Music of Korea

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Traditional music parade in Seoul.

Traditional Korean music includes combinations of the folk, vocal, religious and also ritual music styles of the Korean people. Korean music, along with arts, painting and sculpture has been practiced since prehistoric times.[1]

Two distinct musical cultures exist in Korea today: traditional music (Gugak) and Western music (yangak).


Proto–Three Kingdoms of Korea[edit]

The Korean traditional music of proto-three kingdoms period is not known much, while some historical records of China write that people of Buyeo, Goguryeo, Dongye and Samhan drank and danced in their harvest festivals. Those texts also say that Korean tribal states habitually worshipped to the heaven, dancing and drinking several days as an agricultural rite.[2]


The oldest records about Korean music appear in the Chinese historical text, Records of the Three Kingdoms written by Chen Shou (233-297). It says that Mahan people made rituals in May and October without a cease of dancing for a few days. The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty during Sejong the Great says that Samhan had its own style of music but without musical instruments.[3]

Three Kingdoms of Korea[edit]


The music history of Goguryeo is chiefly divided into three periods: the first is a period before external influence came through when geomungo, a traditional instrument was invented.;[4] second is normally around 4th to 6th century when Goguryeo started to form a relationship with Northern Wei; the final stage is from the end of 6th century until the collapse of the kingdom.

Hwangjoga (Hangul황조가; Hanja黃鳥歌) is a song from Goguryeo composed by King Yuri. The song mainly tells a princess whom he loved.[5]

According to the Samguk Sagi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), written in 1145, the geomungo was invented by prime minister Wang San-ak by using the form of the ancient Chinese instrument guqin (also called chilhyeongeum, literally "seven-string zither"). After his death, the instrument was passed down to Ok Bogo, Son Myeong-deuk, Gwi Geum, An Jang, Cheong Jang, and Geuk Jong, while being widely spread over the kingdom.

Archetype of the instrument is painted in Goguryeo tombs. They are found in the tomb of Muyongchong and Anak Tomb No.3.


The only song of Baekje conveyed until now is Jeongeupsa (en hangul: 정읍사), but since there are no specific relics such as the mural tombs of Goguryeo, it is quite difficult to grasp what it would be like. It is evident that Baekje also celebrated a harvest festival in May and October similar to that of Goguryeo.[6]

The music of Baekje was known to Southern Song and Northern Wei, while some music players were invited to Japan.[7] Notably, a man of Baekje named Mimaji (en hangul: 미마지) learned music and dance in China and emigrated to Japan in 612.[8][9] In 2001, Emperor of Japan Akihito said the music of Baekje is the root of Japanese royal music, since Emperor Kanmu (r.871-896) himself was a descendent of King Muryeong. (r.501-523).[7]


The museum of Ureuk in Goryeong, Gyeongssangbuk-do where it demonstrates the development of music in Gaya and Silla.

Before Silla unified three kingdoms, the music of Silla is represented by a traditional instrument, gayageum which was said that Ureuk from Gaya brought it in the reign of King Jinheung when his kingdoms were incorporated by Silla forces. Although Samguk Sagi conveys 12 names of compositions Ureuk did, those are not fully inherited. In 13th year of Jinheung, Ureuk taught gayageum, songs and dances to three disciples of Gyego, Beopji y Mandeok.[10]

Later the famed scholar, Choi Chiwon who studied in Tang dynasty away from bone rank system of Silla chartered five poems of hyangak (The local music) which depict performing arts in Silla toward the end of its era. These figures are found in history books, Goryeosa as a court ballet performance consisting of hyangak and dangak in subcategories of Korean music.[11]

North–South States Period[edit]

Unified Silla[edit]

After unification, the music of Silla experienced the influx of diverse music from Baekje and Goguryeo with wider development of hyangak, especially in gayageum, geomungo, bipa of three string instruments and other three pipes.[12] Additionally, music from Tang dynasty was introduced under the reign of King Munmu. The Buddhist chant, Beompae (hangul 범패, hanja 梵唄) was widely adopted with variety of instruments, forming a unique art of Silla.[13][14] During unified Silla, the royal institute of music (en hangul:음성서) was established.[15]



Taejo of Goryeo, the founder of Goryeo followed several customs of Silla which can be found in series of Buddhist celebrations such as Palgwanhoe and Yeondeunghoe. However, the influence of Silla dramatically diminished in the middle of its period owing to the influx of musics from Song, establishing a strong influence on Korean court music.[13] A large banquet where performances handed down from Silla such as the sword dance was conducted.[16] Most of Goryeo songs were recorded in Akhak gwebeom after the 15th century of which features were the lyrics of Korean language, different from those of previous eras.[16]

Goryeo court dance named jeongjae can be divided into two categories: native dances of hyangak jeongjae(향악정재); Tang-derived dangak jeongjae (당악정재). Additionally, folk dances were practiced by monks and shamans.[17]


As Yi Seong-gye founded Joseon in 1392, the itot batad dynasty adopted anti-Buddhism and pro-Confucianism which affected the musical pattern of Yeak (예악, 禮樂). Although some scholars like Jeong Do-jeon made several songs for celebrating the initial moments of Joseon, the notation followed the trends of Goryeo.

Joseon periods saw considerable developments of its music during the reign of Sejong which were largely attributable to a musician Park Yeon.[18] Park firstly established an independent organ of music and created Korean-style notation including Jeonganbo (en Hangul: 정간보). King Sejong himself also composed songs.[19] A son of Sejong, Sejo who killed his nephew, Danjong also recorded his own score in pitch pipe notation. The two kings above are the only rulers whose musical records are now traceable.[20]

Music and dance enjoyed favorable positions in the court banquets and also within elite yangban class. The feasts hosted by high-rank officers involved in several entertainers like clowns and acrobats.[21] After the middle of its period, what-so-called middle men (중인, Jungin) came to play diverse instruments mixing lyric poems and long cyclical songs.[21]

A page of "Akhakgwebeom".

The process of compiling traditional Korean music continued until the reign of Seongjong with the publication of first independent musical text Akhakgwebeom.[22]

Because of two mega-hit wars, the culture of Joseon went through series of hardship which resulted the loss of instrumental music and songs in court and also royal shrine.[23] The musical situation in the late Joseon can be described as declining contrary to its expansion period.[24]

Ancestor worship ceremonies called Munmyo jerye and Jongmyo jerye were revived and performed annually, chiefly to commemorate the deaths of Confucian scholars and Korean kings.[25]

The public enjoyed the genre of pansori, sanjo and namsadang-nori.[21][26] Pansori first emerged as a common culture in the mid-Joseon. Although it’s hard to grasp exact points of its evolution, the oral tradition of this genre came to be followed by musical experts only to expand its sphere not only to commoners but also to aristocrats.[27]

In 1894, Joseon government dispatched ten court musicians to Boston Exposition in the United States to build an independent foundation.[28]

After Korean Empire[edit]

Joseon was transformed into the Korean Empire with a view to organizing its sphere out of the external interruption, while the rituals of empires were revived and practiced Confucian court music to celebrate expansion of the nation. However, the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910 brought tremendous change inside and outside Korea with an influence of western music. After the collapse, Korean court music found almost no way to make celebrations and rituals, which was replaced with marching songs. Instead of pansori and gagok, the musical trends were largely changed into modern-style performances and classical music. Followed by cultural suppression in the 1920s, Korean traditional music barely survived.

Folk music[edit]

Korean folk music or minyo, is varied and complex, but all forms maintain a set of rhythms (called 장단; Jangdan) and a loosely defined set of melodic modes owing to diverse instruments, while even drums were eligible to demonstrate variety of rhythmic cycles.[29]

Because the folk songs of various areas are categorized under Dongbu folk songs, their vocal styles and modes are limited. Therefore, currently, scholars are attempting to categorize the Dongbu folk songs further, based on different musical features. These songs are mostly simple and bright. Namdo folk songs are those of Jeolla Province and a part of Chungcheong Province. While the folk songs of other regions are mostly musically simple. The folk songs of the Namdo region, where the famous musical genres pansori and sanjo were created, are rich and dramatic. Some Namdo folk songs are used in pansori or developed by professional singers and are included as part of their repertories. Jeju folk songs are sung on Jeju Island. Jeju folk songs are more abundant in number than any other regional folk songs, and approximately 1600 songs are transmitted today. Jeju folk songs are characterized by their simple and unique melodic lines and rich texts.


Pansori (판소리) is a long vocal and percussive music played by one singer and 1 drummer. In this traditional art form, sometimes rather misleadingly called 'Korean Opera',[21] a narrator may play the parts of all the characters in a story, accompanied by a drummer. The lyrics tell one of five different stories, but is individualized by each performer, often with updated jokes and audience participation. One of the most famous pansori singers is Park Dongjin (hangul: 박동진). In 2003, Pansori was designated as intangible cultural property in UNESCO's Memory of the world.[30]

The National Theatre of Korea provides monthly opportunities to experience traditional Korean narrative songs or Pansori.



Pungmul:(풍물) is a Korean folk music tradition that is a form of percussion music that includes drumming, dancing, and singing.[31] Most performances are outside, with dozens of players, all in constant motion. Samul Nori, originally the name of a musical group founded in 1978, has become popular as a genre, even overseas.[32] It is based on Pungmul musical rhythmic patterns and uses the same instruments, but is faster and usually played while sitting down.


Sanjo:(산조) is played without a pause in faster tempos as one of the most popular genres of traditional Korean music.[33] It is entirely instrumental music, and includes changes in rhythmic and melodic modes during an individual work. The tempo increases in each movement. The general style of the sanjo is marked by slides in slow movements and rhythmic complexity in faster movements. Instruments include the changgo drum set against a melodic instrument, such as the gayageum or ajaeng.[31] Famous practitioners include such names as Kim Chukp'a, Yi Saenggang and Hwang Byungki. Notably Hwang established new type of sanjo genre which involved in repertory of gayageum on the basis of aiming to identify and explain distinctive musical features and creativity.[34]


Jeongak (정악, 正樂) or Chongak means literally "right (or proper) music", and its tradition includes both instrumental and vocal music, which were cultivated mainly by the upper-class literati of the Joseon society.[35] The instrumental branch has several versions of a lengthy chamber, chiefly Yongsan hoesang, while the vocal branch sometimes include the meaning of jeongga (Right Song) with a wide range of gagok, gasa, and sijo.[29]

Although jeongak has things in common with court music but it can't be categorized as popular song since most public would never hear of these melodies by incorporating various court dances.[29] Vocals performed in jeongak are normally sung in a style of kagok (가곡), which is for mixed male and female singers and is accompanied by a variety of instruments.[36] The best-known piece of jeongak is Yeongsan hoesang of 9 suites which has now had only instrumental notes.[36]


Nongak parade of several players.

Nongak (농악) refers to "farmers' music" and represents an important musical genre which has been developed mainly by peasants in the agricultural society of Korea. The farmers' music is performed typically in an open area of the village. The organization of nongak varies according to locality and performing groups, and today there are a great number of regional styles and involvement of many instruments. Since Nongak involves in many types of dances and formation changes, the dancers and players have several types of artistic format due to their level of skill.[37]


Shinawi or Sinawi (시나위), means, in the broadest sense, the shamanistic music of Korea which is performed during a Korean shaman's ritual dance performance to console and to entertain deities mainly from Korea's southwest region.[38] In this sense of the word, the term is almost identical with another term, shinbanggok (lit. 'spirit chamber music'), which indicated general shamanistic music performed at a folk religious ceremony known as kut.[39] The format of this genre is comparatively loose with several dancers being united and dispersed on the stage.[36]


Salpuri (살풀이)[citation needed] is a shamanistic ritual dance, conducted as exorcism of bad ghosts.[40] The style of this ritual dance is characterized simple and serene. The long scarf with fluid lines express long lines of the arms and fingers of the dancer from corner to corner of the space, utilizing the vastness of space all the way.[41]

Court/Ritual music[edit]

Korean court music preserved to date can be traced to the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. It is now rare, except for government-sponsored organizations like The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts.[42]

There are three types of court music.[2]

  • Aak is an imported form of Chinese ritual music.
  • Hyang-ak is a Pure Korean form.
  • Dang-ak is a combination of Korean and Chinese influences.


The word Aak is the Korean pronunciation of two hanja characters, which indicate the eqivalent form of yayue in Chinese and gagoku in Japan.[43] Since Confucius used this term to distinguish elegant and beneficial music from the melodies without harmony, it enjoyed favorable status during Joseon. Derived from wider types of notations, Korea has maintained its melodies until now of which features were long lost in China.[43] Aak is considered a special type of court music in specific ritual ceremonies[43] at very rare concerts, such as the Sacrifice to Confucius in Seoul.[44]


Dangak or Tangak refers to the music which came from the Tang dynasty.[45] The instruments from Tang were imported. During the 12th century, Korea received musical instruments as gifts from the Chinese ruler, which were used by the orchestra at Confucian rituals.[46] These influences provided Unified Silla with robust opportunities to develop its music culture after Korean performers' visits to China and vice versa Chinese performers visited Korea in 1116.[47]


Hyangak literally means The local music or Music native to Korea of which example is Sujecheon, a piece of instrumental music as old as 1,300 years.[48] Hyangak firstly appeared as early as during Silla period with four ensemble stringed instrument with woodwind instruments similar to the oboe, called a piri.[49] Pares and English indicate the texts of Goryeosa: The most significant dates for music hyangak (indigenous music; other texts refer to this as sogak) were 1114 and 1116, when the court received two gifts from the eighth Song emperor, Huizong. Korea was fast becoming a Confucian state and kings had begun to observe Confucian rites to heaven, to agriculture, land and grain, and to royal ancestors.[50]

Yongbieocheonga, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven represents its uniqueness as hyangak, which was originally tuned to various notes and lyrics but the text was lost and purely instrument rhythm left.

Traditional instruments[edit]

Traditional Korean instruments can be broadly divided into three groups:

  1. String
  2. Wind
  3. Percussion

The gayageum (12-string zither) and geomungo (six-string plucked zither) are part of the string fold instruments.[36] The haegum (two-string vertical fiddle) and the ajaeng (seven-string zither) are part of the string T'ang. Court string music also included use of the seven-string zither and the 25-string zither.

Bells and Piri.

The daegeum (large transverse flute), piri (cylindrical oboe) and grass flute are all called wind folk. Wind T'ang includes the Chinese oboe, vertical flute and hojok or taepyongso (shawm). The saenghwang (mouth organ), panpipes, hun (ocarina), flute with mouthpiece, danso (small-notch vertical flute), and flute are wind court instruments.

Percussion folk instruments include jing (large hanging gong), kkwaenggwari (hand-held gong), buk (barrel drum), janggu (hourglass drum). The bak (clapper) and the janggu (hourglass drum) are the percussion T'ang instruments. Percussion court includes the pyeongjong (bronze bells), pyeongyeong (stone chimes), chuk (square wooden box with mallet) and eo (tiger-shaped scraper).

Contemporary music[edit]

Korea is a vibrant environment for contemporary music, and produces a wide array of styles. The country has produced internationally prominent soloists and singers such as Psy, BoA, Rain, TVXQ, Super Junior, Big Bang, Epik High, Wonder Girls, Girls' Generation, SHINee, Exo, BTS and Twice, whose music has become an international phenomenon. Their music, though often electronic or hip-hop in its essence, is generally grouped under a genre called K-pop, which emerged during the 1990s and has since become increasingly popular as a part of the Korean Wave.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]