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Traditional Musical Instruments of Korea


Korea has developed a large number of musical instruments, and total of 60 different kinds now are preserved at the National Classical Music Institute. Fifteen of these are no longer in use, some because of changes in musical fashion, others because of the discontinuance of ceremonies, associated with the royal court. The remaining 45 are all played today, though with varying degrees of frequency.

Following is a brief introduction to the most frequently used of the 14 chordophones, 17 aerophones, 13 idiophones, and 16 membranophones.

The komungo is representative of zithers with six strings of twisted silk. The second, third, and fourth strings are stretched over 16 fixed frets and tuned by round pegs, while the other strings are stretched over movable bridges and tuned by moving the bridges to the left or right. The strings are plucked with a bamboo rod (sultae) which is held between the index and middle fingers of the right hand, while the left hand presses on the strings to produce microtones.

The kayagum, which is related to the Chinese cheng and the Japanese koto, is another type of Korean zither. It has 12 silk strings supported by 12 movable bridges. The thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand pluck the strings, while the index and middle fingers of the left hand touch the strings on the left side of the movable bridges. The tone quality is clear and delicate. The sanjo Kayagum is a small, narrow type of kayagum patterned after the original kayagum called popgum. It is used for the fast fingering of folk music and sanjo music.

The ajaeng is a bowed seven-stringed zither. Played with a resined bow made of forsythia wood, the tone of the ajaeng is majestic and full. The instrument is used primarily in court orchestras to reinforce the bass instruments.

This two-stringed fiddle without a fingerboard is held on the left knee and played vertically with a bow. The tone quality is nasal and the sound is penetrating. The instrument is always found in Korean court and folk music ensembles.

The taegum is the largest and most representative transverse flute of Korea. It has a blowing hole, a hole covered with a thin membrane, six finger holes and five non-finger holes at the lower end, for a total of 13. The vibration of the membrane lends a beautiful, expressive tonal quality to the music. The taegum is an indispensible instrument in any Korean music ensemble.

The tangjok is the smallest transverse flute, similar to the piccolo of the west. The tone quality is pure and clear, particularly in the upper register. It is only played with the taegum.

The p'iri, a cylindrical oboe, has a long, wide double reed and eight finger holes, including the back thumb hole. It is the leading instrument and always takes the main melody in Korean court music or folk ensembles. Its sound is loud and has a distinctive tone quality and timbre.

The t'aep'yongso, literally "great peace flute," is a conical wooden oboe with eight finger holes, a metal mouthpiece, and a cup-shaped metal bell. It produces a loud and piercing sound and is used for farmers' band music, traditional military band music and some folk music.

This conch shell trumpet, producing only one deep note, is used exclusively as a drone in a military processional band in alternation with the nabal, a long trumpet.

The nabal is the only Korean metal trumpet. Without finger holes, it is used to produce only one sustained tone. It is now played exclusively in military processional bands to sound a one-note drone in alternation with the conch shell trumpet.

The tanso is a small, notched, vertical bamboo flute with five fingerholes, one on the back. The tone quality is exceedingly pure and delicate, making it a favorite solo instrument.

The pak is a clapper shaped like a folded fan. It consists of six pieces of wood loosely held together at the upper end by a cord made of deer skin. The pieces of wood are thicker at the loose ends. The pak is clapped once to start a piece of music and three times rapidly to mark the end of a piece. It is used by court and ritual orchestras.

The p'yonjong is a set of 16 chromatically tuned bronze bell chimes hung in an elaborately decorated frame. The bells are the same size and shape but the thickness of their walls are different, giving each a different pitch. The player sits behind the instrument on the ground and uses a mallet to strike the bells.

The p'yon-gyong is a set of 16 L-shaped slabs of jade stone. The counterpart of the bell chimes, it has played an essential role in court ceremonies since the 12th century. The stone slabs are the same size and shape but vary in thickness so that each has a different pitch. The thickest produces the highest pitch while the thinnest one, the lowest.

The kkwaenggwari, the smallest gong, is struck with a wooden mallet to produce a sharp, attention-commanding sound. It is used for farmers' band music (nong-ak) and shaman music. In farmers' band music, it is played by the leader to signal rhythmic patterns for the other musicians.

The changgo, or hourglass drum, is the most frequently used accompaniment in almost all forms of Korean music. The thick skin of the left side is struck with the palm and produces a soft, low sound, and the thin skin of the right side is struck with a bamboo stick to produce a hard, crisp sound. The pitch of the right side can be made higher or lower by tightening or loosening the tension of the drum head. This is done by moving the central belts encircling the V-shaped laces to the right or to the left.


The chwago is a medium-size barrel drum hung from a frame. Its sound reinforces the hourglass drum. It is used mainly in court music to accompany wind ensembles or full orchestras.