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Sanjo gayageum.jpg
Korean name
Hangul 가야금
Revised Romanization gayageum
McCune–Reischauer kayagŭm

The gayageum or kayagum is a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument, with 12 strings, though some more recent variants have 21 or other number of strings. It is probably the best known traditional Korean musical instrument.[1] It is related to other Asian instruments, including the Chinese guzheng, the Japanese koto, the Mongolian yatga, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.


A musician playing a 12-string sanjo gayageum

Pungryu gayageum (beopgeum, jeongak gayageum)[edit]

According to the Samguksagi (1145), a history of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the gayageum was developed around the 6th century in the Gaya confederacy by King Gasil (also known as Haji of Daegaya) after he observed an old Chinese instrument. He ordered a musician named Wu Ruk to compose music that could be played on the instrument. The original name was gayago and later gayageum. The gayageum was then further improved by Wu Ruk during the reign of Jinheung in the Shilla Dynasty. The ancient gayageum of King Gashil was called by several names, including beopgeum (law-zither, 법금), pungnyu (elegance, 풍류), or jeong-ak (right music, 정악) gayageum. It is normally associated with accompaniment for court music, chamber music, and lyric songs. This type of gayageum has a wider spacing between the strings and plays slower tempo music such as Yeongsan-hoesang and Mit-doduri.

Sanjo gayageum[edit]

The sanjo gayageum is believed to have evolved in the 19th century with the emergence of sanjo music—which literally means scattered melodies, a musical form that involves fast tempos and some improvisation. The sanjo gayageum version of the instrument has closer string spacing and a shorter length to let musicians play the faster passages required for sanjo (Choi 2005). The sanjo gayageum is now the most widespread form of gayageum.(KCMPC 2001). All traditional gayageum use silk strings, though, since the late 20th century, some musicians use nylon.

Modern gayageum[edit]

Modern versions of the gayageum with more strings often use nylon-wrapped steel strings, similar to those used for the Chinese guzheng (Choi 2005). Brass strings have also been introduced to produce a louder sound, which is preferred for accompanying dance (Park 2004). To play modern music, gayageum with a greater number of strings have been developed, increasing the instrument's range. Gayageum are available with 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, or 25 strings (Choi 2005), though instruments with more strings are available custom-made.[2] The 21 string gayageum is normally found in North Korea.

Playing method[edit]

The gayageum is traditionally played when sitting on the floor with crossed legs, the head of the instrument resting on the right knee and the tail resting on the floor. When played whilst seated on a chair or stool, the tail end is usually placed on a special fold-out stand, similar to a camp-stool, or another chair/stool. For modern gayageum, they may be placed on a special stand with the player seated on a chair behind the instrument. The North Korean's usually play whilst seated on a chair but they do not use a stand of the tail end. Instead, the gayageum has detachable legs that are fixed into the end to raise the tail high enough.

The gayageum is played with both right and left hands. The right hand plucks and flicks the strings close to the bridge of the gayageum whilst the left hand pushes the strings on the left side of the bridges to raise the pitch and adds vibrato and other ornamentation.

Tunings and modes[edit]

The gayageum can be tuned to a variety of pitches depending on use though there is no standard as to what exact pitches they should be tuned to. They include:

  • ♭E, F, ♭A, ♭B, ♭E, F, ♭A, ♭B, c, ♭e, f, ♭a
  • ♭E, F, ♭A, ♭B, ♭E, ♭E, ♭A, ♭B, ♭d, ♭e, f, ♭a
  • ♭E, ♭A, ♭B, ♭E, F, ♭A, ♭B, c, ♭e, f, ♭a, ♭b
  • G, C, D, G, A, C, D, E, G, A, c, d

When notated in staff notation, however, the pitch series is usually transposed as the following, regardless of the actual pitches tuned on the strings:

  • D, G, A, D, E, G, A, B, d, e, g, a

This is to avoid switching between the bass and treble clefs to make reading the music easier.

Traditionally, there are three modes:

  • 羽調 (우조): G key
  • 平調 (평조): C key
  • 界面調 (계면조): ♭B key


The beobgeum gayageum is 160 cm long by 30 cm wide by 10 cm deep. Its body is made of a single piece of paulownia wood. The resonator chamber is hollowed out of the piece of paulownia.

The sanjo gayageum is about 142 cm long by 23 cm wide by 10 cm deep. The soundboard is made of paulownia, but the sides and back are of a harder wood such as chestnut or walnut.(Choi 2005) (KCMPC 2001)

On the soundboard, anjok (movable bridges) support the strings. These bridges move to adjust the tuning and intonation. The strings enter the top of the body from tolgwae (string pegs) beneath. At the other end, the strings wind around loops at the end of thick cords which pass over the nut then looped through holes at the bottom of the instrument and secured, and then the cords are all tied in a decorative coil (Choi 2005) (KCMPC 2001).

The left hand presses the strings to raise the pitch, and finger movements perform various movements such as shaking, bending, vibrating the strings. The right hand plucks or strums the strings. The Gayageum's tone is soft, delicate, and subtle. Legend says the Gayageum was first made by King Kasil in the Kaya Kingdom around the 6th century, and was further developed by Ureuk in the time of King of Jinhung in the Silla dynasty.

According to some evidence, however, it dates to a much earlier time than the Silla dynasty. Recent archaeological excavations in the Kwangsan areas in Jeolla-namdo Provincer revealed fragments of a Gayageum from around the 1st century BCE.

The Gayageum is employed in three different types of music, leading to variations of the instrument, including the:

Pungryu gayageum the original form, with more widely spaced strings for slower-tempo works

Sanjo gayageum—a smaller, modern version with more closely spaced strings to accommodate rapid playing

Modern gayageum Instruments broaden the gayageum body and add more strings to increase the pitch range to accommodate contemporary music.



Young San Hue Sang(영산회상), Cheon Nyeon Man se(천년만세), Gagok(가곡). Boheosa(보허사), Yeominlak(여민락).

Sanjo and folk[edit]

There are 6 or more schools of the gayageum sanjo, currently:

Seong Geum Yeon, Kim Juk Pa, Kin Yoon Deok, Kang Tae Hong, Kim Byeong Ho, Choi Ok Sam school.


Contemporary music composers have been creating modern music for gayageum. Hwang Byung Ki composed 'Forest' as a first modern gayageum piece, Sungcheon Lee created 21 string gayageum and new pieces. Beomhoon Park composed kayageum concerto 'New Sanjo(새산조) for 25 string gayageum, and following generation's composers and western musicians have been composing modern music for gayageum.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]