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A Year in South Korea/P.J. Sproule

Studying samulnori, ‘four-instrument music’

October 25, 2011
The Daily Mining Gazette

My school has been kind enough to organize Korean culture classes for the exchange students and some of the Korean students.

These occur after school every day but Friday. Monday is cooking, Tuesdays and Thursdays are Samulnori and Wednesdays are dancing. One of the most interesting to me in studying Korean culture has been Samulnori, which is a traditional drumming group.

Samulnori is a compound word literally meaning "four-object play," or "four-instrument music." This is because the members of a Samulnori group make the music with four instruments: kkwaenggwari, jing, janggu and buk. Although I've been able to try all the instruments, I will be playing the janggu when we have our first performance later this month.

The first thing that a listener notices about Samulnori is that it is rather loud, but it is very interesting, because you really feel the rhythms from the instruments. The main instrument is the kkwaenggwari, which looks like a small gong and makes a high-pitched, metallic sound. This instrument carries the group, giving the signals for rhythm changes. When you play the instrument, you don't only hit it with the mallet, but you also put your other hand against the back of it at the same time.

The instrument that I play, the janggu, is a double-sided drum with a variety of sounds. In the left hand, you have a mallet with a wooden sphere on the top, which you can use on either side of the drum. In your right hand, you have a flat stick that you use on the right side of the drum only. I find the instrument very fun to play, but it becomes very difficult when the rhythm speeds up while you are moving your left hand back-and-forth between the sides of the drum.

The buk is a drum like the bass drum and has a sound that complements the janggu. It is played by hitting the drum with the mallet, which is much more difficult than it sounds when the rhythms get more complex.

The final instrument is the jing, which is basically just a gong. It is probably the easiest of the four instruments to play, as it has the simplest rhythms, but it is very important to the total sound of the group as its longer sound seems to fill in the gaps.

These instruments together make up a sound that is very different from other percussion. If you get the chance, I would highly suggest seeing this musical style performed in person because it is a very interesting experience.

An example of a live performance can be found on YouTube at

Editor's note: P.J.?Sproule is a Rotary Youth Exchange student from the Houghton Rotary Club living near Seocheon, South Korea, for a year.



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