Introduction: Korean Musical Instruments

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:


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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.


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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.

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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.


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