| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | Next | |


Music In The Age of Enlightenment

Music of Korea: The Gayageum

Peter Kun Frary


The gayageum (가야금), also spelled, kayagum or kayageum, is a Korean string instrument belonging to the zither family, i.e., a musical instrument with a flat wooden sound box with multiple strings stretched across it, placed horizontally and played with the fingers.

Gayageum Sanjo (가야금 산조) | Kwon Eun Kyung (권은경) playing a 12-string gayageum sanjo in traditional sitting position | Wikimedia Commons


The traditional gayageum sanjo (가야금 산조) is approximately 142 cm long by 23 cm wide by 10 cm deep. Paulownia wood is used as a soundboard while the back and sides are constructed of hardwoods such as chestnut or walnut. The gayageum sanjo has 12 silk strings, although modern instruments may have as many as 25 strings. On the soundboard, anjok (bridges) are used to support the strings. These bridges may be moved to adjust tuning and intonation. The gayageum is closely related to other Asian instruments, including the Chinese guzheng and Japanese koto.

Naksansa (낙산사) Temple Detail | Peter Kun Frary | The Korean Naksansa temple complex dates back 1300 years to the Silla Period


According to Korean legend, the gayageum was developed during the 6th century in the Gaya confederacy by King Gashil after encountering a Chinese guzheng. Hence, the name literally means "zither of Gaya,"i.e., from 가야 ( gaya, “Gaya confederacy”) plus 금 (geum, “zither”). However, archaeological excavations in the Jeolla-namdo Province have uncovered fragments of a gayageum from the 1st century BCE, suggesting the gayageum is considerably older than the 6th century.

Gyeong Bok Gung (경복궁) Summer Pavilion | Peter Kun Frary | The royal family's summer party house at Gyeong Bok Gung Palace. The palace complex was built in Seoul, Korea during 1395.

This ancient gayageum of King Gashil is called the pungryu or Jeong ak gayageum and is associated with court music, chamber music, and lyric songs. The pungryu gayageum is larger and uses more widely spaced strings than the sanjo and modern gayageum.

The gayageum sanjo is the most popular form of the instrument. It developed in the 19th century along with the emergence of sanjo music. Sanjo means scattered melodies and pieces often features fast tempos and improvisation after a slow introduction. The gayageum sanjo version of the instrument has closer string spacing and a shorter length than the ancient Jeong ak gayageum, enhancing the performance of fast passages. Traditional gayageum use silk strings, although some modern performers have switched to nylon strings.

Korean Fan Dancers | Peter Kun Frary

Modern gayageum with more than 12 strings tend to be strung with nylon-wrapped steel strings, similar to those on the Chinese guzheng and pipa. This change in materials and number of strings yields increased volume and pitch range for contemporary music use.

Jeong ak Gayageum and Sanjo Gayageum (4:01) | Discussion of common gayageum forms.


The traditional gayageum is played sitting on the floor with crossed legs, the lower bout of the instrument on the right knee and the lower bout on the floor. Modern gayageum is played elevated on a stand with the player seated or standing behind the instrument.

Gayageum is played directly with hands: right hand plucks, strums and flicks the strings near the bridge while the left hand pushes the strings on the left side of the bridges to change pitch and add vibrato and ornamentation. The gayageum's tone is soft, delicate, and subtle, about the same volume as a tenor ukulele.

Gayageum Sanjo Solo (6:30) | Pak Se Un plays a gayageum sanjo solo in 19th century style. The changgo (장구 ) or janggu (hourglass drum) provides accents.

Gayageum Byeongchang

Gayageum Byeongchang is a traditional Korean musical style where singers accompany themselves on gayageum. We'll listen to "Saetaryeong," (say-ta-ri-young) an example of Namdo Minyo (남도민요), folk song from the southern region of Korea. The lyrics speak of birds, good fortune, good harvest and the coming of Spring. Bird song is imitated in the melody, i.e., owl, krane, and barn shallows.

Gayageum Byeongchang, "Saetaryeong" (5:26) | Performance of the Korean folk song, Saetaryeong (새타령), with gayageum, voice and changgo.

Contemporary Gayageum

The modern gayageum is often used in mixed ensembles of Western instruments and employed in both popular and classical music.

Luna Lee Rockin' a 21-string Gayageum | Photo Luna Lee

Covering Rock Classics on the Gayageum (2:55)

Luna & The Time Travelers-Pumpkin Carriage/루나와 시간여행자들-호박마차 (5:25) | Blues-rock gayageum.


zither, gayageum, gayageum sanjo, gayageum byeongchang, namdo minyo

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved