Shakuhachi Meri Note Pitch

(For a Meri note fingering chart, see the Shakuhachi Note Charts)

One can easily come across a lot of differing opinions on pitch for the shakuhachi. Particularly, the pitch of what are known as Meri notes. These are the notes which are flattened from the standard ‘natural’ or ‘open hole scale’ of the shakuhachi (minor pentatonic). In short, some say that the Meri notes should be flatter while others say they should be less flat.

Without a doubt, Meri notes are the most challenging aspect of shakuhachi playing, that is, next to getting a decent sound at all. It’s objectively more difficult for someone to play Meri notes flatter. It’s not unlike a dancer that can jump higher or further. With that said, it’s that dancer’s artistic choice whether or not they use their full range. Other dancers may simply not have such a high jump, and that’s of course perfectly fine.

Similarly, some people could play Meri notes very deeply, such as Watazumi, while many more players couldn’t but their playing was still beautiful. It’s rare, but some players can Meri deeply but choose not to, sometimes only for specific pieces or styles. Likewise, we can choose to enjoy and appreciate this variety in Meri note pitch, or not. Often such variations are closer to the surface of things, riding on the same undercurrent.

On a 1.8 D shakuhachi the pitch of the Meri notes on the deeper side of things are: Ro-dai-Meri C; Tsu Meri Eb -25; Chi-Meri and U Ab -25; Ha/Ri-Meri Bb -25. It’s not uncommon for Myoan Taizan Ryu practitioners to play Tsu Meri as sharp as E, for example. Additionally, Kinko Ryu master Yamaguchi Goro also played Meri notes on the sharper side.

Note that all stringed Japanese instruments and vocalists produce these notes on the deeper, flatter side. Unlike the shakuhachi, it requires no extra effort for them to do so. That is, when they’re not having to match a shakuhachi practitioner who plays sharper. Therefore, these notes are understood as being flatter by the broader traditional Japanese musical world; only the shakuhachi community has a wider acceptable range of pitch for these notes, which is likely due to the difficulty in getting them flatter.