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Hon Shirabe - Sheet Music for Native American Flute

Hon Shirabe [hahn shi-rah-bey] (Japanese: 本調 or “fundamental melody”) comes from a very different heritage than most pieces that are played on the Native American flute - the tradition of Japanese Shakuhachi players. It is from a set of honkyoku (本曲 or “fundamental pieces”) that were historically played by Japanese Zen monks for enlightenment. They now form the core of pieces that are practiced by students of the shakuhachi.

More background on the name of this piece, from the liner notes of Saji - The World of Zen Music ([Akikazu 1999]):

“Shirabe” is used today with the same meaning as “melody”, but it derives from the word meaning “to investigate” (shiraberu) and thus implies the idea of investigating the relationships between oneself and the cosmic state in which one is located. This explains why pieces with the term “shirabe” in their titles are often performed as introductions to other pieces. There are many pieces in the shakuhachi repertoire with titles including the term shirabe, but Hon Shirabe is the most fundamental of these pieces, as is suggested by the fact that its title means “original shirabe”.

I became interested in it when I found that the range of the piece could almost be spanned by the Anasazi flute and, in particular, the EZ Anasazsi flutes crafted by Stephen DeRuby.


Hon Shirabe is often the first piece learned by most shakuhachi players. It is regarded as preparation for what will follow, both in a player's development as well as at evemts, since it is often played at the beginning of a ceremony or concert ([Tadashi 1999]).

Ideally, the piece expresses a feeling of distance and remoteness, and displays profound and subtle techniques ([Roshi 2000]).

Nakamura Akikazu provides some history in the liner notes of Saji — The World of Zen Music ([Akikazu 1999]):

Hon-shirabe was transmitted from the Fudaiji temple in Hamamatsu into the Seien school of shakuhachi by the school's founder, Kanetomo Seien (1818-1895), although the piece is said to be almost identical to a piece entitled Choshi transmitted at the Myoanji temple in Kyoto.

Performance Notes

In the shakuhachi tradition, Hon Shirabe serves a dual role: The development of technique on the instrument and the cultivation of a philosophical approach to playing the shakuhachi. Here are extracts from the liner notes of several recordings of Hon Shirabe:

From Ajikan ([Taniguchi 2001]):

Practice should focus on the extremes. That is to say, similar to language training where one benefits greatly from total immersion or repeated study of tapes, one needs to expand the envelope of shakuhachi practice considerably … Play the long tapered tones until the last bit of life has been put into each note and a point is reached where the sound blends into nothing … This is an exercise designed to force ones complete self both inner and outer — to be put into the shakuhachi and force that finger upwards on the attack. Play the song with as wide a dynamic range as possible as well as quietly as possible. Experience both extremes.

Remember that “hon” also refers to “honnin no kyoku” which means “one's own song”. It would be strange to always imitate someone else's voice when speaking. The same goes for shakuhachi. In playing this piece, take an active mental approach and create your own song and distinctive voice. On the other hand, while diligent practice of basic techniques in a strict regimen can be very demanding, a commitment to such practice places one on the road to freedom.

From Hotchiku ([Roshi 2000]):

The “Hon” of Hon-Shirabe means “fundamental,” and is the same “Hon” from the phrase “hon-ne wo haku,” meaning “revealing one's true self.”

“Hon-ne” is also “kyo-on,” or empty sound, which means discarding conceptions of playing the tuning of the piece or performing it well and instead single-mindedly driving each breath into the bamboo and cultivating self-control in each breath. This results in a feeling like that of a wind descending from the sky to hit a bamboo grove and disappearing, leaving no trace.

From Koten Shakuhachi ([Kaoru 2003]):

This is a demanding piece because if our inner energies are not gathered, the image will be limited, as if to see only the tip of an iceberg.

From Saji — The World of Zen Music ([Akikazu 1999]):

The piece starts with a simple motif featuring repetitions of a single pitch. The pitch gradually rises until a passage referred to as tsuguri is reached. This term derives from the idea of ‘succeeding to’ the previous tone colour. The principle involved in this case is to play pitches using fingerings generally used for the pitches a tone or a semitone higher, i.e. by lipping down the pitch. This results in a subdued tone quality with few harmonics and also contributes to the contrast between sound and silence in the music. The piece comes to a close after a return to the motif with which it began. In terms of tone colour, therefore, the piece has a ternary structure with music featuring restrained use of overtones being set between music which employs overtones to the full. This is paralleled by a loud-soft-loud structure. In Western music, such a ternary structure applying principally on the level of tone colour and dynamics would be highly unusual.

Another feature of this piece is the emphasis on the dynamic and austere notion of dynamic contrast between sound and silence, the sense of timing known in Japanese aesthetics as ma.

The very simplicity of the melody makes this a difficult piece to perform, and it is considered for this reason to be a touchstone of the ability of a shakuhachi-player. On the spiritual level, the standard of performance demonstrated by someone playing this piece is considered to reflect his stage of development on the path to Buddhist enlightenment.

Transcription Notes

Given all this history and context with respect to the shakuhachi tradition, it's fair to ask whether playing this piece on another instrument is appropriate. On the one hand, there are extremely specific ways of playing this piece, handed down from teachers certified in the various schools of shakuhachi traditions to their students. On the other hand, there is the opportunity and encouragement to explore the bounds of expressiveness and seek your own unique voice with this piece.

It is this latter approach that I've found so interesting and valuable. Playing this piece hundreds to times, exploring the bounds of what the instrument and your breath and your fingers can do, uncovers new techniqes and expands the boundaries of the instrument.

There are many transcriptions of Hon Shirabe written in the various cursive music notations for the instrument. Some provide the basic melody, but many provide extensive hints on duration, pitch, tone, and ornaments. Here is one of the more basic transcriptions:

Transcription of Hon Shirabe in Japanese cursive music notation

Sheet Music for Hon Shirabe in "rho tsu re" notation from page 35 of [Taniguchi 1985] More information

The version I've arranged below is extremely sparse — more of a blank template to explore the bound of what can be done. It is largely based on one of the classic recording by Kohachiro Miyata from the first track of the CD Shakuhachi — The Japanese Flute ([Miyata 1991]).

You can study the many interpretations of this piece (collected by the International Shakuhachi Society and collected on their Hon Shirabe Recordings Page at Komuso.com). Or you can choose to simply explore the bounds of the instrument over this sparse and compelling melody.

I've arrange the piece is scored in parlando style, using note durations to roughly indicate how long each note is held and a caesura symbol … Caesura symbol to indicate a pause … to indicate a pause between phrases.

Few Native American flutes have the range or the scale to play this piece. One make of flute that come close in these respects is Stephen DeRuby's EZ Anasazi flute, and this transcription is scored specifically based on that flute and the Anasazi-7 tuning that it uses.


Here is a recording I made on October 16, 2011 on a Bb EZ Anasazi flute by Stephen DeRuby of Native Love Flutes. This flute uses the Anasazi-7 tuning shown below:

Hon Shirabe

Clint Goss. EZ Anasazi in Bb by Stephen DeRuby.

For other recordings, please visit the Hon Shirabe Recordings Page of the the International Shakuhachi Society.

Sheet Music — Anasazi-7 Tuned Flutes

The melody uses several quarter-tones (based on the reference recording by Kohachiro Miyata from the first track of the CD Shakuhachi - The Japanese Flute ([Miyata 1991])). At Citation A and Citation C the pitch drops half a semitone in a wavering style. I've provided a fingering that is not on the standard Anasazi-7 fingering chart for those notes: Seven hole finger diagram second octave half-closed closed closed closed closed open closed and Seven hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open closed.

At Citation B, the melody takes an extended wandering in the reference recording.

The melody at Citation D, Citation E, and Citation F goes lower than the lowest standard note on the flute. If this were a typical piece, I would start the transcription over, looking for a different starting note or try it on a different flute tuning. However, for this piece, this last section is an invitation to explore ways to bend the notes lower. On the recording, I am partially closing the bottom of the flute against my ankle. The tone of the flute suffers, but the effect is interesting.

Hon Shirabe - Anasazi-7 Tuned Flutes

Hon Shirabe - Anasazi-7 Tuned flutes Larger image


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