Learning New Taiko Music

bang typewriter
--Photo by p.chavez

There isn't a lot of taiko sheet music out there so you don't always have a reference when learning new taiko music. You're lucky if you've got a well-trained taiko mentor but most groups learn from watching videos of other performers, or composing pieces themselves.

Write it down?

So how do you teach/learn a new song? If you're able, transcribing the rhythm using Western musical notation is an option. Anyone with basic knowledge of notation should be able to read and play from sheet music.

Western notation, however, doesn't always impart the necessary information to properly play the intended rhythm. Thus some groups, including Kodo, have invented their own musical language to transcribe their beats (it looks like a bunch of colored triangles and squares of various sizes).


The most common, and widely considered the most effective way of teaching/learning a
taiko beat, is through song. Instead of just listening and mimicking, singing aloud the rhythm will implant the song in your head.

Japanese players will use Japanese onomatopoeia to "sing" the rhythm. The type of sound tells you where to hit (eg the skin or the rim), which arm to hit it with, as well as the location of accents.

In English, something like, "bum-bada-bum-bum", probably makes perfect sense. It's the same thing in Japanese, just that some other sounds are used. Take, for example, "Dokonko-don-don". Read it aloud and you'll probably have an idea of how it's played. The whole phrase is four counts long. The "dokonko" is three hits with a Right-Left-Left sticking. The remaining "don-don" alternate R-L.

Now on paper this may look a little silly. That's because this isn't meant to be written down! Saying it aloud and hearing it is the whole point of all this. A good way to make sense of all this, is to think of a beat that you already know, and then trying to 'sing' it aloud without actually playing it. Attach an appropriate 'sound' to each hit and try to memorize the song that way. For long straight beat parts, you can just count instead. For example, if you have 30 straight hits, instead of saying "don-don-don-don..." thirty times over, just count to 15 out loud and play two beats per count.

Here's a couple more Japanese 'sounds' if you want o give them a shot.

Ka- the 'clicking' sound implies the use of the rim or a hard surface
Don- a straight beat right on the drum head, usually played with a full arm swing
Do-do-don- The small "do" sound implies speedier beats followed by a loud "don" downbeat

There's no need to use Japanese though! Make up sounds or stick with the onomatopoeia of whatever language you're comfortable with.

Why sing it?

Applying a mouthed "sound" to each note of a song not only helps you learn the piece, but it provides a reference for each part of the song. If everyone in the group knows the song for a rhythm, saying something like "Let's play the kokkoro-kon-kon part louder," will actually make sense. Everyone will know exactly what part of the rhythm you're talking about.

The key is to be consistent. It's no use if each person has a different "song" version of the same rhythm. If one person is singing "bum-bada-bum-bum" but another remembered the same beat as "don-doko-don-don", miscommunication ensues. Learn/teach it in one standard way and stick with it.

Once you've got the hang of it, and are over the embarrassment of speaking in onomatopoeia, teaching/learning through song is the most effective way to communicate with each other about taiko music. By singing, you not only specify the location and tempo of each hit, but you can also emphasize certain sounds to indicate an accent. You can also alter the loudness of your voice to indicate changes in volume.

Some form of transcribed music can definitely be helpful, particularly for someone just learning the song. If you can write it down definitely give it a shot. But in all the taiko groups that I've seen both in and outside of Japan, 'singing' always seems to be the most practical and preferred choice even in the presence of written music. If you haven't already, definitely try it. It may save you a lot of time and frustration!

Also see: 
Learning New Taiko Music (Part 2)
Making Taiko Music (Compositions) 

Here are some other taiko related resources you might find helpful:

Taiko Information:
Taiko Playing Styles
Why are Taiko Drums So Expensive?
How to Play Taiko Drums
5 Ways to Get Better at Taiko
Getting in Taiko Playing Shape
Taiko Drums vs Other Percussion

Taiko Building:
Where to Get Taiko Drums
How to Make a Happi Coat
How to Make a Taiko Drum
How to Make Handles on a Taiko Drum
How to Make Shime and Oke Taiko Heads
How to Make Taiko Skin (Drum Heads from Cow Hide
How to Make Practice Taiko Drums
How to Paint a Taiko Drum
How to Make Practice Shime Drums
How to Make Taiko Sticks (Bachi)
How to Make Tire Taiko
How to Raise Money

TaikoSkin Podcast
The TaikoSkin podcast covers a whole range of topics related to taiko- building drums, starting groups, getting performances offers, going to grad school. Just about anything really. Download them in the iTunes store, or find all of the episodes here.

TAIKOPROJECT:(re)generation Special Edition Taiko DVD  Kodo - One Earth Tour Special (Bonus CD)  Portland Taiko: Taiko Kinesis  


  1. Awesome! I played Taiko as a child, and this is bringing back so many memories! If you're with a good group of players then it's really fun to speak the sing-song of taiko. Very interesting stuff, thank you.