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
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
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
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.