Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy: Week 9!

Posted on: November 18, 2014

This week, we had an interesting glimpse into the world of Korean traditional music, specifically samulnori. Samulnori literally means ‘play of four things’ and is performed on four instruments: two drums and two gongs.

Our instructor this week was Nami Morris, a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS and long-time player of the changgo, one of the drums used in samulnori. She was very patient with us and showed us lots of cool rhythms even though we couldn’t actually make that much noise – turns out that loud percussion instruments and interviews with famous actors do not mix so well!

As you can see from the above picture, each of the instruments has a specific name as well as being representative of one aspect of the atmosphere. The small gong, kkwaenggwari, represents lightning. It’s not hard to see why – it’s quite a harsh, brash sound. The hourglass-shaped drum changgo represents the rain, the barrel drum buk represents clouds (although Nami said that ‘thunder’ might make more sense) and the heavy gong jing represents wind. They also have different roles in the group – the kkwaenggwari leads the group, the buk acts as the metronome, the jing plays at the beginning of each phrase, and the changgo, the more versatile instrument, provides the meat of the piece.

Samulnori as a term is relatively new – it was invented in the 1970s by Kim Duk Soo, the leading changgo player in Korea. Although samulnori is played on traditional instruments, the method of performance is quite modern – the main difference is that samulnori is performed sitting down. When the same instruments are used while the performers are standing, then the music is called pungmul. In a pungmul performance, the musicians wear special costumes, including hats called sangmo with long ribbons on a stick on the top, which they swirl to the beat of the music. It’s quite dizzying to watch them walk around the stage while swinging their heads wildly *and* never missing a beat! You can see pungmul being performed in some historical dramas and movies, including in The King and the Clown.

There’s no written music for samulnori per se – the rhythms are passed down from teacher to pupil. Notation has begun to be written only recently in order to preserve traditional rhythms and pieces from dying out. Pieces are generally memorised, although they can last as long as 20 minutes! Nami also stressed how important breathing patterns were in samulnori performance. As we found later, when the group is breathing together, it makes it much easier to keep time and stay together.

Nami let each of us choose our own instrument so that we could all play together as a big samulnori group. I went for the large gong, the jing, although there weren’t too many to go round, so a friend and I took turns holding the gong and hitting it with the padded mallet.


A lot of students chose the changgo, which was much more complicated to play than the fairly straightforward jing. the two sticks you use to beat the changgo have to be held in a specific way, particularly the one in the left hand, which you have to hold upside down with three of your four fingers. It was a little counterintuitive for those who had played with drumsticks before! There were different terms for the various ways of striking the drum, depending on which hand you were using and whether you were striking the drum with both hands simultaneously. We also had to be careful not to hit each other with the sticks!

The jing didn’t have much to do, so when we got the opportunity to change instruments, I chose the small gong, the kkwaenggwari. The kkwaenggwari has to be struck often to help keep the beat on track with a rhythm roughly analogous to what you’d do with your hands (or coconut shells) if you wanted to make the noise of a galloping horse. Nami told us that the correct way of doing it was to bend our spines in time to help us focus, as well as repeating “genji genji genji genji” over and over. it sounds a little odd, but it really worked!

The 6th K-Pop Academy Samulnori band!

This week was particularly valuable in getting us to think about alternative forms of Korean music and musical instruments. Samulnori is a percussive music, which is quite a contrast to the more melodic forms that are currently popular, and it can be difficult to see the influence of one on the other. I’d certainly like to learn more about traditional musical forms, especially stringed and wind instruments, in order to gain a more holistic understanding of Korean traditional music and the extent to which it has influenced the K-Pop I so demonstrably love.

After class I was lucky to be able to join everyone for a brisk walk to Kimchee, where we had some absolutely delicious and fairly reasonably priced food. Try the kimchi jeon! It was so nice to be able to hang out with everyone after class – normally I have to rush off to catch my train, so it was good to talk to people a little more and get to know each other better in real life, as opposed to on Facebook. There’s not much time left to do so – the last class is almost upon us!

The homework options this week are really difficult, so expect something a little nervous from me soon. I’m also coming out of a frightful cold, so sorry if my language is a little cloudier than normal.


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