The use of oral mnemonics in the transmission of instrumental music is a well-known and persistent feature of East Asian musics. In both Korea and Japan, there are several such systems for different instruments. There are also various systems of written mnemonics, that is, musical notation; many originally oral systems have come to be used as notations as well. Following Western scholarly usage, we shall often refer to oral mnemonics in general by the term solfège; although etymologically dubious, this practice at least helps avoid over-use of the unwieldy expression ‘oral mnemonics’.
The present paper will deal with one type of oral mnemonics in Korea, known collectively as yukpo or sometimes as kuŭm (cf. Lee, 1981: 31–4; Hahn, 1973: 79–83; Howard, 1988: 68, 91, 115, 182, 212, 227).3 Yukpo exist or are known to have existed for most string and wind instruments and even for percussion. By the sixteenth century at least, these originally oral syllables had begun to be written down as a kind of musical notation. The first mention of yukpo is in the Annals of King Sejo (A.D. 1470): ‘ Formerly there was only [for musical notation] the use of mnemonic sounds, called the Yukpo … The complexities are difficult to comprehend’ (quoted in Lee, 1981: 31, Condit 1976: 205, 207 has a more extensive but interpretive translation). This quotation suggests that yukpo were already considered both old and obscure by Sejo's time.