Korean Drumming

This week we had the pleasure of working with Byoung Kim and Suwan Choi, who taught us the beginnings of Pungmul, a style of traditional Korean drumming. This was particularly interesting not just because I am a percussionist by trade, but more so because, up to this point, the class has been focused more on the melodic and harmonic theory behind different styles of music from around the world.

If you aren’t familiar with or haven’t heard Pungmul before, it’s an extremely energetic, powerful style of drumming that you’ve likely heard out of context before, especially in film music attempting to set battle scenes set in East Asian context. This is very much a generalization, but utilization nonetheless. Regardless, if you haven’t heard it, here is an example:

Like many traditional cultural musics, Pungmul rose out of its use as accompaniment for rituals, a way of overcoming heavy farming labor, and eventually in marketplaces and villages by traveling troupes. Something particularly interesting to me about this, however, is that, while drumming is very common for traditional music to accompany rituals, a lot of the music that came out of farm labor was vocal music since that tended to be both the most convenient and least physically taxing, but in this case something very physical was their way of overcoming physical labor. The idea of drumming being used therapeutically is not a brand new concept, but this is still very intriguing to me. It makes me wonder about the science behind the types of endorphins released when someone is drumming or just playing music in general, which is a concept I have heard and read about in the past as well. Regardless, is it obviously something Koreans have understood and utilized for a very long time.

The other aspect of Pungmul that undoubtedly grabs my attention is the symbolism. I am a sucker for symbolism in any sense, but especially in music and musical traditions. The costumes seen in the video are made up of five distinct colors representing what they consider the five elements – water, fire, wind, soil, and metal.

On a more modern level is Samul-Nori, a modern interpretation of Pungmul (seen in the video above), which directly translates to “the play of four instruments.” These four instruments listed below represent different parts of what come together to create the sound of a storm.

  1. Kwenggari (small gong) – represents thunder
  2. Jing (large gong) – represents wind
  3. Janggu (large hourglass-shaped drum) – represents rain
  4. Buk (barrel drum) – represents clouds

If you go back and listen to the video included at the beginning, you can see and hear each of these sounds represented.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pungmul/traditional Korean drumming, make Byoung Kim is the Executive Artistic Director at the Global Pungmul Institute in Wheeling, IL, and you can check out more about what they do here!