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Title: P’ansori - Korea’s Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music--Kayageum Sanjo; Sung Keum-yun, kayagum, Chi Young-hee, changgo. Label: Electra Nonesuch Explorer Series. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 9 72049-2. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

The kayagŭm is a plucked box-zither chordophone of Korea used in a variety of court and folk genres as an ensemble, vocal accompaniment, and solo instrument. It is related to other East Asian instruments such as the Chinese zheng and the Japanese koto--all are plucked long box zithers with multiple strings each with a moveable bridge. The kayagŭm is found in two sizes: a large instrument used in court and aristocratic music, and a small instrument (pictured here and the focus of this article), called simply kayagŭmor sometimes sanjo kayagŭm, for folk and professional music. The large instrument is ornamented with stylized ram's horns built into the body at its lower end, and its moveable bridges are thought to represent wild-goose feet. The smaller kayagŭm has only hints of ram's horns, which are obscured by a cloth cover in the photo on this page. The kayagŭm has been a part of several important musical innovations of the past century and a half: sanjo, a virtuosic solo instrumental genre, was conceived around it in the 1880s; kayagŭm pyongch’ang, in which singers accompany themselves on the kayagŭm as they deliver spoken and sung excerpts from the p’ansori narrative musical drama repertoire; and modern composition, in which composers write pieces for the kayagŭm alone or in combination with other traditional instruments and/or western instruments, and experiment with new styles and versions of the instrument. In recent decades, professional kayagŭm trios and quartets playing modern works often based on traditional material have attained commercial success in Korea through their concert performances and recordings.


The body/resonator of the instrument is constructed from two long pieces of wood--an arched top piece made of paulownia wood and a flat bottom piece of chestnut wood with three variously shaped sound holes carved into it representing the new moon, happiness, and the full moon (see detail 1). Near the playing end of the instrument there is a fixed common bridge (hyonch’im) running side-to-side across the arched soundboard (main image). The instrument's twelve twisted-silk strings, all of the same gauge, are anchored at this end to small knobs (tolgwe) that rest against the underside of the resonator beneath a long fixed nut (see detail 1). Each string passes through the resonator, over the fixed nut, runs nearly the length of the resonator, then passes through a loop at the end of a length of heavy brown rope and is neatly bundled in such a way that it cannot slip through the loop. This brown rope (pudul) in turn is anchored to the resonator by passing through holes drilled in the wooden ram’s head decorative extension (yangidu) at the far end of the resonator and knotted to itself. The general tension of each string is set by pulling on and the knotting of the pudul. An individual inverted Y-shape moveable bridge (anjok) made of wood is used to tune each string for performance by articulating the length of its vibrating segment (see detail 2). The bases of the twelve anjok are loosely connected to one another with a cord the ends of which are decorated with tassels.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player sits cross-legged on the floor with the playing end of the kayagŭm resting on her/his right knee; the rest of the instrument runs off to her/his left (in the gallery photo the player would be at the far side of the instrument facing the camera with the left end of the kayagŭm resting on her/his right knee). The strings are sounded by plucking them near the fixed bridge with the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand. The fingers of the left hand are used to apply pressure to the strings on the far side of the anjok, producing subtle pitch inflections. Prior to playing the performer will adjust the placement of the anjok to produce an anhemitonic pentatonic scale; for the kayagŭm sanjo genre the following tuning is used (pitch level can vary): G2 - C3 - D3 - G3 - A3 - C4 - D4 - E4 - G4 - A4 - C5 - D5.


The kayagŭm and the Japanese koto were probably both derived from an ancient form of the Chinese zheng. There are several pottery figures from the Silla dynasty (57 BCE - 935 CE) that show a kayagŭm with ram's horns, but the most conclusive evidence regarding the age of this instrument is four intact kayagŭm in the Shosoin repository in Japan from the 9th century (musical instruments were sometimes given as gifts by one East Asian emperor to another). Subtle design changes undoubtedly took place over the centuries but were not chronicled. New bass and soprano register versions of the kayagŭm were developed in the late 20th century, one of which has 21 strings, for use in contemporary musical practices.

Bibliographic Citations

Howard, Keith. 1995. Korean Musical Instruments. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Hwang, Byung-ki. 2002. "Sanjo." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 913-917.

Lee, Chae-suk. 1973. “Sanjo.” In Survey of Korean Arts: Traditional Music. Seoul: National Academy of Arts, pp. 202-211.

Provine, Robert C. 1984. “Kayagum.” NGDMI v.2: 367-368.

Song, Kyong-rin. 1973. “Korean Musical Instruments.” In Survey of Korean Arts: Traditional Music. Seoul: National Academy of Arts, pp. 28-76.

Um, Hae Kyung. 2002. "P’ansori and Kayagum Pyongch’ang." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 897-908.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: South Korea

Formation: Korean

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

314.122 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer): with resonator box (box zither); the resonator is made from slats

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - board

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: moveable pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: vertical tension peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: one


57.1 in. length

Primary Materials

string - silk
rope - braided

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin