A Brief Comparison of Korean Gayageum, Chinese Guzheng and Japanese Koto

Eun Chae, one of my students, submitted this interested topic for her writing.  I thought it was quite intriguing so I thought I would publish it. She didn’t do exceeding amounts of research but enough for all of us to benefit. Enjoy and thanks, Eun Chae.


Why do musical instruments that come from Korea, Japan, and China look similar? All three countries were in the same cultural area, and shared commercial relationships, and musical elements such as instruments, and songs. Just like the evolution and changes that occurred culturally between the regions, music and instrument variations also occurred. People in their respective countries improved the instrument to benefit their unique playing methods. Therefore, the instruments in each country do not look identical. The reason why they updated the instrument was a result of a lack of understanding of those methodologies, and to make clear their own respective and unique national identities. Thus, one cannot state that Korea, China, and Japan have the same instruments. After comparing the three countries’ typical stringed instruments: the Gayageum (Korea), the Guzheng (China) and the Koto (Japan), the differences will become apparent.

Chinese Guzheng

A good starting place to begin to explore the similarities between the Korean Gayageum and the Chinese Guzheng is that both are Asian traditional long zithers, and both are made of paulownia. An Asian traditional long zither is a square, elongated, stringed wooden resonance box that looks like the harp but played lying horizontally on the floor. The paulownia is a tree that produces the best wood for musical instruments because it is not vulnerable to fire and because it resonates well. In addition, both the Gayageum and the Guzheng have bridges and both are played with the fingers, and people usually push the left side of string to produce a vibrato effect on both instruments. There are also differences between these two cousins. While the Gayageum has twelve strings made of silk thread, the Guzheng has twenty-one strings made of metal. The Gayageum player performs a vibrato technique – the gentle bending of the string to create a wavering effect on the sound wave- but the Guzheng creates a celestial sound by doing rapid alternate picking. Lastly, the Gayageum is played with the bare fingers, but the Guzheng requires picks on the player’s right thumb, forefinger, and middle finger.

Korean Gayageum

The Korean Gayageum and the Japanese Koto also have similarities and differences. The Gayageum and the Koto are similar in that they are both made of paulownia, and they are classified as Asian traditional long zithers. Also, both instruments’ bridges can change the pitch of the string by manipulating or moving the bridge. In regards to their strings, they are usually made out of silk. The Gayageum and the Koto are different in that the Gayageum players put the instrument on their knees in a cross-legged position when they play it, where the Koto is placed on the floor in front of the kneeled player. On the top surface of the body of the Koto, there are tuning pins like a piano’s, to facilitate tuning. The Gayageum sounds soft, and lingering, but the Koto has sharp, clear tones and its sound limited sustain. While the Gayageum is played with the bare fingers, the Koto requires the use of picks on player’s right three fingers like the Guzheng. Finally, the Gayageum was invented by Wu Ruk, who was commissioned by Gaya’s king, but the Koto is an ancestor of the Guzheng.

Japanese Koto

Comparing the Japanese Koto and the Chinese Guzheng reveals more similarities than differences. Both have clear, and sharp sound. In addition, unlike the hand controlled tuning pegs of a violin, they have a tuning mechanism for tightening and loosening the strings more like a piano. Both musical instruments usually use rapid alternate picking when the players want to make the sound ornate. Furthermore, their movable bridges along the body look similar, in that they are angular arch-shaped and have two long legs while the Gayageum has round arched bridges with short legs. However they differ in that the Koto has thirteen strings, while the Guzheng has twenty-one strings. It is difficult to find the differences between these two instruments because the Koto originated from the Guzheng.

The Chinese Guzheng, the Korean Gayageum, and the Japanese Koto have individual, indigenous sounds distinguishing one from the other, though they look similar externally. Each respective country’s musicians redesigned the instrument by applying to it their character which contributed to the unique sound of each one. Also, traditional instruments are connected to their own country, so people who might think that those three musical instruments look the same and have almost the same sound could find the differences easily after hearing them individually. One should not be surprised because China, Korea, and Japan share similarities between their cultures, while maintaining their own unique customs.

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21 thoughts on “A Brief Comparison of Korean Gayageum, Chinese Guzheng and Japanese Koto”

  1. Really great analysis of the basic differences! Exactly what I was trying to learn! Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. I would love to, Ben, but it was so long ago that I couldn’t. Sorry about that, and if you find sources, please send them back here for others to benefit from. I just had this posted because no one else on the world wide webs had written on this seemingly obvious topic, ha.

  2. I’ve played Gu Zheng for 34 years now and still adore it more than anything
    else in my life (except my kids) I am a local Irish/German Calif. American
    lady who lived many years throughout China so to fully appreciate the Gu Zheng’s cultural experience. I won a couple of Gu Zheng competitions which enabled me to stay there, still, it was not a easy lifestyle for sure, but
    still worth it in the end.
    The above story which compare the 3 different but look like same instruments, I believe all gets down to their reflection of the culture of the people in their country. So the sound of their voice and techniques for playing are actually uniquely different. After all,
    they come from 3 very different ‘and distinct countries. As has been said, the people may look alike on the surface but their life experience
    is unique to each.
    Finally, my opinion is that; no matter what you play on the Gu Zheng,
    it all sounds good and you can still express yourself with fun. But the
    Qin needs some kind of Master to play it before it sounds like any kind of piece of music with some kind of melody ‘maybe’. It requires much deeper understanding of poetry and history and technique to play.
    Gu Zheng always is just simply, ‘beautiful’ .

  3. The writer makes a lot of emphasis on the fact that koto derived from guzheng as if trying to distance the gayageum from guzheng being guzheng also the very origin of gayageum.

  4. What makes you think gushing came first? As far as I know, Korea has a very very long history. One thing about Korean traditional music is that it is quite distinct from its neighbors. Chinese and japanese has many more similarities however. Korea on the other hand is very different and quite interested to know its roots.

  5. This was useful, but I wish the writer had spoken more about
    Gayageum = Koto/qin and Gayageum =/= Koto/qin
    Or even
    Gayageum = Guzheng and Gayageum =/= Guzheng
    The differences and similarities, you know?
    But still really good, thanks.

  6. I bought a used instrument at a thrift store about ten years ago. It came without bridges. One of my hobbies is restoring string instruments, and I’ve been building and restoring them since 1963.
    I don’t know whether the instrument is a koto, a gayageum or a zheng. It had thirteen strings and is only five feet long.

    I was hoping this article might help identify it, and give me some idea of the shapes of the bridges which I am going to have to build.

    1. I think it is a koto, koto has 13 strings and was originally only 3 feet long (with 5 strings) but now it is 6 feet. 13 strings and 6 feet, koto is the best guess. Maybe an old koto that was only 5 feet as originally they were only 3 feet anyways. Hope this helped you.

  7. Just heard a marvelous Guzheng player at Happy Moon Festival in Deer Park, N Y. Also heard two pipa players. One provided several amazing songs. Now, at home a Gayageum hangs like a wonder from a distant culture on our living room wall. A master Of any Of these instruments is an honor to listen to. And the unplayed instrument is pure potential for soul enriching music whether Korean or Chinese or Japanese. And thank the Earth for Paulownia.

  8. “Finally, the Gayageum was invented by Wu Ruk, who was commissioned by Gaya’s king, but the Koto is an ancestor of the Guzheng.”

    This suggests the Guzheng descended from the Koto, which I hope isn’t the intended meaning.

    1. Gaya’s king, after he saw an old Chinese instrument, ordered Wu Ruk to make one resembled that. Guzheng’s history dates back to 500 BC. Gayageum was first created around 6th century.

  9. i don’t wanna be that person but for guzheng, we wear a nail on the ring finger too. some people even wear nails on their left hand too (more of a preferance thing)

  10. R.I.P Vietnamese Đàn tranh. If your student, Eun Chae have done a fair amount of research, I’m sure she would’ve come across the Vietnamese instrument. These four countries were in the same cultural area, yes? Sinosphere. Vietnam was influenced by China for more than 1000 years. The Đàn tranh is very similar to the other three and I was hoping to find more information about the differences between them, but I guess not. China, Japan, and Korea are the ones to shine because their culture is widely known, but I think that when talking about similarities in culture, things should not be left out. Especially when these instruments are so, so, so similar. I know Vietnam always get left out of things like these, but it still makes me sad. Oh and also the Mongolian Yatga gets left out as well.

  11. Wonderful,
    This is exactly the information i was looking for.

    Finally, the missing knowledge i needed for my master plan to rule the world is complete!

  12. Dear author, you need to do more thorough research and be truthful when it comes to historical facts. Chinese culture simply has been longer than Japanese and Korean cultures, and Chinese guzheng is really just the predecessor of the Japanese koto and Korean kayagum. Both Japanese and Korean cultures at various times were heavily influenced by the Chinese culture. Korean culture, due to geological proximity, had more cultural imports and exchanges than Japanese culture; however, both cultures have had deep roots in Chinese culture. If you don’t even get those fundamental facts correctly, the credibility of the whole article suffers.

    1. China isnt one country, back then it was a bunch of tribes and the Koreans are what you call the Han tribe of China. So roots in “China” yes but descended from the Chinese would be wrong. This is the fundamental reason why Korea is so much different from the other two culturally and historically.

  13. You need to do more thorough research and be truthful when it comes to historical facts. Chinese culture has simply been longer than Japanese and Korean cultures, and Chinese guzheng is the predecessor of the Japanese koto and Korean kayagum. Both Japanese and Korean cultures were heavily influenced by Chinese culture at various points throughout the history. If you don’t even get those fundamental facts correctly, the credibility of the whole article suffers.

  14. Says the koto is the ancestor of the guzheng and then says it originated from the guzheng in the very next paragraph…

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