Traditional Korean Instrumental Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Traditional Korean Instrumental Music- The Best of Korea’s Past and Present


Traditional Korean instrumental music includes a wide variety of instruments and styles. Although the use of imported instruments has become more common in recent years, traditional Korean instruments are still used in many ensembles. These instruments can be classified into four main categories: string, wind, percussion, and miscellaneous.

The string category includes the gayageum (12-string zither), haegeum (two-string fiddle), ajaeng (seven-string zither), geomungo (six-string zither), and piri (oboe). The wind category features the daegeum (large transverse flute), sogeum (small transverse flute), taepyeongso (large membrane horn), nagak (small membrane horn), danso ( inclined end-blown flute), and yanggeum (hammered dulcimer). The percussion category encompasses the jing (gong), buk (drum), janggu (hourglass drum), kkwaenggwari(small gong), jingju(bell tree) , and banga(wooden clapper). The miscellaneous category contains devices such as the yeonsangunihu(royal court music stand) and cheoljo(musical bows).

There is a wide variety of musical genres in traditional Korean instrumental music. These include court music, folk music, shamanistic music, Buddhist music, Confucian ritual music, pansori(traditional narrative song cycle ), and p’ansori-p’ungmul(folk percussion and dance).

What is traditional Korean instrumental music?

Traditional Korean instrumental music includes a wide variety of genres played on a surprising array of instruments. In addition to the familiar gayageum (12-string zither) and haegeum (two-string fiddle), other instruments used in traditional Korean music include the piri (oboe-like woodwind instrument), janggu (hourglass-shaped drum), daegeum (large transverse flute), and yanggeum (hammered dulcimer).

Traditional Korean music can be divided into two broad categories: court music and folk music. Court music, also known as gugak, was performed mainly for royalty and nobles, while folk music was typically performed by commoners. Folk music is further divided into categories according to region; for example, there is Jeju Island folk music, which has a distinctive sound due to the island’s geographic isolation.

court music
Gugak is a broad term that covers all traditional Korean genres of court or aristocratic music. It is characterized by its graceful sophistication and use of refined techniques. The most well-known type of gugak is sinawi, or “orchestral” gugak, which is played with a full ensemble of traditional Korean instruments. Other genres of gugak include dallyeongmu (“masked dance drama”), jeongjae (“court orchestra music”), daechwita (“military band music”), and hyangak (“traditional narrative song”).

folk music
Folk music encompasses all traditional genres that were performed by commoners. Unlike court music, folk songs are usually about the lives and experiences of everyday people. Some folk genres are specific to certain regions, while others are more broadly popular.Among the best-known types of Korean folk music are pansori (“song story”), gut (“shaman ritual song”), minyo (“folk song”), changga (“long song”), nongak (“farmers’ band music”), and sinhyun(“divination ritual song”).

The history of traditional Korean instrumental music

Traditional Korean instrumental music can be traced back to prehistoric times. It is thought that the first instruments were derived from natural objects such as bones, gourds, and horns. These early instruments were used for both ritual and practical purposes.

Ritual music was used in ceremonies to propitiate the spirits of departed ancestors, to wish for good harvests, and to drive away evil spirits. Practical music served a variety of functions such as signaling, communication, dancing, and entertainment.

The first distinctly Korean instruments began to appear during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE-668 CE). These include the piri, a type of oboe; the Unicode character , a zither-like instrument; the haegum, a two-stringed fiddle; and the changgo, a hourglass-shaped drum.

During the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), Confucianism became the dominant ideology which led to a decline in the use of music for ritual purposes. However, court music and dance flourished and new instruments were introduced from China such as the gayageum (zither), geomungo (six-stringed zither), and sogeum (flute).

The Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) was marked by political and social stability which provided ideal conditions for the development of traditional Korean culture including music. New instruments were introduced such as the janggu (hourglass drum), daegeum (large bamboo flute), danso (vertical bamboo flute), and taegum (transverse flute). In addition, new genres of music emerged such as sanjo (solo instrumental pieces) and sinawi (ensemble pieces).

Traditional Korean instrumental music continues to be performed today in a variety of settings such as royal palaces, temples, shrines, folk villages, concert halls, and outdoor stages.

The different types of traditional Korean instruments

Korean traditional music instrumentalists make use of a wide variety of instruments. The following is a list of some of the more common ones together with a brief description.

1. Haegeum ()
The haegeum is a two-stringed fiddle with a narrow neck and gut or silk strings. It has a bright, sharp tone and is used primarily to play the faster parts in traditional music pieces.

2. Gayageum ()
The gayageum is a twelve-string zither with gut or silk strings. It produces a soft, mellow sound and is used forslow, contemplative pieces as well as for accompaniment.

3. Ajaeng ()
The ajaeng is a seven-stringed zither with gut or silk strings. It has a deep, resonant sound and is used mostly for slow, meditative pieces.

4. Geomungo ()
The geomungo is a six-stringed zither with gut or silk strings. It has a very deep, resonant sound and is used mostly forslow, meditative pieces.

How is traditional Korean instrumental music played?

Traditional Korean instrumental music is played with a wide variety of string, wind, and percussive instruments. The best-known string instrument is the gayageum (12-string zither), which has been played since the 6th century. Other string instruments include the geomungo (6-string zither), ajaeng (7-string zither), haegum (2-string fiddle), and sanjo (4-string fiddle). Wind instruments include the daegeum (large transverse flute), sogeum (small transverse flute), danso (vertical flute),piaget (oboe), piri (oboe), taepyeongso (conical oboe), and saenap (conch horn). Percussive instruments include the janggu (hourglass drum), buk (barrel drum), jing (gong)and kkwaenggwari(small gong).

The different genres of traditional Korean instrumental music

There are three main genres of traditional Korean instrumental music:
-Sanjo: A genre characterized by a sense of rhythm and spontaneity, often played solo
-Jeonggawon: Considered the Korean classical music, it is more formal and structured, often played in ensembles
-Hyangak: Combines features of both Sanjo and Jeonggawon and can be performed solo or in an ensemble

The popularity of traditional Korean instrumental music

Traditional Korean instrumental music is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, both in Korea and abroad. Interest in traditional Korean music has been growing steadily in recent years, as more and more people are seeking out cultural experiences that are authentic and unique.

Traditional Korean instruments such as the gayageum (a 12-string zither), the haegeum (a two-string fiddle), and the piri (a cylindrical oboe) have a distinct sound that is instantly recognizable, and which has a deep emotional resonance for many Koreans. These instruments are often used in traditional music performances, which can be both cathartic and deeply moving experiences.

Instrumental Korean music can be divided into two broad categories: sanjo and sinawi. Sanjo is characterized by its fast tempo and improvised nature, while sinawi is slower and more structured. Traditional Korean instrumental music often combines elements of both sanjo and sinawi, resulting in a uniquely captivating sound.

Whether you’re a fan of traditional Korean music or simply looking for a new musical experience, traditional Korean instrumental music is definitely worth checking out!


In conclusion, Traditional Korean instrumental music is characterized by its use of a wide range of traditional Korean musical instruments. It is often used for ceremonial purposes, but can also be enjoyed simply for its inherent beauty. Traditional Korean instrumental music often has a meditative quality, and can be a great way to relax and unwind.

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