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How to “Play” Instruments in Korean

Posted by on March 16, 2012

Podcast 10: ‘Playing’ Instruments in Korean

OK, it’s finally time for one of those higher-level posts I’ve been promising to write for the last year. Somewhere around Level 2, you probably started learn the Korean pronunciations for western instruments. Later on, you may have learned the words for the different families of instruments, e.g., winds, strings, brass etc. (I’ll make a separate post dealing with this later). But chances are you still haven’t covered all the different ways of saying “play” depending on the instrument that is being played.

This issue — similar to the universal “wear” in English, and its absence in Korean — is an example of a single, all-purpose verb in English being expressed with a variety of different words in Korean. That is to say, playing a clarinet, violin or drum are expressed as “play” in English, but each case takes a different verb in Korean.

Many moons ago, when I worked as the music director at a Korean church in Los Angeles, this issue came up a lot. The children in the orchestra, who were mostly children of first-generation Korean immigrants, were not fluent Korean speakers. When we discussed orchestra issues in Korean a common mistake of the children was to use the Korean verb for play “놀다” along with the instrument that they played, e.g., “나는 바이올린을 놀아요” or “피아노를 놀 줄 알아요?” These errors are analogous to the common mistake of foreigners when speaking Korean to say things like “양말을 입었어요” or “모자를 입었어요.” These sentences should be “양말을 신었어요” and “모자를 썼어요,” respectively.

The correct verb is usually bound to the family of the instrument being played.

불다: to blow
This verb is appropriate for almost all wind instruments. So when you’d like to say “play the clarinet” in Korean, the correct form is “클라리넷을 불다.” This verb is also used for oboe (오보에), trumpet (트럼펫), flute (플루트) and traditional Korean instruments such as the piri and taepyeongso.

  • 클라리넷을 불기 시작한 지 얼마나 됐어요? (클라리넷을 얼마나 불었어요?)
  • How long have you been playing the clarinet?

치다: to strike, to hit
As you may have guessed, this verb is used for the entire percussion family, but is also used to describe playing the guitar. Apparently the action of playing the guitar can be seen has more of a hitting action than other string instruments. This is also the verb used for playing the piano

  • 드럼 치는 게 정말 그렇게 힘들까요? 좀 단순해 보이는데…
  • Do you think playing the drums is really that hard? It looks pretty simple to me…

켜다: to strum
This verb is used for most string instruments, including the violin, viola and traditional Korean instruments such as the gayageum and geomungo.

  • 처음에 왜 가야금 켜는 걸 배우고 싶었어요?
  • Why did you want to learn the gayageum in the first place?

뜯다: to pluck
This verb is also used to describe the playing of most string instruments but the nuance is slightly different. This action denoted by this verb is more of a plucking than a strumming, and this verb is rarely used to describe playing of any instead besides the gayageum.

  • 가야금 좀 뜯어줘요. 어떤 소리가 날지 궁금해요.
  • Play the gayageum for me.  I curious to hear how it sounds.

If you have any other music-related questions, please leave them below.

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