Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

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Pyeon-gyeong and Pyeonjong, Korean Traditional Bells and Chimes of Court Music

In Yiwangga-akgi (李王家樂器, Yi Royal Family’s Instruments) complied by the Royal Music Institute in 1939, there are sixty-six different types of instruments. These instruments are classified into three categories according to the genre of music played: a-ak (雅樂, ritual music), dang-ak (secular music of Chinese origin) and hyang-ak (indigenous music). A-ak and the musical instruments were regarded as significant since they represented Sung-Confucianism, which emphasized specific yue (rites) and ak (music), bringing order and harmony among its people with music and etiquette.

The musical instruments for a-ak were first introduced from China’s Sung Dynasty to Korea in King Sejong’s 11th year in power (1116 AD) of the Goryeo (高麗) Period (918-1392). Among them, pyeon-gyeong (編磬), the tuned sonorous chime and pyeonjong (編鐘), the tuned bronze bells were considered essential instruments. They resonate a standard pitch which was considered ideal for the court.

According to paleum (八音, eight sounds, payin as pronunciation in Chinese), a traditional classification of musical instruments, pyeon-gyeong is categorized into the stone category, while pyeonjong into the metal category. Consisting of metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, earthen, leather, and wood, Paleum is about the eight materials of the universe, comparable to the eight directions of the wind, and the eight trigrams.

At the base of the stand, pyeon-gyeong has wooden carvings of a duck or goose which is an elegant image of Korean folklore, while pyeonjong has wooden carvings of a lion or tiger which symbolizes the sound of a lion’s roar which resonates from the bells. At both ends of the frame, pyeon-gyeong has a phoenix while pyeonjong a dragon, corresponding to yin and yang respectively. Five fabulously decorated wooden peacocks put high on the frame of both instruments represent a hope that the sound reaches distant areas.

Manufacturing pyeon-gyeong and pyeonjong began in Korea during the dynasty of King Sejong who had a special attachment to music and ruled the state through art and morality. The workshop for metal production was built near the Han River during King Sejong’s 11th year (1429). Gyeongseok, a special jade stone, was found in the Namyang area in Gyeonggido Province. King Sejong was quite the musician and scholar and was keen to rearrange musical theories and instruments. King Sejong was known to be able to tell which notes of the pyeon-gyeong were out of tune as he had a sharp ear for music.

Pyeon-gyeong consists of sixteen L-shaped jade-stone slabs and pyeonjong of sixteen bronze bells, both hanging from an ornate wooden frame, in two rows of eight. The sound differs according to the thickness of the stone slabs and the bells. They produce sounds when struck with a mallet made from an ox horn. The thicker the stone and the bell, the higher the musical note. The range of pitch of for the pyeon-gyeong goes from C to D#.’ Pyeonjong is one octave higher than pyeon-gyeong of which the tone was much loved for its clear ringing sound.