One of the most perplexing questions I’ve found as a Westerner picking up and learning to play shakuhachi is why I want to play songs. Like many who first pick up the instrument, I found playing notes evenly and in tune extremely difficult, while producing interesting tones without regard to evenness and pitch was not only easy, it was very satisfying. It was almost like there was no need to learn songs of any type, as the shakuhachi had its own song it wanted me to play.
So the way I initially approached the instrument was to take the path of least resistance and simply explore the tones it could produce without respect to pitch or timing. The only control I would impose was the strength and duration of breath. This approach, while unguided, is far from unproductive, and is not a distant stretch from the Ro-buki exercise highly encouraged by most shakuhachi teachers. However, despite shakuhachi being such a unique instrument, it did not seem all that different from other instruments in that, traditionally, songs were passed from one player to another. Sometimes in a student/teacher relationship, and other times during a musician to musician meeting, a composition, or song, is taught and learned. The process usually involves long sequences of notes, complex phrasing, and particularly for shakuhachi, tonal shaping. Needless to say, learning a song is seldom easy.
Since learning a song is such a difficult task, I have to question why I, or anybody, on any instrument, want to learn songs. While for part of the answer I have to say it seems to hold the same fascination as a good puzzle, and of course there is the performance aspect of it whether an audience is present or not, there seems to be what can best be described as a mystical force that draws me to learning songs. For whales and birds learning songs scientists usually point toward evolutionary psychology as being a possible reason for songs to be transferred among individuals of the species. That is, the more songs the whale or bird learns, the more attractive they will be to a mate. This theory seems to fit somewhat for some people as far as popular music is concerned, however there are many musicians who learn and play songs even though there is no apparent simple evolutionary reason.
Could the reason for learning songs still fit evolutionary psychology theories because the songs aid us in some manner to evolve to a higher spiritual plane? Maybe. I have seen at least a few references that Bach and Mozart compositions are associated with a higher intelligence or spiritual entity. Douglas Hofstadter’s book “Godel, Escher, Bach” is one that I enjoyed a great deal. Another is the movie “Black Robe”. In it, when the Indian chief and missionary are abducted by a particularly violent tribe, they are asked to sing their song. I can not think of a finer example of emphasis placed on how much a song can expose oneself spiritually, as here the song was necessary to determine whether the adversary should live or die.
As far as shakuhachi is concerned, there is a vast repertoire of traditional songs written specifically for the instrument to be used as a tool to help reach Zen enlightenment. This fact, along with evolutionary psychology theory, and a smidgen of gut feel lead me to believe that, at least for shakuhachi, the reason many individuals are drawn to it and its songs are an inner compulsion to evolve.