Traditional Korean Instruments

String Family


A bowed seven to nine-string horizontal zither is played with a resined bow made of forsythia wood, which produces a rasping sound. There are two types of ajaeng; jeong-ak ajaeng (7 string), used primarily in court orchestras to reinforce the bass instrument with thick low sounds and Sanjo ajaeng (8 string), used in folk music ensemble such as shinawii or in a solo instrumental genre called Sanjo, which produces lighter and melancholy tunes. Gayageum


is the most well-known Korean traditional zither-related to the Chinese Cheng and the Japanese koto? It has 12 silk strings supported by 12 moveable bridges. The thumb, index, middle and ring fingers of the right hand pluck the strings, while the index and middle fingers of left hand touch the strings of the left side of the moveable bridges to control the pitches. There are two kinds of gayageum: pungyu gayageum (also called beopgeum), used in court music ensemble, has a comparatively broad soundboard that makes the space between strings wide and produces bigger and lower sound, and Sanjo Gayageum, used in folk ensemble and Sanjo, is smaller in size with the space between the strings narrow so that one may play rapid passages easily. In recent time, the musicians have developed the various types of modernized gayageum expanding its size and adding more strings, designed to employ the wide range of pitches and expressions. Besides the 12-sting gayageum, 17, 18. 21, and 25 string gayageum are used in modern and newly composed pieces in Korea.


The six-stringed zither, geomungo, was created by the famous musician Wang San-ak of the Koguryo period (B.C. 37- A.D. 668) and has long been the most honored of Korean instruments, with its majestic deep sounds, enjoying a prestige among the scholarly class. The second, third and fourth strings are stretched over 16 fixed frets and tuned by round pegs, while the other strings are stretched over moveable bridges and tuned by moving the bridges to the left or right. The strings are plucked with a short bamboo rod, which is held between the index and middle fingers of the right hand, while left hand presses on the strings to produces various pitches.


This two-stringed fiddle, believed to have been introduced from China during the Goryeo period, was once played throughout Asia. The haegeum has no fingerboard and is played vertically on the left knee, with a bow scraped against two silk strings. It produces a nasal tone and piercing sounds and hence is also called kkangkkangi.


The yanggeum is a dulcimer thought to have been introduced from Europe. It is the only Korean string instrument with strings of steel instead of silk and by striking down lightly with a bow made of thinly carved bamboo.

Wind Family


A large transverse flute dates back to 7th century Silla. It is one of three transverse flutes, the large daegeum, the medium-sized junggeum, and the small sogeum. daegeum has one blowing hole, six finger holes, and an extra hole covered with a thin membrane. It produces a distinctive buzzing sound that is both refined and benign. Danso


A small, notched vertical flute mainly used in solo recitals, duet performances, and chamber music. It is a popular instrument for solo recitals as it produces the clearest sound of all the wind instruments. It is also used in duet performances with saenghwang or yanggeum. Duet performances of saenghwang and Danso are called saengso byeongju.


A cylindrical double-reed bamboo oboe with eight finger holes, one in back for the thumb and seven in front. There are three different kinds of pirl: the hyang-piri, literally a “native” Korean oboe used for indigenous music, or hyang-ak; the se-piri, a smaller soft-toned oboe used for chamber music and to accompany gagok vocal music, and the dang-piri, a stouter Chinese oboe used for dang-ak, the secular music of the Chinese Dang and Song dynasties.


Another oboe-like instrument, the taepyeongso was introduced from China during the Goryeo period and is used widely in daechwita (military processional music), pungmul nori(farmers music), Buddhist music, royal ancestral rite music, and sinawii, the instrumental accompaniment to shaman dances. It has a conical bore, a cup-like metal bell, and a short double reed, which fits into a metal mouthpiece. The taepyeongso, also called nallari and hojeok, produces shrill piercing sonuds.

Percussion Family


This fan-shaped wooden clapper consists of six pieces of wood held together by a deer-skin cord in the form of a fan. Since the Unified Silla Kingdom, it has been used in court dance and music to signal the beginning and end. The person playing the bak is called jipbak; he serves as conductor or musical supervisor for the group.


The janggu is an hourglass-shaped drum with two heads that are covered with leather. The right head is struck with a thin bamboo stick and the left head is hit by the left hand or by a hard wooden mallet. It is one of the indispensable percussion instruments in Korean traditional music that sustains the rhythmic flow by articulating important rhythmic patterns. Because of its flexible nature and its agility with complex rhythm, it is wildly used as accompaniment to most of the compositions and repertoires of both Korean court and folk music traditions including Tangak (Chinese court music), Hyangak (Korean indigenous court music), sanjo, p’ansori, pungmulnori(farmer’s festival music) and shaman music.


A large. flat lapped bronze gong. the jing was wiaely used by the general public and the milray. It is called daegeum when used for jongya music and jing when used for pungmul nori. It is held in one hand and struck with a mallet.


A small, lipped flat bronze gong chiefly used in farmer`s music and dance, this instrument is called kkwaenggwari when used for pung-mul nori. It is struck with a wooden stick with a knot on one end. Usually the lead instrument in pungmul nori and the player is called snagsoe.


The puk, used mainly in pungmulnori(farmer’s festival music), is a very popular percussion instrument along with two other percussions, soripuk and janggu. The puk, made of cow skin, is usually placed on the ground for performances. However, in some cases the puk is hung from the shoulder with the skin facing outward on both sides.


This set of 16 chromatically tuned bronze bells hangs from an ornate wooden frame. The bells are identical in size and shape, but very in thickness. The instrument was introduced to Korea during the rule of King Yejong(r.1105-1122) of Goryeo. It is used in court music. The bells are arranged in two rows, eight bells in each. They produce sounds when struck with a mallet made of animal horn. The thicker the bell, the higher the sound.


This turned sonorous chime, also introduced from China during the rule of King Yejong of Goryeo, is used in court music. It consists of 16 L-shaped jade-stone slabs hanging from a wooden frame, eight in two rows. The sound differs according to the thickness of the stone slabs. During the rule of King Sejong of Joseon, jade was discovered in Namyang, Gyeonggi Province, and for the first time the instrument was manufactured in Korea.


Sue Yeon Park has been named as a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. She has received this honor in recognition for her work as a Korean musician and dancer who has worked for nearly three decades bringing traditional Korean arts to American audiences. She is the first Korean American artist to receive this honor.

The National Heritage Fellowship is a lifetime honor presented to master folk and traditional artists by the National Endowment for the Arts. It can be awarded only once to an individual and is considered the highest honor by the United States government has given to distinguished folk and traditional artists. Fellows must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States to be eligible for this award, which is similar to Korea’s and Japan’s “Living National Treasure” recognition.

Sue Yeon Park, one of the foremost Korean artists in the United States today, is a traditional dancer and musician who specializes in Seungmu (Buddhist ritual dance) and Salpuri-chum (Shaman Ritual Dance). Trained under Master Yi Mae Bang, one of South Korea’s Living National Treasures, she now holds the prestigious title of yisuja, designating her mastery at the highest level of Master Yi’s performance lineage of Salpuri-chum. She also holds the title of distinction, jeonsuja, for the preservation of Seungmu.

Immigrating to the United States in 1982, she founded the cultural group, The Korean Traditional Performing Arts Association (KTPAA), in order to teach young people and to continue performing Korean music and dance traditions. Her performing group, Sounds of Korea, has been featured at festivals and performance venues across the United States including Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, and Kaye Playhouse in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Park also has been a regular instructor at Camp Friendship, an organization in New Jersey that serves Korean-born adopted children, and she initiated her own program to bring some of those students to Korea for an intensive workshop program in Korean performing arts. She is a recipient of the New York Governor’s 2004 “Award of Excellence” in recognition of her outstanding achievements and community service to the Empire State; “Best Artist of the Year” Award from the Foundation for Korean Arts and Culture in Korea; and the “Award of Recognition and Appreciation” from Asian American Cultural Center at Rutgers University for her dedication to Korean art and music.

The National Heritage Fellowship program began in 1982 to honor artists whose excellence and dedication enriches the dynamic and varied culture of the United States. One of the most important National Endowment for the Arts initiatives, this program annually honors ten to twelve artists who have been nominated by the public as master in their field. Since its beginning in 1982, the 327 fellowship recipients have included Native American basket weavers, African American blues musicians, traditional fiddlers, Mexican American accordionists, and all manner of traditional artisans and performers from numerous ethnic backgrounds. These have included Michael Flatley, Irish-American step dancer; “Bessie” Jones, Georgia Sea Island singer; Almeda Riddle, Arkansas ballad singer; and Qi Shu Feng, New York-Beijing opera performer.

The NEA National Heritage Fellowship program will award $20,000 to each recipient at the banquet, award ceremonies, and concert which will occur over the period September 16-19, 2008, held at the White House, Washington, D.C.