Korea is renowned for its different types of zithers. A “zither” is a general term used to describe a family of stringed instruments
whose strings stretch over but not beyond a resonating chamber. A Western example would be the hammered dulcimer. Zithers can be played in a variety of ways: plucked, bowed, hammered or strummed.
The ajaeng is a zither with seven to nine strings, played with a rosined bow. The player draws the bow horizontally across the strings, producing a thick, rasping sound. Variations on the ajaeng are used for different purposes: the seven-stringed ajaeng adds texture to the bass section of an orchestra; the eight-stringed is more often used in folk and chamber music; and the nine-stringed ajaeng is a solo instrument with a more melancholy tone.
The gayageum is a zither, related to the Chinese and Japanese cheng and koto, is the most well-known of Korean stringed instruments. Its twelve silk strings stretch across twelve moveable bridges. Unlike the bowed ajaeng, the gayageum is plucked. The musician uses his or her left hand to pluck the strings while moving the twelve bridges to control pitch. In modern times, Korean musicians have explored the versatility of the gayageum by adding more strings — today, pieces written for 17 to 25 stringed gayageum are common.
The geomungo, another zither, is traditionally the most honored of Korean instruments. It once enjoyed great popularity among the class of scholars. Its majestic tones are created by plucking the six strings with a bow while the left hand presses the strings to alter pitch.
The haegeum is a Korean fiddle with only two strings. It was once played all across Asia and is comparable to the Turkish kamenche, a three-stringed fiddle that is probably related to its Korean counterpart. The haegeum is played by resting the end of the fiddle on one’s knee, bowing with the right hand and pressing down on the fingerboard with the left hand to control pitch.
The yanggeum is a stringed instrument, but it is played like a percussion instrument. A dulcimer, it is thought to have been introduced from Europe because it is the only Korean instrument with steel instead of silk strings, and the only one played by lightly hitting the strings with a bamboo bow.
The daegeum and the danso are both flutes, woodwind instruments without reeds. The daegeum is the largest of three kinds of traverse flutes, with six finger holes and a seventh hole covered by a thin membrane. It is played like the Western flute, held horizontally while the player blows across the mouth-hole. It gives the lowest sound of the three traverse flutes, producing a distinct buzzing tone. The danso, on the other hand, is a vertical flute similar to the European recorder. Unlike the buzzing sound of the daegeum, it makes a clear, high sound that makes it popular for solo and chamber music.
The piri and the t’aepyeongso are reed instruments similar to oboes. The piri is essentially a bamboo oboe, with a double reed and eight finger holes. It is related to the dang-ak, a Chinese oboe. A smaller piri with a softer tone is used in chamber music.
The t’aepyeongso originated in China, and in Korea was used mainly for military marching music. With its shrill, piercing tones, it makes itself heard over the noise of a crowd. This oboe-like instrument is also used in farmers' music and in some Buddhist and religious music.
The bak is a wooden clapper used to signal the beginning and the end of a piece of music. It was used in court music and in dance. The bak is shaped like a fan, with six clappers tied together at one end by a deerskin string.
The janggu drum is a distinctive hourglass-shaped drum. Its two heads are covered with hide, and the drum is held horizontally to be played while walking. One hand taps one head of the drum while a bamboo stick beats the other. With this dual pattern, the janggu is essential for setting the rhythm and shape of many types of Korean music.
The puk is a cowskin drum still popular for folk music and farmers' festival music. It is related to the soripuk and the janggu, all three of which are popular in folk music. The puk is placed on the ground or across the shoulders to be played.
Bells, Chimes and Gongs
Technically a part of the percussion family, Korea’s bells, chimes and gongs deserve their own category because of their variation and unique design. To begin with, the pyeongyeong is a set of chimes made out of jade. The tone each chime produces depends on the thickness of the jade. Introduced from China, the pyeongyeong was played primarily at the court, as jade was (and still is) an expensive and highly valued stone.
Another chime is the pyeonjong. The pyeongjong’s 16 bronze bells are suspended from an ornately carved wooden frame that is as much for decoration as support. The bells are all of equal size and shape; like the pyeongyeong, their difference in pitch comes from their thickness. Arranged in two rows, the bells are struck with a bone hammer. This instrument was also used in the royal court.
Unlike the two chimes, the kkwaengewari is a small bronze gong used in folk and farmers' music. Its size allows it to be carried in one hand and struck by a wood mallet with the other. A larger gong is the jing, also made of bronze. Widely used by the military, it also had its place among the public as part of folk and farmers' music, like the smaller kkwaengewari.
All these bells, flutes, chimes, gongs, drums and strings are important threads in the tapestry of traditional Korean musical instruments. Their development separate from Western influences created a uniquely Korean sound that endures today in ceremonial, social and performance functions.