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Korean Musical Instruments

People’s Korea, 8 & 16 April 1998

The Korean people with excellent cultural heritage have created various kinds of musical instruments. The musical instruments recorded in the chronicles and documents from the primitive age up to now amount to 100 in its kinds.

Introduced here are some representative instruments:



Kayagum (Fillip instrument) is one of the most representative national instruments of Korea.

It was invented by Uruk 1,400 years ago (6th century, AD). He was born in the Kaya Era and distinguished himself as a talented musician and a famous composer.

Above all, he was an expert Kayagum player and devoted all his life to the development of music in Korea through musical composition and the training of Kayagum players, and made efforts to further develop it as a music instrument.

Kayagum is often compared with Japanese Koto, but it is quite different from Koto in the following points;

Firstly, during play the head of Kayagum should be placed on the lap of its player and its tail on the floor.

Secondly, the way of strumming to strings is almost the same as with Japanese Koto. But Koto is played with artificial nails, and Kayagum is played with bare fingers.

So it can fully express emotions, and the tone is very close to human voice. The sound is so delicate and soft that it can express well the character of Korean music.

Developed by the disciples of inventor Uruk, Kayagum music took further strides in the 19th century.

Kim Chang Jo, well known Kayagum player and composer, originated a Kayagum concerto, Kayagum Sanjo.

Kayagum Sanjo influenced Choktae (Korean flute), Tanso (Korean recorder), Komungo (string harp), and their respective Sanjo were created, making a great contribution to the development of traditional Korean music.

The strings of Kayagum were increased to 19 or 21 from the original 12 strings as a result of several reforms.

Moreover, it made Kayagum express any complicated sound through the introduction of various styles of rendition such as Tremolo and Arpeggio, in addition to the former technique of Rohyon (to produce a variety of sound by pressing strings by the left palm.)

There are various way of playing Kayagum including solo, duet, trio.

Besides, single-while playing Kayagum by a group of 12 women started in the difficult days of the Korean War (1950-53), a vocal solo and a group of women who sing while playing Kayagum, and so fourth.

In the course of its development, grand-Kayagum, an octave lower than Kayagum, was invented, which plays an active part as a low sound string instrument.

Silla-gum, which is preserved in Nara, Japan, was originally Kayagum. But it is shaped a little different from what it is.

Apart from the body, Yang Gak or a sheep's horn is attached to the tail, and the ends of strings are fixed there.

The name of Silla-gum derives from the historical fact that the instrument was brought to Japan after Silla's conquest of Kaya.

The traditional Kayagum is one of the most cherished and loved national instruments of Korea.



Yanggum is a percussion string instrument which is sounded by Chae (bamboo-made, thin plectra).

The name Yanggum means the Western harp. This kind of instruments are wide spread in the world as traditional national instruments, and were introduced into the professional music of circles of Korea in the 18th century.

Yanggum was also introduced into Japan at the end of Edo period, but it didn't see any further progress.

Most traditional string instrument of Korea use silk strings, but it uses steel strings. So it is also called Chol Sa Gum (Chol means iron; Sa means string; Gum means harp.)

Yanggum may be called a forerunner of the present-day piano. In the former, parallel strings are strung by two small plectra, while the latter has a keyboard of which the keys operates on the hammers to strike the strings.

In the early days, Yanggum had 14 major keys (1 major key has 4 strings), but the sound range now increased to 25 or 26 major keys.

In addition, it can play all the 12 tones by moving the 4 bridges freely. Yanggum is played in a unique style of rendition.

Firstly, it can play rhythmical, strained composition easily. Secondly, it is very effective for such renditions as tremolo and arpeggio and the power of rendition is rich enough to play altered chord in a concert.

Recently it has been equipped with a pedal (sound buffer device) as well, as a result of repeated improvements.

Mainly, for the purpose of rendition in concerts, Yanggum has been developed into a grand-Yanggum. This grand Yanggum is the same as respects in the body, strings, and spaces between strings.

The grand-Yanggum is for low bass. It was not until the 18th century that Yanggum was imported into Korea by Hong Dae Yong who was known as a member of the Silla school of practical learning.

Yanggum has a very soft and clear in sound, and may be called a versatile instruments.

Today Yanggum is widely played in solo, duet, and in orchestras because of its great compass and penetrating sound.



Tanso is made up of 2 words. Tan means short and so is a generic term for wind instruments.

Tanso is a most popular Korean wind instrument together with other so, Tongso (Korean Flute).

Formerly, it was made of bamboo, but now it is made of synthetic resin as a result of several innovations.

The sound is clear and beautiful with its emotional, penetrating timbre. The sound is wide and soft in the law range; bright and beautiful in the mid-range; penetrating in the high range.

Tanso came to be played after the middle of the 15th century, and it was especially favored by woodcutters for this clear sound.

Originally, it had 4 holes in the front, and one hole in the back, and rendition was confined to heptachord compositions.

Therefore, in the Li dynasty, Tanso was played in combination with several Tansoes with a different pitch, according to musical compositions.

With not only 3 holes in the front body, but also a half tome device and a key for correct sound added, it came to be able to play any musical compositions.

Tanso is a basic instrument for the high range in the composition of traditional wind and string instruments, and is mostly used to play melodies in rendition.

It permits various ways of rendition ranging from trill, producing neighboring sounds alternately in succession, adding grace, richness and brightness to the melodies played by other instrument, giving unique sound to traditional wind and string instrument.

Tanso is played in solos, duets, as an accompaniment to vocal performances and orchestras.

The treble Tanso is made to increase the sound range of Tanso and is somewhat smaller and one octave higher than Tanso.



In Korean version, a recorder is called So among no-reed instruments of the wood wind section while a flute called Cho.

Choktae (representative Korean flute) has an embouchure, 6 holes for sound and one more holes as a half tone device.

There are 3 kinds of Choktae -- Tae Ham (big flute), Chung Ham (middle flute) and So Ham (small flute).

All these three kinds have been known as Sam Chuk (three wind instruments of bamboo) and are specially cherished by Korean people.

Choktae is played in the following way; its head is put to the mouth of the player parallel; and air inbreathed into the embouchure; fingering on the holes involving pitch and timbre fluctuations, but most notable is the rendition of Rongum.

Rongum means a rendition with the simultaneous use of the head and shoulders to give traditional color to music.

Choktae made its debut in May 682, according to a record. A legendary episode is told of debut in the world;

Once upon a time a tiny island suddenly appeared in the East Sea of Korea and strange enough, it was shaped like a human head.

One day, a bamboo tree began to grow there and branched off into two in the daytime and united at night.

The king of the country hearing of this, thought it was a sign of good fortune and sent a messenger to get the bamboo to make Choktae.

When a player blew Choktae, the tune was marvelous; ranging waves were calmed down, storms were tamed; rain fell when it was too dry; enemies were routed in battle.

So in the 7th century, it was called Man Pa Shokcho, a treasure to protect the country from danger and sea disasters, and was preserved in a repository under the care of the country.

In the Li dynasty period, Kim Hong Do painted Mu Ak To (a picture of dance and music). In the painting, a concert was drawn with Choktae as the center there.

With a wide sound range, Choktae is known for its conspicuous traditional color.

Most beautiful is its timbre in the middle and high ranges. The low pitch is deep and harmonious, while its high pitch is strong and penetrating.

Choktae is usually made of wood or bamboo elements. It is usually 3cm in diameter, and 70cm in length. The length is in proportion to its thickness.


Hae Gum

Haegum is a percussive bow string instrument which is very popular in Korea today.

Hae Gum resembled Chinese Ho Gung in its structure and rendition, but we can find its originality in our traditional Korean climate.

First of all, Hae Gum can be compared to the medieval musical instrument called Fugin, which had been in Korea since before the Christian era, and became an indispensable musical instrument in both court and popular music circles, according to records.

In those days, Song Hyon and other musician wrote Ak Hak Kye Nom (9 vols.) to systematize and typify traditional Korean music, in which they explained the manufacturing process, rendition, and tuning Hae Gum with some illustrations.

Hae Gum is made up of 2 strings and played by a bow with the instrument placed on the player's knee.

The bow has a string of horse tail hair and is held by the right hand. So, Hae Gum is called the two string harp.

Moreover, it is called Kang Kang I, so named after the peculiar sound from the resonance drum. It sounds like nasal human voice.

Hae Gum has gone through several improvements to remove its nasal sound, so that the strings are now increased to four from two and the fixed strings placed outside.

As improvements were made. rendition has been also studied. Excellent functions like trill, pizzicato in violin rendition have been added to its original form of rendition which the player places the instrument on his knee and springs against.

As a result, it is now capable of a variety of musical expressions, including this rich timbre of traditional Korean music and delicate expressions like Rong Um.

There are a great many concerto compositions for Hae Gum, like Hae Gum Sanjo, in addition to folk song compositions, and many excellent Hae Gum players have been produced since old days.

Ari-rang and Pibada Song played by Hae Gum together with other musical instruments are especially popular today.

There are several kinds of Hae Gum, and actually Hae Gum now in popular use in So Hae Gum (small Hae Gum).

In the DPRK, great efforts were made after the liberation to develop traditional orchestra music in the process of promoting duets and trios of traditional musical instruments.

In this process, Chung (middle) Hae Gum for middle pitch, Cho (low) Hae Gum for low pitch, and Tae (grand) Hae Gum for low bass in string instruments are invented.



Piri and Senap are well-known double reed-wood wind instruments among traditional Korean musical instruments.

Senap distinguished itself from the other instruments in its volume. Senap is also called Tae Pyong So or Nal Ra Ri.

Nal Ra Ri, another name of Senap, is named after its sound, and the name is more popular among the public.

Senap came to be popular among the people around the 13th century, according to records.

There are following passage on Senap in An Authentic Record of King Tae Jo : ... One of them often played so (generic term for wind instruments), an instrument called Tae Pyong So. Moreover, Chong Dong Mu, famous poet mentions this instrument in one of his poems.

Senap, is generally a wind instrument with a copper-made trumpet attached to the wooden tube.

Senap was originally used by military bands, and by and by spread to the public.

As it was widely spread, its cheerful and optimistic sound was introduced into Nong Ak (farmer?s music) and become an indispensable sole melodic instrument. Nong Ak is a kind of music which is played in festivals to celebrate the year's good harvest, and to express thanks to farmers' labor after autumn harvest.

Nong Ak bands, with Senap in the ban of percussive traditional musical instruments such as Megu, Kenggari, and Changgo, gather from villagers to celebrate a good harvest.

Old farmers say that the timbre of Senap told them about the result of the year's harvest.

If the timbre was very cheerful and colorful, they would have a good harvest, and a bad harvest if the timber sounded sorrowful.

Senap is characterized by its large sound volume and its tone color, so it is played effectively in solo or ensemble.

The latter part of the orchestra Chong San-ri Always Enjoy Bumper Crop gives full play to this instrument.

It is especially effective in F major key and D minor key. Chang (long) Se Senap was developed from Senap with its won unique features retained.

A reed was added for a correct half-tone and, the tube lengthened, and the trumpet made smaller.

As a result, its sound range became wider and the timber softer than before to produce a rich emotional timbre.

It came to be able to play appealing musical compositions for festive occasions effectively with its rich power of expression.



Among double-reed recorders in the traditional Korean musical instruments, the most popular brass wind instrument is Senap and Piri in the wood wind section.

According to records, Piri came into being earlier than Senap, and was especially loved by Korean people from before the Christian era.

Piri is the generic term of recorders and flutes, that is, of those which are composed of a bamboo bar (synthetic resin or other materials) with some holes, which is sounded by the player's breath, and became favorite instruments of the Korean people.

Piri has several different kinds of from the beginning and most representative among them are Hyang Piri, Se Piri, Tang Piri.

Hyang Piri, Se (thin) Piri and Tang (Chinese) Piri are very similar to each other in appearance and the principle of sounding.

They have 7 holes in front and one hole in the back side. Musical intervals or sound like Ronum (traditional Korean rendition) can be adjusted by the way the reed is held in the mouth or by the tongue.

Of them, Hyang Piri produces very sharp sound, and very effective for clear melodies in concert.

Se Piri is the most representative instrument of the three kinds of Piris, and a little smaller and thinner than Hyang Piri.

Se Piri ranks first in its power of expression compared with their traditional instruments. Moreover the timbre is close to human voice (rather man's voice), and is so attractive to people's mind.

While, Tang Piri was named after its origin, Tang dynasty China distinguish itself from the other Piris as Hyang Piri and Se Piri.

It is almost the same as the two other Piris, in appearance as well as rendition, but is a bit thicker than the other two Piris.

According to records, 20 pieces of Tang Piri were introduced into Korea in June 1, 114.

Piri is played widely not only in sole but also in duet and concert with other string instruments and as accompaniment to folk songs because it is easy to adjust its volume, and can be played easily in harmony with other instruments.

After the liberation of Korea from Japan, Piri has undergone several reforms like other traditional instruments, and Small Piri, Middle Piri, Big Piri and Law Range Piri has been newly added to its original form.

Small Piri and Middle are often played in solo for folk songs and for dances.

Tae (big) Piri is played mainly in concert. These Piris is played mainly in concert. These Piris that have gone through several reforms distinguished themselves from other instruments by their diverse ad unique ways of expression.