Traditional Korean Instruments & Music

Changgo is an hour–glass shaped, double–headed drum seen wherever Korean music is performed. Made with wooden or pottery bodies and the skins of an ox or horse, an individual plays the instrument by holding two sticks on either end of the changgo – changgo chae (right stick) and koong keul chae (left stick). The instrument is also played for accompaniment with one stick on the right and a hand beating punctured phrases on the left.


Gayageum is a 12–stringed zither plucked with one’s fingers. Legend claims that it was invented in the sixth century by U Reuk in Gaya, where the King Gasil saw a Chinese zither and felt that Koreans should have their own zither since the two cultures had already established different languages.


Daegeum is a bamboo flute that has a sympathetic resonator and adds a buzz to pitched tones. The instrument is prominent in both court and folk music. Based on legends, it was invented by the observation of a mountain floating in the East Sea in the late seventh century with a stalk of bamboo that split into two and fused as a single trunk during the day. When it fused, the storm faded and the sea was calm. King Sinmun was then instructed to make a flute from the bamboo to restore peace in the Silla kingdom whenever the instrument was played.


Piri is an oboe made from a large double reed that produces a plaintive sound. It is believed that the sound attracts spirits in a shaman ritual whenever it is played.


Haegeum resembles a fiddle and was originally transported through China from Central Asia. The instrument has a rod–like neck, wooden hollow soundbox and two silk strings plucked by a bow.


Pyeonjong, or a bronze bell, and Pyeongyeong, or stone chimes, are less popular but still dominate Korean ritual orchestras.


Percussion bands, or Pungmul, can be traced back to a third century Chinese source, Chen Suo’s Sanguo Zhi, which describes how Koreans in the southwest sang and danced to rhythmic music during celebrations. Originally, bands were commonly used to ward off evil in the villages, but are now mainly for entertainment – performing at Seoul’s Nori madang, at festivals and in inter–village championships.

Folk Songs & Vocals

Three folk song styles (also related to drum beats and dances) are distinguished as: Namdo minyo (southwest) based on mournful tritonic forms; Gyeonggi minyo (central region) that are happier and more lyrical; and Seodo minyo (formerly common in the northwest, but now only found around Seoul) which feature nasal qualities and vibrato resonance. Original songs are performed by musicians based on the composer’s direction, while creative dances use adopted versions.

Vocals are also popular in Korean performing arts. One of the most popular and professional folk–songs that flourished in the late–nineteenth century is known as arirang. However, pansori is known as the most developed vocal genre of professional storytelling through song. It is a vocal style performed alone where the singer holds a fan and handkerchief and is accompanied by a drummer. The performance can be of epic proportions lasting up to five or more hours as the singer tells one of five stories through a combination of basic dramatic action and singing. Hence, this musical form is remotely used in combination with dance.

Operatic Troupes & Samullori Band

From the 1920s onwards, operatic troupes, known as changgeukdan, toured the countryside performing staged versions of pansori. An earlier nomadic travelling troupe was known as namsadang, famous for performing music, dance and acrobats in marketplaces. The namsadang paved the way for a new urban travelling troupe in 1978, known as samullori. The samullori band consists of a four–man percussion band performing updated pieces with sequencing rhythms from each of the old pungmul styles. This percussion style became immensely popular and several dozen professional teams now work in Seoul revitalizing old percussion performances that range from student groups to mass bands.