Sustaining the Tradition of Manufacturing National Musical Instruments

Korean musical instruments representing the feelings and emotions of the Korean nation that has lived on one territory for generations preserve their unique timbres thanks to the endeavours of the researchers and manufacturers of the National Institute of Musical Instruments.

The Korean nation began long ago to invent and use various musical instruments that were well representative of their feelings and emotions, and they have improved them continuously.

A number of instruments came into existence thanks to the famous musicians like Wang San Ak and U Ruk, and ordinary people of the Three Kingdoms (Koguryo, Paekje and Silla that existed from the mid-3rd century BC to the mid-7th century). The number of kinds of musical instruments grew from some 50 in the time of the Three Kingdoms to over 60 in the years of Koryo dynasty (918-1392) and nearly 80 in the time of the feudal Joson dynasty (1392-1910).

The Korean national instruments usually have clear, gentle and sweet—and sometimes plaintive—tones which are distinctively different from those of foreign ones. In the older times, however, they were wanting in both the range and volume of sound, although they retained singular tones and were expressive of delicate sounds.

Those drawbacks disappeared in the era of the Workers’ Party of Korea. A campaign got started under the care of the WPK and the DPRK government to carry forward and further develop the good merits of the national instruments. The main role in this effort has been played by the National Institute of Musical Instruments, which was established in 1968.

The researchers and manufacturers of the institute carried out deep-going projects to get rid of limitations found in the old instruments regarding their forms, shapes and materials while preserving their inherent tones. Meanwhile, they improved the sound system of the instruments so that they applied modern techniques of performance. Many kinds changed their sound system from the 5-note scale to the 7-note one; kayagum and other stringed instruments got more strings and bigger sound boards, and wind instruments attained more sound holes with the addition of new buttons and connectors. As a result, the original tones—clear, soft and graceful—got richer, while the scale and volume of sound increased considerably.

In collaboration with instrumentalists, the institute steadily pushed forward research and remodeling schemes aimed at removing all defects of the instruments that professional players came across in the practical performance. In the course of this a lot of national instruments have improved admirably, which provides the material foundation for production of mixed orchestral music with Korean national and Western instruments. The improved instruments are useful for combination of any kinds of music, whether it is national or foreign, and any form of performance whether it is a solo or an ensemble.

The researchers have also written a number of books like Illustrated Book of Korean National Instruments, Science of Manufacture of Musical Instruments and Acoustics of Musical Instruments, which give in-depth explanation about basic theories on manufacture of musical instruments. Recently the institute has developed a program which is helpful in making a scientific analysis of acoustic qualities of national instruments. It is part of their sincere effort to introduce advanced science and technology into development of national instruments.

To develop admirable techniques in manufacturing national instruments is the state’s steadfast concern. So far, methods of making some national instruments like kayagum and haegum were put on the list of national intangible cultural heritage.

The Korean national instruments are now in wide use for the people’s cultural and recreational enjoyment, contributing to the time-honoured history and culture of the nation.

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