Modified instruments of Korea
10 months ago
As in many other cultures, many Korean traditional instruments have been imported from overseas. Korea’s wind instrument taepyeongso태평소 or string instrument yanggeum양금, which literally means the western strings, originated from Central Asia.

The saenghwang, a free reed mouth organ of Korea, is said to have been created by an ancient Chinese goddess. And the haegeum해금 used to belonged to a nomadic tribe in the north. These instruments changed little by little over many centuries to become Korea’s own and reflected the people’s unique sentiments. Nonetheless, many Korean and Asian musical instruments overlap in sound and appearance. Cases in point are haegeum of Korea and erhu of China. They share the same origin, but while the haegeum retained much of the original appearance, the erhu underwent much modification in recent decades. Bamboo is the main material for the body of the haegeum and different notes are played by pulling at the two silk strings. Meanwhile, the erhu’s body and neck are made of wood and its strings metal. Erhu is played like a fiddle by running a bow across the strings and by pressing the fingers down on the them to play notes. This is why the haegeum makes a high and sharp sound whereas the erhu makes a rather a low and mellow sound. Let’s listen to “Miryang Arirang” with Kim Se-young playing the erhu. 

Music 1: Miryang Arirang/ Erhu by Kim Se-young


Korean traditional musicians have interacted enthusiastically with their counterparts in China and Japan in the 1990s, and even adopted some modified instruments from North Korea in their attempts to reinvent and revamp Korea’s traditional music. Their efforts have extended to countries beyond Asia and there have been many collaborations between Korean musicians and those from non-Asian regions using foreign instruments. The first piece for this week’s Sounds of Korea is a Korean folk song from the western region titled “Baechigi배치기.” It is played with the Indian instruments, the tabla and harmonium. A fusion ensemble group called Taal is comprised of gugak musicians who play a unique type of music that combines Korean traditional music with Pakistani music. The tabla is a percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums. One, made of wood, makes high notes, while the other, made of brass, makes low notes. A drummer places the drums side by side and uses both hands to make various sounds. Meanwhile, the harmonium is a smaller version of a reed organ and resembles an accordion. While the accordion is slung over a player’s shoulders, freeing the player’s hands to manipulate the keys or buttons, the harmonium is placed on the floor like an organ. Here’s Taal performing “Baechigi.”

Music 2: Baechigi/ Performed by Taal


“Baechigi” was sung while Hwanghae-do황해도 area fishermen fished for yellow corbina. Coming up next is a music piece played with cheolhyeongeum철현금, a Korean instrument adapted from the guitar. Cheolhyeongeum was created by Kim Yeong-cheol김영철 in the 1940s. He was a famous tightrope walker but also a talented musician. One day, he attempted playing the guitar with it placed on the ground. Although the guitar looked quite different from the geomungo거문고 or other Korean string instruments, they were played in a similar fashion. Pressing the strings with the left hand determined the notes and plucking or strumming the strings with the right hand made the sound. Kim Yeong-cheol experimented with different materials and shapes to create a new instrument. His effort resulted in cheolhyeongeum, which resembled the geomungo in the tools used to create sound. However, it differed in the quality or timbre of the sound as the strings were made of steel, not silk or nylon. Today’s last piece will be East Sea dance music “Hwadu” sung by Kim Myeong-dae and the cheolhyeongeum played by Yoo Gyeong-hwa.