It is not always easy to “play” a musical instrument if you are a beginner in Korean 😉 In general, Koreans use different verbs for different groups of instruments. There are two situations for the correct usage of verbs: 

I. When you describe someone playing the instrument to practice, for fun, or for any non-professional performances: 

  1. 건반악기(Keyboard instruments: piano, organ, harpsichord, etc.) or 타악기(Percussion instruments: drum, cymbals, timpani, etc.) or 기타(guitar) => The correct verb is 치다.
  • 피아노를 치는 현빈 Hyun Bin playing the piano [ in 사랑의 불시착 Crash Landing on You ]
  • 사물놀이란 북, 장구, 징, 꽹과리 등 4가지 타악기를 치는 한국의 전통 음악 놀이입니다 Samulnori is a traditional Korean musical play where the players play four types of percussion instruments – drum, janggu, gong, and kkwaenggwari.
  1. 현악기(String instruments: 아쟁, 해금, violin, viola, cello, double bass, etc.) => The correct verb is 켜다. 
  • 그는 홀로 강당에서 바이올린을 켜고 있었다 All alone in the auditorium, he was playing the violin.
  1. 관악기(Wind instruments: 대금, 소금 flute, 단소, 나발 trumpet, 피리 oboe, etc. ) => The correct verb is 불다. 

나는 피리 부는 사나이 I’m the Pied Piper, [ literally, “a guy who plays the flute” ]

바람 따라가는 떠돌이 a wanderer who follows the wind;

멋진 피리 하나 불면서 Playing a fancy flute, 

언제나 웃는 멋쟁이 I’m a dandy who smiles all the time 

-송창식, “피리 부는 사나이”

II. When you describe professional musicians performing in a concert: 

In this case, 연주하다 is simply the correct verb for all the instruments. Perhaps it is because Koreans prefer to use formal words such as 연주하다 to describe anything official, public, or professional, such as concerts, to show a bit more respect to the performers. Whatever the reason is, life gets a bit simpler for professionals. One verb for all 🙂

  • 이 앨범은 거장 황병기 선생께서 가야금을 연주하신 모든 기록입니다. This album is all the records of Maestro Hwang Byeong-gi playing the gayageum.

연주하다 is also used for specific musical pieces or composers that are played as an object of the verb:

  • 세계적인 피아니스트 카티아 부니아티슈빌리가 서울 롯데콘서트홀에서 드뷔시를 연주합니다.  World-renowned pianist Khatia Buniatishvili will perform Debussy at Lotte Concert Hall in Seoul.

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