History K-Music

The History of Gugak traditional Korean Music

When someone says the words ‘Korean Music’, we think of K-Pop right? However, there’s so much more to music in Korea than that – more specifically, the more traditional pieces and the instruments used to play them. Gugak (국악) which literally means ‘national music’ covers all music prior to 1945, including court music, folk music, poetic song and religious music.

Pansori (판소리)

©Pansori, 22.06.2018,

Pansori is a long vocal and percussive music played by one drummer and one singer. It was originally performed for the lower classes but was quickly picked up by people of the court. The South Korean government considers many pansori singers as living national treasures.

During the 18th century, 12 song cycles, or Madang (마당), was established as the repertoire of pansori stories. Of the 12 original Madang, only five are currently performed. They are as follows, Chunhyangga, Simcheongga, Heungbuga, Sugungga, and Jeokbyeokga

Contemporary performances of Pansori differ greatly from the originals. Rather than performing an entire song, which can take up to 10 hours, musicians may only perform certain sections, highlighting the most popular parts of a Madang.

Sinawi (시나위)

©Sinawi, 23.06.2018,

Sinawi is music performed during a Shaman’s ritual dance. It is performed improvisationally by the musician. The style first emerged in Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces but is widespread. A traditional Sinawi ensemble consists of 2 flutes, a haegum (A traditional Korean string instrument), a daegum (A Korean flute), a janggu (An hourglass shaped drum), and a large buk drum.

Samul nori (사물놀이)

©Samulnori, 23.06.2018,

It’s a genre of percussion music. The samul means “four objects” and the word nori means “play.” It is performed with four traditional Korean instruments the kkwaenggwari, jing, janggu and the buk drum.

The most famous Samul nori ensemble is the internationally famous South Korean ensemble called Samul Nori, which is credited for bringing the music from a rural folk genre to the contemporary stage.

Sanjo (산조)

©Sanjo, 23.06.2018,

This style of music is played without a pause in faster tempos as one of the most popular genres of traditional Korean music. It is entirely instrumental and includes changes in rhythm and melody during a piece. The general style of the sanjo is marked by slides in slow movements and rhythmic complexity in faster movements. Instruments include the janggu drum set against a melodic instrument, such as the gayageum or ajaeng.


Gayageum (가야금)

©Gayageum, 23.06.2018,

This instrument is part of the string family, and is related to the Japanese koto and the Chinese guzheng among others. Traditionally, you would only find 12 strings on the gayageum but more strings have been added recently to play the more complex, contemporary pieces. To play it, you would sit cross legged on the floor and lay the instrument across your lap with the tail part resting on the floor. This instrument is very popular, and you might recognise it from the Korean historical drama ‘Arang and the Magistrate’, as it is played by the Jade Emperor.

Janggu (장구)

©Janggu, 23.06.2018,

If you’ve ever watched a traditional Korean musical performance, be it on the internet or live in person, you would definitely have seen this instrument being played. It’s an hour glass shaped drum which can be struck on both ends. Each end makes a sound of a different pitch, so when played together it sounds truly amazing!

Danso (단소)

©Danso, 23.06.2018,

This wind instrument is like a recorder and flute in one! Although it commonly featured in Korean folk music, nowadays it’s often used in primary schools to encourage the pupils to get into music.

Kkwaenggwari (꽹과리)

©Kkwaengwari, 23.06.2018,

The kkwaenggari is a small flat gong made of brass and is played with a hard stick. The instrument is commonly used in folk music including shamanic music, dance, and is the lead instrument in pungmul. It produces a distinctively high-pitched, metallic tone that breaks into a cymbal-like crashing timbre when struck forcefully.

Haegeum (해금)

©Haegeum, 23.06.2018,

Probably one of the most unique looking instruments is the Haegeum, popularly known as the Kkangkkangi. However, despite its unusual design, it’s actually the most widely used Korean traditional instrument. Featuring in court music, you should definitely try and look out for this instrument the next time you hear some traditional Korean music.

Of course, these are just a few of the amazing instruments and music styles that existed in Korean history. We hope that this has inspired you to hear some traditional Korean music and see if you can pick out which of the above instruments are being played throughout the piece. Happy listening!


Feature image source ©Sinawi, 23.06.2018,



Molly Goode

Unashamedly a giant nerd and bibliophile. Obsessing over Korea has become my life. <3



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