical score that is closer to the meantone temperament, such as the 'do re mi-like shino-bue' and the 'misato-bue flute' (trademark), have been developed. The names of improved shinobue vary depending on the manufacturer. Some manufacturers add more small holes in shino-bue to make it convenient when played using the Western scale.

Nowadays, most shinobue are six-hole hayashi-yo, seven-hole hayashi-yo, seven-hole uta-yo, or six/seven-hole do-re-mi/misatobue versions.


Shinobue have a range of two and a half octaves.
The lowest tone which is produced when all the finger holes are closed is called 'tsutsune.'
A seven-hole uta-yo shinobue is generally lower than the fundamental tone by a minor triad but this depends on the manufacturer and region. The note an octave lower than the fundamental tone (the low tone range), is called 'ryoon' (lower tone), the note an octave higher than the fundamental tone (the medium tone range) is called 'kanon' (medium tone), and the note an octave higher than kanon tone is called 'daikan' (high-pitched tone). Timbre varies for each pitch.

The tsutsune and ryoon tones have a bamboo-like, warm and soft timbre, and their range somewhat resembles that of the shakuhachi bamboo flute. The shino-bue is used in traditional music to enhance lyrical songs (such as folk songs and nagauta) as well as plays and dances performed in kabuki and bunraku (or ningyo joruri [traditional Japanese puppet theater]).

The kanon (medium) tone has a beautiful sound distinct from these tones. It can be described as having the most strongly 'shinobue-like' range. It is often used to enhance songs, plays and dances just as a ryoon (lower tone) is. In combination with the daikan (high-pitched) tone, it is favored in the music for rites and festivals such as matsuri-bayashi (Japanese music) and kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrine).

The daikan (high-pitched) tone is an extremely high-pitched, sharp tone and is so loud that it can be heard over great distances. It is essential to enhance the atmosphere of rites and festivals such as matsuri-bayashi, (Japanese music) and kagura. It is probably one of tones that symbolizes the festivals of Japan.

The shinobue is a transposing instrument, and the actual tone varies depending on the length of tube.

The nanbon-joshi scale number represents the degree of the fundamental tone (solfa 'do'). The following is a list of the actual sounds of each range for the most commonly used tube lengths. This list cannot be applied to hayashi-yo (koten-cho) shinobue.

Note that the tsutsune tone is not regarded as a fundamental tone and varies according to the manufacturer. Attempts are being made to produce a tone higher than that shown in the 'Daikan' range above.


In terms of the traditional style of shinobue playing, the most characteristic feature when compared with transverse flutes from other countries is that tonguing is not used. Instead, the sound is 'tapped' by opening and closing the tone hole rapidly while the same tone is being played.
Example: In the song "Hotaru no Hikari" (Glow of a Firefly) which uses the "Auld Lang Syne" tune, the successive sounds of 'five' at the opening word 'hotaru.'
This is a traditional technique for playing the shinobue which is called 'uchiyubi' (lit. tapping finger), and it is often used in the music of rites and festivals such as matsuri-bayashi (Japanese music), kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrine), and shishimai (lion dance). The flute sound of festivals is commonly expressed using the onomatopoeia 'pi-hyarara,' and 'hyarara' perfectly represents the characteristic of the uchiyubi technique.

To produce semitones without using basic fingering, it is preferable to raise or lower the scale by closing a finger hole by half, slightly adjusting the breathing and the angle of the mouthpiece rather than using the complicated cross fingering technique. Lowering the scale is called 'meri' (the technique of lowering the chin in conjunction with fingering and breath technique), while slightly raising the scale is called 'kari' (the technique of raising the chin in conjunction with fingering and breath technique) (refer to the 'Playing' section of 'Shakuhachi'). It is very common to use tones corresponding to microtones in Western music.

In some pieces which have been newly composed in recent years, the techniques of tonguing and vibration are used as 'the modern style of playing' like they are used with Western flute and piccolo. Other special techniques (portamento, flutter-tonguing, glissando, trill, etc.) are under development.


In the Meiji period, musical notation using numerals modeled on the numeric musical notation of the harmonica came to be used in Fukuhara School nagauta bayashi, and became widespread among other schools and fields. The method of musical notation varies depending on the school. In the Fukuhara School, a score is vertically indicated, and the music pitch is indicated using numerals (the ryoon (lower tone) is indicated using Chinese numerals, while the kanon (medium-higher tone) is indicated using Arabic numerals). Rhythm is expressed by drawing a vertical line after the number to indicate that the note value is to be extended (drawing a diagonal line instead of a number). The pitch which is mentioned here is not the pitch name in Western music, but refers to fingering and breathing. This determines the music pitch from the fundamental tone. In terms of Western musical instruments, the shinobue is a transposing instrument, and numeric notation is a form of tablature. In recent years, staff notation is often indicated alongside horizontal numeric notation. In such cases, only the pitch is indicated in the numeric musical notation while the rhythm is indicated in the staff notation.

Fukuhara School examples
"Tsuki" (Moon)
"Hotaru no Hikari" (Glow of a Firefly)

It is possible to go up by one octave in both scores, but the timbre and atmosphere would become completely different.

Meanwhile, in the music for rites and festivals such as matsuri-bayashi (Japanese music) music was been handed down orally and by imitation, while notation was used in only some areas. However, the number of areas in which numeric and staff notation have become supplementary or widely used has increased in recent years.

If the tones are written in staff notation, they are indicated with few key signatures since the shino-bue is a transposing musical instrument with a fundamental tone of C and fingering 1. However, in the case of difficult new compositions, it is desirable to indicate actual sounds in order to avoid mistakes.

[Original Japanese]