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Kayagŭm, also spelled kayakŭm or kayakeum or gayageum, Korean board zither with 12 silk strings, 12 movable bridges, and a convex upper surface. Fashioned from paulownia wood, it forms a rectangle about 160 cm (62 inches) long and 30 cm (12 inches) wide.

The player, who is seated on the floor, places one end of the instrument on the right knee while the other end rests on the floor. The strings are plucked to the right of the bridges with the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand, and the left hand presses down or pulls on the strings to the left of the bridges, producing microtonal ornamentations of pitch and the wide vibrato typically found in Korean music.

Known as the national instrument of Korea, the kayagŭm is played in many vocal and instrumental genres, often accompanied by the changgo drum. There are three variant types of kayagŭm, all associated with particular types of music—pungnyu kayagŭm for court and classical ensemble music, sanjo kayagŭm for folk and virtuosic music (such as sanjo, the music genre for which it is named), and “improved” kayagŭm for modern compositions. The kayagŭm is related to the Chinese zheng, the Japanese koto and wagon, and the Korean kŏmungo.


The Gayageum ( also called Kayagŭm – 가야금 / 伽倻琴 ) is a traditional Korean instrument. I have seen it in many Korean movies so I got interested to learn more about it. I will share with you some information about its origins and usage. I will also include some links for you to listen to it or learn more about it.

The Gayageum is a string instrument similar to the zitler ( that is used in some European countries such as Germany and Austria) .

It is supposed that this instrument was created in the 6 th century by King Gasil (also known as Haji of Daegaya) following the model of the Chinese Guzheng , and it has been further improved thought out the years. Some recent archaeological excavations reveal, however, fragments of Gayageum that date back to around 1st century B.C.. This suggests that the instrument might have been in use much before the time of King Gasil .

Two version of the instrument are mainly used – beobgum is the version used in court music and the sanjo kayagum, better adapted for faster melodic passages with strings closer together, is used in folk music. The traditional Gayageum has 12 strings , but more recent versions can include up to 25 strings .

Pay attention to the fact that in Asia there are few string instruments that are similar to the Chinese Guzheng ( who is consider to be their ancestor ) but these instruments are not the same one ! I am talking about the Japanese koto, the Mongolian yatga, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. These, together with the Guzheng and the Gayageum are similar and related to each other but are not the same instrument. The Gayageum is mostly mistaken with the Japanese koto , due to their similar features .

In future I will make another post, comparing those instruments, so you get a better idea.

Now back to the Gayageum are some facts about it .

– The traditional Gayageum consists of wooden body made of paulownia tree, twelve silk thread strings, and twelve wooden bridges that support each string.

– There are various way of playing Gayageum including solo, duet, trio.

– The Gayageum is a feminine instrument (mostly played by women).

– Since the late 20 th century, the traditional silk strings are often replaces with nylon-wrapped steel strings .

– The playing technique of the Gayageum is as following : the left-hand controls the string tension and the right hand is used for plucking the strings.

I think if you really want to learn about an instrument , you must listen to it !

– a male performance –  (The performer, Hwang Byeonggi, is the foremost South Korean player of the Kayagum )

2. This is an extract from a movie where I first remember spotting the Gayageum ( I might have seen it before without noticing ) .

3. This are extracts from a Korean drama. ( I think it was a good idea that they made one of the main characters to play this traditional instrument and bring the attention of the young people back to their culture and also attract instroduce it to young people from other nations )

( I cannot find a cut of the performance , so if you don’t want to watch the whole thing just skip to 3.00 min )

( skip to 10.15 – they are mixing modern and traditional instruments . ) – here another vesion 

4 . These are Gayageum versions of some modern songs .

– Let it be – ( here you can see that the women are playing sitting on chairs – this is not the traditional way ( that is sitting on the ground ) but innovation for performing in Western concert halls ( or you can just called it modernized way to performe )

– SNSD ‘GEE’ played by Gayageum, Drum and Guitar ( )


Interview with Kyungso Park, Korean Gayageum Artist

Kyungso Park, Korean gayageum performerPhoto by Madanmohan RaoOne of the traditional instruments featured at the Førde Traditional and World Music Festival, held this year July 5-8 in Førde, Norway, is the gayageum from Korea. I was fortunate to catch up with Kyungso Park in Seoul during a live performance of her fusion band, Oriental Express. The charming and talented musician joins us for this exclusive interview where she shares her views on the instrument’s musical significance, her range of collaborations, new albums, and vision for preserving traditional Korean music.

As a traditional musical instrument player, I deeply feel that the tradition is not stuck to some specific period in time but just evolving with us as time goes by. I feel that “today will be the history of tomorrow.” Frankly speaking, I am a more future oriented musician than a traditional musical instrument player. My music focuses on our world and our surroundings now as well as for tomorrow. My musical vision is totally the same as my life vision.

Additionally, one of my little dreams is that gayageum should not be seen only as an exotic Asian musical instrument. In my experiences, gayageum has many abilities to be a truly world-wide musical instrument.

The Gayageum is the best-known Korean traditional musical instrument. It is a string instrument with 12 silk strings. The gayageum is supposed to have been developed from the third century onwards. The original shape of gayageum is still used till now in Korean traditional music. From the 19th century, various kinds of gayageum have started to be developed such as sanjo gayageum for sanjo music, and greater numbers of string gayageum such as 18, 21, 25 strings for modern music. All these kinds of gayageum are now used in various genres these days.

GayageumPhoto by Madanmohan RaoThere are many related Asian string instruments such as Chinese guzheng, Japanese koto, Korean gayageum, Mongolian yatga, and Vietnamese đàn tranh. Among them, gayageum makes a sound by the finger itself and natural silk strings, not with other tools such as artificial nail or guitar’s pick. Gayageum is the only instrument that makes a really dynamic microtonal sound with the left hand. Thus, gayageum’s sound is really close to human sound and is natural. Its sound may not be fantastic to those who are adapted to Western harmonic music, but it has a calm sound and smooth dynamic. I play gayageum with Korean traditional percussion, the two-sided drum named janggu. Janggu is featured in every traditional song, in every kind of traditional genre.

There are many many big musicians who have influenced me such as J.S Bach, Jukpa Kim (gayageum master in Korea), and many teachers who taught me before and teach me now. I am mostly influenced by my colleagues, friends, and family and, additionally, influenced by me myself! I have had good fortune and kindly advice in my career. I am a really lucky musician to have all these influences, and always keep this in mind. I thank all who have influenced me.

My family is a musical family, in genres such as pop, Western classical and Korean traditional music. They have influenced me always to be a good musician who has diverse perspectives. I am really happy when my family gives me compliments.

Although I mostly play modern and avant-garde music in Korea, in Førde, I will play sanjo, my solos strongly based on Korean traditional solo music of the late 19th century. It is different from Western-based music, you can feel very fresh, calm and dynamic — like the sun rising from the deep blue sky, and like the deep and calm ocean’s waves. I played this traditional music, sanjo, for over 20 years. If you listen to my sanjo, you will truly see my whole life.

Kyungso ParkI belong to many kinds of different musical group. One is “Oriental Express”- a fusion music group based on smooth jazz, “Gayageum Ensemble AURA”- a contemporary music ensemble consisting of three gayageum players, and “Makrophonia Project”, an avant-garde improvisation music group consisting of Korean and Austrian musicians. I play and have learned Korean traditional music. All these totally different careers make my music diverse. I do not really push my music, it has to be blended and performed with a clear and fully open mind to all musical worlds.

In every concert, I perform with one or two musicians for a few songs in the whole set, usually percussionists who change with every concert. It is natural to the Korean traditional music scene because Korean traditional music is based on improvisation like jazz or blues. In Førde, I will play with the percussionist Donggug Kim, who is a promising young percussionist in Korea. With his accompaniment I can make a more rhythmical and dynamic sound.

In addition to solo and group performances, I am active in all kinds of Korean music such as Korean pop music, movie, musical and TV drama show as a performer. Fortunately, this exposure makes me more open minded to all genres. So I can be more challenging and more experimental in my music. I think my music has various characters like a chameleon!

I have released three single albums as a solo player and four albums with my group, Oriental Express. My first single album “Cosmo Breeze”(2008) is an electronic house project consisted with computer sound and electronic instruments. The second album, “Cosmo Breeze 2: Breath”(2010), has tranquil contemporary new-age songs consisting of only calm gayageum solo sounds. The third album, “Fragments Beyond”(2010), is also a calm gayageum piece, which I composed with some electronic effects.

With all these the albums, I sought for the well-matched sound of 21st century gayageum music. I have experimented in every album to find my own sound. And now I seek for the new styled tradition, solo gayageum sound, as a nature based instrument. Simply speaking, Korean unplugged gayageum! What is your vision of what music can do in this day and age?

I want to focus on communication through the music. For me, music is one of highest levels of entities, which contains more social value than our community may recognize – because among the all genres of arts, music is the most personalized and sensitive. Thus, music is most effective to convey emotions and true feelings. In the music world, we cannot lie to each other. For this reason, I feel sometimes that music is more effective in communication than language.

To communicate in languages seems to be quite difficult and sometimes it can cause potential conflicts and misunderstanding or misinterpretations. Whereas with music and sounds, we may express the truth of our world and social features. The most important feature in our society is communication, so music might be good for constituting society today. Of course, I do not think that music or any of the arts might totally solve our troubles of the world in social or political terms, but with music we can communicate with more truthfulness and be better people and moreover, we could live in better world.

I am working on next new album, which I commenced last year. It is from both studio and concert performances. It will be about gayageum’s natural sound as well as improvised ones. But this album is still under the experimental process to find my own music. This album will be released this year, hopefully before the cold winter!

Last April, I played whole sanjo (53 minutes, most well known Korean traditional solo instrumental music) at the RASA centre in the Netherlands. During the show, I could feel the audience concentrating on my playing and I felt some chemical connection had arisen between the audience and myself. So I could feel really comfortable during the concert and played quiet well. After the concert, the audience gave a standing ovation and I heard that the concert got a good review with 4 stars point of 5 stars from the Dutch media.

Additionally, before that RASA concert, I had a tour with the Makrophonia Project. Our project was premiered at the Imago Dei Festival at Krems, Austria, and we then went on tour around Austria and north Italy. That project was so beautiful because our music was so definitely new in style, and our concerts were all successful. Austrian and Korean musicians were collaborating with each other and exchanging our traditions and culture. It was a fabulous concert tour in Europe, and I look forward to more! What is your message to your audiences?

With my listeners I just want to talk about nature and our lives. I do not want to push them to be entertained by my music but recommend that they enjoy it and feel free in my music and feel able to communicate with me. I hope people can realize that communication is the basic process of all of society. And I want to make a peaceful and beautiful world together with the listeners. This musical communication is not for individuals only but for all of us together.

Yes. I teach students at some universities. I teach basic theories about Korean traditional music. I love to teach little students and communicate with them because I can see the present time and some future world where they will have grown up, it is really exciting.

And I do workshop with many composers who want to make gayageum music. I think this process is really important for the future of gayageum music and Korean music in general.

Interview with Kyungso Park, Korean Gayageum Artist

1. “Arario” — ToppDogg

ToppDogg’s “Arario” goes all out when it comes to incorporating traditional Korean culture into both the song and the music video. The music is fused with Korean instruments, such as the gayageum (the stringed instrument that the women are playing in the top photo of the collage above), various percussion instruments, and a piri, or bamboo flute, which is prominent in the track’s last 30 seconds. The MV showcases traditional folk performance styles, like Korean mask dances and pungmul (also shown in the top photo of the collage), which includes dancing, drumming, and singing. ToppDogg’s use of Korean hand fans and traditional masks accentuate the cultural theme, and even the song’s title is a reference to the folk song “Arirang,” considered the national anthem of Korea.

1. “Arario” — ToppDogg

3. “Shangri-La” — VIXX

“Shangri-La” is a masterpiece, largely because it is so full of classical Eastern elements: the members of VIXX wear gorgeous, traditionally-influenced outfits as they dance their way through a breathtakingly aesthetic music video that draws inspiration from an old Chinese fable called “The Peach Blossom Land” (which is, in fact, the song’s Korean title). Plus, the music is layered with the gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument that is most noticeable in the song’s distinctive intro. And, of course, we can’t forget the stunning choreography that creatively incorporated the use of traditional hand fans. If you can’t get enough of “Shangri-La” in the MV below, definitely check out VIXX’s 2017 MBC Gayo performance, in which they fully embraced the traditional theme!

3. “Shangri-La” — VIXX

12. “LIT” — ONEUS

There’s no better way to round this list out than with a full-blown party in a palace, and the MV for ONEUS’s “LIT” builds up to just that. The track is a walkthrough of Korean culture, as the ONEUS members traverse different palace settings in a variety of traditional robes and hanbok-inspired outfits. The gayageum string instrument plays a prominent melody in the backtrack, giving the song its catchy, distinctively Korean feel, and the lyrics make use of some of the same older phrases as other songs on this list, such as “niliria“ and “eolssu.” The MV is a full cultural celebration complete with folk dancers, Korean drums, and hand fans. We’d say the ONEUS members earned their spots on that throne!