Haiku in music: 5 sublime pearls of Matsuo Bashō transformed into musical fragments

In this article, I want to present five haiku by the great Japanese master Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694), accompanied by as many musical fragments composed and recorded by me on various instruments, including the Koto, a typical chordophone resembling a small harp and widespread throughout Japan.

For the time structure, I adopted an irregular tempo of 5/8 for the first and last bars and one of 7/8 for the middle bars. This way, the haiku’s syllabic (or, more accurately, blackberry-based) structure can be reproduced according to the 5/7/5 pattern. Of course, these are not authentic compositions where a theme undergoes various elaborations, and harmony plays a significant role. In this case, considering the minimalist and brief nature of haiku, I thought that the space of only three lines could try to express the poem’s meaning (in emotional terms).

Viewed from the perspective of musical composition, these fragments can be imagined in a sequence interspersed with a silent space from which the notes emerge and then fade away like waves of the sea. My vision of haiku is not isolated compositions (which might remind one of the hermetic approach) but microcosms that follow one another like dew drops that slowly fall off a leaf and fall to the ground.

Snow will return this year

The two lovers decried in the haiku, recalling the time spent observing the snow.

Will the snow return this year 
That together with you 
I contemplated?

Koto‘s composition focuses on the question and interweaving of memory, then ends in a short crescendo that remains suspended, indicating the uncertainty that the haiku communicates.
Musical composition for the haiku


Silence, in a haiku interrupted only by the song of cicadas.

A song of cicadas
Scratches the stone.

This short melodic fragment is written for Shakuhachi, a wind instrument typical of Japan.

Melody for the haiku

It is evening now

It is evening now in this dusky, intimate haiku.

It is evening now. 
Among the flowers 
chimes of bells extinguish.

The instrument chosen for this short melody is the cello, which, with its warm, twilight thunder, calls to the evening calm and the landscape that tends toward the stasis of night.

Cello melody for haiku

Fast Moon

The treetops in this haiku reach out toward the moon.

Fast moon: 
The tops of the trees 
Are soaked with rain.

The short composition is designed for solo violin, alternating between pizzicato and the use of the bow to render the co-presence of a moonscape imbued with raindrops slowly falling to the ground.

Violin melody for haiku

End of the year


End of the year. 
All the corners 
Of this floating world are swept away.

This last haiku was dedicated to the classical guitar I love and play. The idea is to create a kind of suspension that abruptly veers toward a cadence, as if the initial awareness of the end of the year is lulled by memories of this “liquid” world only to suddenly witness their dissolution and, ultimately, the advent of a new year.

Classical guitar melody for haiku

Deposited for legal protection with Patamu: certificate

Short biographical note on Matsuo Bashō

Matsuo Bashō, born in 1644 in Ueno, Japan, was a renowned Japanese poet of the Edo period who played a significant role in developing haiku poetry. Bashō is best known for his minimalist style, which aimed to capture the essence of a moment in a few words. His haiku often reflected themes of nature, travel, and the impermanence of life.

Bashō’s most famous work, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” chronicles his travels across Japan and has been celebrated for its profound insights and lyrical beauty. His poetry collections, including “The Sound of Water” and “Monkey’s Raincoat,” have inspired generations of poets worldwide.

Through his mastery of language and keen observation of the natural world, Matsuo Bashō revolutionized the form of haiku, elevating it to a respected literary genre. His legacy continues to resonate today as his timeless verses capture the fleeting beauty of life and the interconnectedness of all things.

For more on haiku and further reading.

Basho: The Complete Haiku
  • Basho stands today as Japan’s most renowned writer, and one of the most revered
  • Wherever Japanese literature, poetry or Zen are studied, his oeuvre carries weight
  • Every new student of haiku quickly learns that Basho was the greatest of the Old Japanese Masters
  • Yet despite his stature, Basho’s complete haiku have not been collected into a single volume
  • Until now
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches: Matsuo Basho
  • 'It was with awe That I beheld Fresh leaves, green leaves, Bright in the sun'   In his perfectly crafted haiku poems, Basho described the natural world with great simplicity and delicacy of feeling
  • When he composed The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he was an ardent student of Zen Buddhism, setting off on a series of travels designed to strip away the trappings of the material world and bring spiritual enlightenment
  • He wrote of the seasons changin, of the smells of the rain, the brightness of the moon, and beauty of the waterfall, through which he sense mysteries of the universe
  • There’s seventeenth-century travel writing not only chronicle Basho's perilous journeys through Japan, but they also capture his vision of eternity in the transient world around him
  •   In his lucid translation Nobuyuki Yuasa captures the Lyrical qualities of Basho's poetry and prose by using the natural rhythms and language of the contemporary speech
Basho: The Complete Haiku of Matsuo Basho
  • This is the essential English edition of the complete poems of the eminent Japanese master of the haiku, Matsuo Basho
  •   Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) is arguably the greatest figure in the history of Japanese literature and the master of the haiku
  • Basho: The Complete Haiku of Matsuo Basho offers in English a full picture of the haiku of Basho, 980 poems in all
  • Andrew Fitzsimons’ translation is the first to adhere strictly to form: all of the poems are translated following the syllabic count of the originals
  • This book also translates a number of Basho’s headnotes to poems ignored by previous English-language translators
On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho
  • Basho, one of the greatest of Japanese poets and the master of haiku, was also a Buddhist monk and a life-long traveller
  • His poems combine 'karumi', or lightness of touch, with the Zen ideal of oneness with creation
  • Each poem evokes the natural world - the cherry blossom, the leaping frog, the summer moon or the winter snow - suggesting the smallness of human life in comparison to the vastness and drama of nature
  • Basho himself enjoyed solitude and a life free from possessions, and his haiku are the work of an observant eye and a meditative mind, uncluttered by materialism and alive to the beauty of the world around him
  • For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world

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Last update on 2024-07-08 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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