Digitization of Ryukyuan Music: MEI of Kunkunshi Notation for Classical and Modern Songs with Sanshin

Authors: Miyagawa, So / Seki, Shintaro

Date: Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 11:15am to 12:45pm

Location: Main Campus, L 2.202 <campus:measure>


Ryukyuan music originated in the Ryukyu Archipelago (southwest of Japan) and is an important aspect of East Asian music history (Thompson 2008). Ryukyuan music, from classical Ryukyuan music to contemporary popular music, uses a unique tablature called kunkunshi. It is used as the musical notation for the sanshin, the three-stringed instrument central to Ryukyuan music. Despite its cultural importance, kunkunshi sheet music faces challenges in digital preservation and accessibility. This paper proposes to use the Music Encoding Initiative (MEI) to digitize and disseminate kunkunshi notation to ensure its survival and continued appreciation.

MEI is an XML-based encoding standard that provides a robust framework for complex musical notation and enables accurate encoding of kunkunshi notation. This study outlines the adaptation of the MEI schema to the unique features of a kunkunshi score, including vertical writing structure, seven major characters representing tones, rhythmic values, and articulations. Also considered is the representation of microtones unique to sanshin music.

The sanshin is a three-stringed plectrum instrument and a representative instrument of Ryukyuan music, characterized by its snakeskin-covered body and distinctive tone. The kunkunshi notation, which effectively expresses the nuances of sanshin playing, is an essential element of the Ryukyuan music tradition.

To demonstrate the potential of MEI in Ryukyuan music, we are digitizing a collection of kunkunshi scores, based on MEI for lute tablature (Lewis 2014). Transcription challenges such as interpreting handwritten manuscripts, deciphering obscure symbols, and reconciling different readings will be discussed.

Digitization using MEI has the advantages of digital preservation, facilitating collaboration and data sharing, and creating new opportunities for analysis and research. This paper demonstrates the potential of MEI as a powerful tool for the preservation and dissemination of didactic scores in Ryukyuan classical and contemporary popular music, facilitating the continued appreciation and study of this important cultural heritage.


Lewis, Richard (2014) “Customising MEI for lute tablature,” Transforming Musicology: An AHRC Digital Transformations project, the University of Oxford, https://tm.web.ox.ac.uk/blog/customising-mei-lute-tablature (accessed April 29, 2023).

Thompson, Robin (2008) “The music of Ryukyu.” In: Alison McQueen Tokita and David W. Hughes (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music, pp. 303–322. London: Routledge.

About the authors

So Miyagawa, a tenure-track assistant professor at the National Institute of Japanese Language and Linguistics, engages in a project on the digital preservation and revitalization of endangered languages, such as Ryukyuan and Ainu, while interested in Ryukyuan music and playing the sanshin.

Shintaro Seki is a research fellow (DC2) of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, The University of Tokyo. His PhD research aims to promote the study of Japanese music through an informatics-based approach.

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