A note on shakuhachi lengths

The standard-length shakuhachi is just that one shaku eight (hachi) sun long, which corresponds to the pitch d4 in the diatonic scale. Since increasing or decreasing the length by one sun lowers or raises the pitch by half a tone, a kyusun (1.9) flute is in C#, and a shakunanasun (1.7) is in E-flat. However, since changes in pitch are proportional, it quickly becomes necessary to add more than one sun to lower the pitch more than a half a tone. In fact, a 1.9 is a little over 1.9 shaku in length, a nishaku (2.0) that is in C is actually about 2.05 shaku long; a 2.1 in B is nearly 2.2 shaku long, and so on. A shakuhachi in A is therefore a little over 2.4 shaku long--the exact length also varies among pieces of bamboo, depending on the volume of the bore.

Before WWII makers were not as influenced by the standards of Western music, and thus older shakuhachi longer than the standard 1.8 shaku length are usually sharp of the corresponding Western pitch. These flutes are now referred to as Seisunkan (correct-length flute), whereas those that are in tune with the Western scale are referred to as Seiritsukan (correct-pitch flute). Flutes from this period longer than 2.0 shaku are rare, so the most common seisunkan is a nishaku (2.0) that plays sharp of C.

To add to the confusion, in Japan the convention of adding one sun extends up to at least an A-flute, which is usually called a nishakusanzun (2.3), rather than a 2.4"usually" because Japanese makers and players seem to be slowly moving away from this system, at least for the common 2.4 length. Beyond this length, there is even less agreement: a G-flute can be called a 2.5 (as it is two half-tones below a 2.3), a 2.6 (two half-tones below an A-flute referred to as a 2.4), a 2.7, which is most common, or a 2.8, which is closest to the actual length of a shakuhachi tuned to G. Why 2.7 is the most common term for a G-flute, when it corresponds neither to the one-sun-equals-1/2-tone system, or the actual length of most flutes tuned to G, is something of a mystery.

Therefore, it is best to inquire about the pitch of a flute by asking just that, what key it is in. Even then one must be aware that in Japan, musicians use the German terminology for notes, so that "B" (pronounced "bay") is B-flat in English-speaking countries, and H (pronounced "hah") equals B.

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