Alternative title

Gayageum, Kayagŭm

Physical description

The kayagum is a 12-string half-tube plucked zither supported by 12 movable bridges. Howard (1988) offers a good description of the kayagum: "Strings run from pegs beneath the top end of the instrument, over a low fixed bridge curved to match the body, across individual movable bridges made from hard wood, to looped cords. Reserve string is held in coils behind each cord loop and the cords themselves are anchored to the horns."
There are basically two types of kayagum: popkum (lit. law zither) and sanjo (lit. scattered melodies) kayagum. These two kayagum are differentiated in terms of size, construction, and context. The popkum, the larger one (160 cm long by 30 cm wide by 10 cm high), is also called p'ungnyu (lit. elegance) kayagum or chongak (lit. right music) kayagum. It is associated with court and literati ensembles. Its body is made from a single piece of paulownia wood and the twelve strings are made from raw silk.

The sanjo kayagum, the smaller one (about 142 cm long by 23 cm wide by 10 cm high), is associated with folk music genres and thus is believed to have evolved in the 19th century with the emergence of sanjo (improvisational solo instrumental music). Unlike popkum, the sanjo kayagum has the soundboard of paulownia and has a harder wood such as chestnut for the sides and the back. The closer spacing of the strings and the shorter length of the sanjo kayagum facilitates the technique required for the faster passages of sanjo (Clark 2001).

Nowadays, people have experimented with kayagum using steel and nylon strings and sometimes 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, 25 strings.

Musical, Cultural, and Social Contexts

Before the birth of sanjo, the kayagum tended to be used in the repertories of the court orchestra such as yominlak, p'yongjohoesang and in the repertories of the string ensemble such as yongsanhoesang, ch'onyonmanse, and bohosa, and be usually performed for leisure among the aristocracy under the name of changak. In the folk music scenes, the kayagum has been used in sinawi (instrumental improvisational music which grew out of the shamanic ritual performance in southern regions), kayagum sanjo and kayagum pyongch'ang (performance accompanying singing). With the contribution of the kayagum player Kim Ch'angjo in the late Choson Dynasty (AD 14~20C), sanjo was developed and popularized with a high improvisational artistry of sinawi and with a variety of changdan (rhythmic phrase) and melodic patterns of the narrative vocal genre p'ansori. The kayagum can be proven to be the fittest instrument to play the sanjo form of music given the fact that the melodies and rhythms of the kayagum sanjo are the most technically sophisticated in comparison with the sanjo played by other instruments, and that tanmori, a very fast changdan, is found only in kayagum sanjo (Hwang 2002). In contemporary music contexts, kayagum is not only played for traditional repertoires of changak and folk music, but it is one of the most favored instruments for ch'angjak kukak (newly-composed Korean traditional music) with the pioneer of Hwang Byungki and is modernized to the extent that the kayagum quartet performs the classical repertoires such as Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

Playing technique

The performer, sitting in a cross-legged position, puts the head of the kayagum on his or her right knee. He or she plucks and flicks the strings with the index and middle fingers, and the thumb of the right hand, and presses down the strings to the left of the movable bridges with the left hand (Clark 2001). While other Asian zithers such as the Chinese zheng, Japanese koto, Mongolian yatga, and Vietnamese dan tranh are played with the picks or plectra, the wide vibrato and pitch-bending characteristics of kayagum are achieved by pressing and pulling the string with the bare fingers. Killick (2002) describes the vibrato of the kayagum as "a sound that is warmer, more intimate, and less bright than that of most similar instruments," and Clark as "comparatively deep, wide and round." The various techniques of plucking and pressing produces nonghyon (lit. vibrating strings), the micro-tonal shading and subtle vibrato, and yo-um (lit. remaining sound), the "after-tone", which are the key aesthetics of Korean music.




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.


Strings: silk
Body: paulownia wood


Clark, Jocelyn. 2001. CD Liner Note to Hwang Byungki Kayagum Masterpieces Series. Seoul, Korea: C & L Music Inc.

Howard, Keith. 1988. Korean Musical Instruments: A Practical Guide. Seoul, Korea: Se-Kwang Music Publishing Co. 163–90

Hwang, Byungki. 2002. "Sanjo," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 7, East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. Edited by Robert C. Provine, Yoshiko Tokumaru and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York and London: Routledge.

Killick, Andrew P. 2002. "Musical Instruments of Korea," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 7, East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. Edited by Robert C. Provine, Yoshiko Tokumaru and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York and London: Routledge.


Choi, Moon-jin. 2001. Pyeongjohoesang Gayageum Jeongak II. Seoul, Korea: Jigu Records.

Hwang, Pyong-gi. Music from Korea. Vol. one, The Kayakeum. Honolulu: East-West Center.

Hwang, Byungki. 2001. Kayagum Masterpieces. Vol. 1~4. Seoul, Korea: C & L Music Inc.

Kim, Chukpa. 1985. Korean Kayagum Music Sanjo. Tokyo, Japan: King Records.

Song, Kum-yon Chi & Song-ja. 1986. Music of the Kayagum. Tokyo: JVC World Sounds.

Various Artists. 1995. Korea: Music of Kayagum. Wea/Sire/Discovery/Ant Tokyo.


Yoonjah Choi (2004)


“Kayagum,” Wesleyan University Virtual Instrument Museum 2.0, accessed April 13, 2024, https://wesomeka.wesleyan.edu/vim2/items/show/67.