Korean Chôngganbo and Far Eastern music notation systems

An example of Korean Chôngganbo music notation

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been having some relatively in depth discussions about music systems and notation for them with Bryan Townsend.  A statement in one of Bryan’s recent posts got me thinking a bit about notating rhythms, for which the Near Eastern notation systems aren’t particularly well suited. Here’s that statement

So we may be forced to the conclusion that, like accurate music notation, harmony and polyphony were invented exactly once in music history. Even more astonishing, they were both invented at roughly the same time in roughly the same place: southern France, northern Italy around 1000 AD. Nailing down the details of notating rhythms took until about 1500.

However, from what I remembered about some early Far Eastern notation systems, rhythm has been notated for some centuries and with a relatively high degree of precision.  One such system, Chôngganbo (정간보), which was develped by Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450) who is also credited with creating/promulgating what many linguists consider to be the most perfect alphabet, Hangul (한글).

I only happened across Chôngganbo via a strange route.  When I was following the career of Rock and experimental musician, Mike Patton, I was delighted to find and hear a bootleg of a live performance of a collaborative work he did with  William Winant and DJ Eddie Def that was called “Phono Sanjo.”  The piece combined elements of Mike Patton’s vocal acrobatics and Winant using various percussion including some very distinctive Chinese cymbols (for those of you who listen to Chinese Opera with any regularity you know exactly what I’m talking about) and DJ Eddie Def on turntables.  Many of these live performances of the piece took place in the mid to late 90s in the Bay Area.  I first got a bootleg around 1999.

The title of the piece refers to the two aesthetic driving forces of the work.  “Phono” obviously is a reference to “Phonograph” or the turntables; “Sanjo” is actually a style of art music from Korea, so many of the actual samples used by the turntablist are samples from Sanjo recordings.  Most prominently heard in the samples is the gayageum, one of the principle instruments used for this style of music and a close cousin of the Chinese guzheng and Japanese koto (Eric–now you know how I first came across gayageum music!).  Though sanjo is primarily an instrumental style of music, Mike Patton’s vocalizations evoke some of the Far Eastern vocal traditions (in the same way that Winant used a Chinese Cymbal) in the creating of a sort of Pan-East Asian experimental music piece.

All that aside, and getting back to the topic of notation, I obviously came across the chôngganbo notation system while doing my research, and the point of this post is that, since Sejong the Great was the driving force behind the creation of both notation systems (one for language, one for music), then the creation of these two things can be reliably dated (since there are actual documents describing their usage–basically instruction manuals for what were then new technology–that date to the reign of Sejong) to the 15th century.

As you can see from the image above, you can see that there are blocks of cells with characters written inside, and as Matthew Jackson describes it:

The Chongganbo notation consists of blocks of cells, each representing a unit of time, with symbols written in each cell depicting the notes. If the name of a note appeared in two consecutive cells, the note would be played for twice as long; if two characters were written in one cell, they would be played twice as fast.

Kim Woojin describes it a bit differently:

Each square represents one beat. A half-beat note would be written twice within one square, while the name of a two-beat note would be written on one square with the next square left blank. Yuljabo and Gongcheokbo indicating the note’s pitch is written inside the squares (jeonggan). In terms of a Western musical score, the jeongganbo is the five-line staff: the Yuljabo and Gongcheokbo are the notes. The entire sheet is like an orchestral score, with 4~6 compartments to fill in notes of different parts; (from right to left) stringed or percussion instruments, wind instruments, janggo (a type of small drum), bak (clapper) and lyrics if applicable.

There are several other issues regarding the suitability of any music notation and it’s ability to ‘represent’ a composer’s intention that I won’t get into here.  Also, there are a great variety of music notation systems that have been in usage in the Far East that would fill an academic career.

Until I have the opportunity to post more about this particular subject, please visit the links above and below for more info.

A final aside, while Western music notation and Far Eastern music notation are relatively complex and highly developed systems for notating rhythms, there have been several other music notation schemes that depict rhythm and/or time values that predate both.  Most notably the Hurrian songs (14th century BCE) which some scholars believe might also show some of the earliest usage of harmony.  However, there is no consensus about how to realize the music, so I guess it might be prudent to remain skeptical about most of the claims made about this ancient Ugaritic music.


Related Links:

Musical Notations of Korea (worldcat entry)

On Comparison of China’s Square Notation and Korea’s Chongganbo Notation (article comparing the Korean notation with Wei Hao’s square notation published in 1728)

Representing Korean Traditional Musical Notation in XML (discusses the relative merits between Korean and Western notation in representing classical Korean music)

4 thoughts on “Korean Chôngganbo and Far Eastern music notation systems

  1. Great post, Jon! I looked at most of the links (the ones in English) and now I know a bit more than I did before! In chronological order, the Hurrian songs are similar to other examples from the ancient world in that our ability to get any clear idea of what they sounded like is limited by the notation. We have a lot of writing about music from the Greeks, but still, every time someone does a realization it comes out sounding suspiciously like Carl Orff! I wrote a bit about this here:


    When the notation is so unclear, the researcher has to “fill in the blanks” and can only do so based on his own musical understanding.

    But wow, the chôngganbo notation system is fascinating. It is definitely a real system for notating rhythm. Just from the links you included I suspect that it could have benefited from one of the great discoveries of Western notation: the tie! This enabled a great simplification of our notation. The other thing I noted was that this Korean system originated in the 15th century, much later than the systems developed in the West. An independent discovery, of course! Like algebra or evolution.

    Now I’m pretty interesting in what those 15th century Korean scores can reveal about their use of harmony…


    1. I’ll have to send you a link to some downloads of a book on Korean Notation, Bryan–very informative and talks about nearly a dozen different notation systems in usage (in some cases, still being used) throughout Korea’s musical history.

      Most Korean Art music is going to be more Heterophonic in ways that we talked about–though with Chongganbo system they were able to actually create scores with several lines (just oriented vertically rather than horizontally as in Western notation). So there are actually scores which will include up to five parts–usually instrument groups will get lumped together (e.g. Strings; Plucked instruments).

      The tie would have greatly helped with some notation issues, but for all I know they might have developed something similar at some point. I’ll keep looking into that!


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