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Traditional Instruments print

<Jongmyo Jeryeak>

Music is an art form whose beauty largely depends on the instrument or human voice used to create the sound. No matter how complex or masterfully-composed a piece is, it remains silent in absent of the voice of an instrument to give it life. Therefore, understanding musical instruments is, in essence, understanding and appreciating music. 

There are about 60 traditional instruments in Korea. Some have local origins and date back as far as the 4th century; while others were adapted in Korea after having been introduced to Korea from the West or China. Though some of these instruments have not stood the test of time, others have only increased in popular throughout the passing years. In fact, there are 20 or so traditional instruments still widely used today.

Korean traditional instruments are made using locally available materials and are said to be merely carriers of the sound naturally produced by their materials. A text written in 1903 classifies Korean traditional musical instruments into eight groups based their materials: metal, string, bamboo, animal skin, wood, clay, gourd, and stone. Today, instruments are classified by the same system used in the west, i.e. according to how the sound is produced. Based on this system, traditional instruments are divided into wind, string, and percussion categories.

Korean traditional instruments can also be categorized according to the genre, which is generally defined by the occasion at which the music is performed/the instrument is used. Although there are many types of traditional Korean music under this system, Korean traditional music can be largely divided into the main groups of court music and folk music. Court music is, according to the type of ceremony, subdivided into Jeryeak (royal ancestral ritual music) and Gullyeak (music used in military ceremonies).
In the folk music category, the genre called nongak refers to the farmers band music performed with percussion and wind instruments. Also called pungmullori (풍물놀이), it is a comprehensive art that combines singing, dancing, and acrobatics. This later became samullori (사물놀이) (featuring four performers, each playing kkwaenggwari, jing, janggu, or buk), a modern adaptation of pungmul for staged performances.  

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* Photo and text courtesy of the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts