Korean Traditional Music


In Korea today, two distinct musical cultures exist; the western music culture and the traditional music culture. The traditional music culture entails an array of folk music and sound combinations that includes the vocal, folk, religious and the ritual music styles of the people of Korea. The Korean music and dance are characterized by colorful costumes and striking instruments, all of which are part of the traditional performing arts of Korea. The Korean music range from music and dance of many regions to shamanistic dance and Buddhist drumming. This essay explores Korean traditional music. The discussion focuses on different types of Korean traditional music, the Korean traditional instruments, the orchestrated Korean Traditional music in TV drama and how Korean traditional music is reflected in the culture. The essay argues for the role of traditional Korean music in tracing the cultural roots of Koreans.

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Types of Korean Traditional Music

Korean traditional music is complex, and vary significantly based on different types, yet all these different forms maintain certain rhythms and specific loosely defined melodic modes that follow diversity of instruments used. Sometimes, even the variety of drums used and played demonstrate the variability of rhythmic cycles and they type of music. Largely, folk songs from different parts of Korea are referred to as Dongbu; Dongbu folk songs have limited vocal modes and styles, and are therefore categorized further based on their music features as discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.

Namdo category of Korean folk songs mostly hail Jeolla and Chungcheong Provinces. The common musical genres of Namdo category are sanjo and pansori songs; these songs are rich and dramatic. Pansori songs are percussive and long vocal music that are played by a single singer and drummer. The narrators in the pansori genre usually play all the characters in the song storyline, sometimes accompanied by the drummist. Pansori lyrics tell different stories, which are individualized by each performer, sometimes punctuated by audience participation and jokes.

Sanjo is a genre of Namdo that is played without a pause, usually in a faster tempo. Sanjo is entirely instrumental, with changes in melodic and rhythmic modes during individual works, and the tempo rises in each movement. Sanjo is identifiable by a general style of slides in slow movements, yet it faster movement in rhythmic complexity.

Pungmul is the other genre of Korean folk music; it is a form of percussion music that includes singing, drumming and dancing. Most the Pungmul performances are conducted outside with a relatively smaller number of players, all in constant motion.

Nongak genre refers to a traditional Korean farmers music, an important genre that was developed by peasants agriculture society of Korea. The genre is performed by farmers in a characteristic open area village, with the organization varying based on the performing groups and the locality. In Korea today, Nangok is played in different styles that involves many instruments, different dancing styles and different formational changes, with dancers/players adorned in different types of artistic formats according to their levels of skills.

Jeongak traditional music genre, sometimes called Chongak is played through vocal and instrumental music that are mainly adopted from the upper-class literati of the Joseon society. Jeongok has a few commonalities with court music, except that it does not incorporate various court dances. Jeongak vocals are usually sung in kagok style, a style that has mixed female and male singers, and is accompanied by different instruments.

Shinawi genre of traditional Korean music is performed during a Korean shaman ritual dances. The performances are intended to console deities, a belief that is largely practiced in the southwest region of Korea. In other regions, shinawi traditional music is performed at folk religious ceremonies, also known as kut. Shinawi formats are relatively loose, having several dancers, who are at some points united, while dispersed on stage at times, resulting in the uniqueness of these performances.

Salpuri is the other genre of traditional Korean music, a shamanistic ritual dance that is performed as an exorcism for evil spirits. The performance style for salpuri is serene and simple. The performance costumes include long scarfs with fluid lines that express lines of fingers and arms of the dancers, sprawled from one corner to the other of the space, while utilizing the space vastness.

In addition to types of Korean folk music that are traceable and categorized by regions of origin, there are court music which cut across regions and are performed through the country. The three main types of court music are Aak, Hyang-ak and Dang-ak. Aak are special category of music that are used in specific ritual ceremonies, most often the Sacrifice to Confucius in Seoul. Dang-ak music originated from the Tang dynasty, and has influence from both Chinese and Korean cultures. Hyang-ak music is native to Korean, such as Sujecheon, which is a piece of instrument that is as old as old as 1300 years.

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Korean Traditional Instruments

The instruments that are used in Korean traditional music and dances can be placed into three broad categories; mainly the percussion instruments, the wind instruments and the string instruments. The percussion instruments include the buk (which is a barrel drum), jing (a large hanging gong), the janggu (which implies an hourglass drum) and kkwaenggwari (which is a hand-held gong). Both the janggu and the bak are considered as percussion Tang. The percussion court music instruments are however different, and the instruments include pyeongyeong (which are stone chimes), eo (which is a tiger-shaped scraper), chuk (which is made in the shape of a square wooden box, and usually has a mallet), and pyeongjong (bronze bells).

The wind instruments that are used in Korean traditional music includes piri (the cylindrical oboe), the daegeum (a considerably larger transverse flute) and the grass flute; all these three wind instruments are called wind folk. The wind Tang category of wind instruments includes the vertical flute, the Chinese oboe and the shawm. The wind court instrument category includes ocarina (hun), panpipes, the mouth organ (saenghwang), flute, a small-notched vertical flute (danso) and the flute with mouthpiece.

The string instrument category has string fold instrument category, the string Tang category and the court string music category. The string fold category has 12-string zither (popular as gayageum) and the 6-string plucked zither (geomungo). In the string Tang category are 2-string vertical fiddle (haegum) and the 7-string zither (ajaeng). Court string music entails use of 25-string zither and 7-string zither.

Orchestrated Korean Traditional Music in TV drama

Certain traditional Korean performances such as Fusion Gugak and Chanjak-gugak experiment closely with the western music, resulting in their popularity and orchestration in TV dramas. Preforming groups such as SOREA and Miso tend to catch the attention of younger audience, resulting in rigorously choreographed performances and fascination of the audiences. The Soundtracks of Korean TV Dramas (OST) have always entailed the traditional music such as Fision Gugak. Korean official institutions, such as the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) prefer to use Fusion Gugak music, a typical traditional music to introduce Korea to the foreigners. However, the orchestrated traditional Korean music in TV dramas are sometimes mixed with western musical instruments such as the keyboards and the western type drums, which erode the original meanings in the traditional Korean music.

For nearly a century now, Korean films have been based on the traditional Korean music. Films made in the 1935 were based on pansori storyline. Since then, subsequent films have been based on traditional Korean music story lines, including Chunhyang (produced in 2000), Kwaegeol (a comic drama produced in 2005) and the film Bangjajeon; all these film are based on the original pansori storyline, which was passed down through Korean traditional music.

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How Korean Music is reflected in the Korean Culture

As Killick explains, traditional Korean music has been an intrinsic part of the everyday lives of the Koreans. In link with the culture, some of the traditional Korean music dances were created for geishas, a professional group of dancers that performed for the upper class community, a culture that is still evidenced to date in Korea. Korea society is segmented into social classes, and there still exist tendencies for the upper to have performances exclusively in their settings. The traditional Korean music and dances are further reflected in the agrarian life that accounted for most of the populations. Today, farmers in the rural parts of Korea still engage in traditional performances, which are heavily related to harvesting and other farming activities, as it were centuries ago.

Traditional songs mirror on the shamanistic influences that have occurred over the years in Korea. The Koreans who lived centuries ago had deity for nearly everything in nature, including mountains, trees, rivers, villages and even important people in the society. The traditional songs today remind the modern-day Koreans of these practices with their shamanistic influences. Through music and dance, the modern-day Koreans can understand how the past generations prayed for good fortunes through nature, a culture that immensely influence environmental conservation among Koreans today. In the last forty years, Koreans have been active in exposing their roots and culture, which has resulted in revitalizing these songs that were in the past centuries. Consequently, there are many traditional Korean performances, which are intended to enhance understanding of the Korean roots and culture.


This research paper attempted to explore traditional Korean music and its role in reflecting the culture of Koreans. Review of the extant literature revealed a number of findings, notably the different types of traditional Korean folk songs and some of the instruments that play these folk songs. Different genres of Korean folk songs are based on regions from where they originated, and the roles they served in the originating communities or regions; such as songs that were original performed during farming activities. It is now several centuries since these songs were first, yet their performances today reflect on culture and roots of Koreans. The traditional Korean songs reveal the origins of Koreans, their existence in the past, and their identity, demystifying the misunderstandings that Korean culture is either Japanese or Chinese culture. This discussion has similarly demonstrated how Korean musicians attempt to harness historic realities through performances of the traditional Korean songs. The songs stage supportive conceptual foundations and as a result spur identity among the Korean listeners, most of who are oblivious of their Korean roots.

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