Korea – The Rough Guide to World Music | Songlines
Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Rough Guide to World Music: Korea

By Rob Provine , Keith Howard

The Korean musical identity can be traced to the fifth century, and has been well documented since the fifteenth century, as Rob Provine and Keith Howard reveal


Korean gayageum (plucked zither) master Byungki Hwang (photo: Kuk Sooyong)

Note that this Rough Guide to World Music article has not been updated since it was originally published. To keep up-to-date with the best new music from around the world, subscribe to Songlines magazine

Too often overshadowed by its neighbours, this small divided peninsula on Asia’s northeast coast retains its own proudly distinct music styles. South Korea has a vibrant and stylistically wide-ranging musical life, and is home to the third largest music market in Asia. North Korea, by contrast, echoes to ideologically approved music that tends towards the banal, and is politically straitjacketed in a “light music” style. Although this seems imitative of Soviet pop, in reality it has its roots in 1930s Korean pentatonic songs. Rob Provine introduces Korea’s ancient traditions, while Keith Howard looks, south and north, at the distinctive contemporary sounds.


A distinct Korean musical identity can be traced to the fifth century, and has been well documented since the fifteenth century. State institutions charged with preserving and teaching court music have been in operation since the seventh century; their current direct descendant is the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul. Japanese colonization in the first half of the twentieth century left a large recorded legacy of Korean music, early popular songs and Western imports.

The subsequent widespread adoption of Western culture has ironically fuelled nostalgia for local arts, which have enjoyed revival and updating in recent decades. This began in the 1960s with government sponsorship of ­performance arts as “Intangible Cultural Assets”, and as student demonstrations against military rule appropriated folk music, updating it as minjung munhwa, a “culture of the masses”. By the early 1970s, p’ungmul (farmers’ band percussion music) had almost died out, but now you can find it everywhere, among students and striking factory workers, and in an updated urban staged form, samulnori. Shops in Seoul, meanwhile, are bursting with traditional musical instruments, and music teachers are enjoying prosperous times.

Traditional Music

Korean traditional music has several strands, the most formal of which are courtaristocratic and religious music.

Court Music

Korean court music is mostly orchestral, highly refined, and an acquired taste. But it has a majesty and integrity all its own and a very long heritage, dating back to the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910).

The main place you’ll hear live court music today is the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul, where highly-trained musicians preserve, perform, and teach traditional music and dance. Regular performances there feature the better-known court music and dance pieces, which can be bought on dozens of CDs at the shop inside. Court rituals are still performed annually at the shrines to Confucius and Royal Ancestors. Mixed court and folk performances regularly take place for tourists at several other concert venues in Seoul, while each province and city, and some twenty universities have traditional performing orchestras.

Court music was originally divided into Chinese ritual music (aak), Koreanized music of Chinese origin (tangak) and indigenous music (hyangak). Aak was introduced to Korea from China in 1116 and has since been revived and transformed. Contemporary aak traces its ancestry back to a reconstruction of 1430, using Chinese written melodies from the twelfth century. Today, there are just two surviving melodies totalling about eight minutes of extremely slow, stark and stately music, played only at the semi-annual Rite to Confucius in Seoul and in concerts at the National Center. This music uses only ritual instruments of Chinese origin, including the extraordinary sets of sixteen tuned bronze bells (p’yŏnjong) and stone chimes (p’yŏn’gyŏng). The tangak repertoire also consists of only two short orchestral pieces, known as Nagyangch’un (Springtime in Luoyang) and Pohŏja (Pacing the Void).

A good example of hyangak is the fifteen-minute banquet piece Sujech’ŏn (Long Life According with Heaven). Its lead instruments – none of which are used in aak – are the loud, oboe-like p’iri, the two-stringed haegŭm fiddle and the seven-stringed ajaeng zither, the latter bowed with a rosined stick instead of horsehair, producing a strikingly raspy and penetrating sound. Other important orchestral pieces are the slow-moving eighty-minute Yŏmillak (Pleasure with the People), which employs the largest traditional orchestra, complete with bells and chimes, and Ch’wit’a (Blowing and Beating), regularly paced music originally for military use. A special type of hyangak is the two suites of pieces performed at the annual Rite to Royal AncestorsPot’aep’yŏng (Preserving the Peace) and Chŏngdaeŏp (Founding the Dynasty). Originally composed and arranged in the fifteenth century to replace supposedly Chinese aak with something more appealing to the royal ancestors in question, the music now performed is still closely related to five-hundred-year-old notations.

Aristocratic Music

Aristocratic chamber music (chŏngak) was originally intended as informal entertainment for members of the ruling class; by the eighteenth century, however, it had become associated with an emerging middle class. It comprises both instrumental ensemble music and vocal music.

The purely instrumental repertoire consists almost entirely of various versions (for strings, wind or mixed ensembles) of one suite of pieces called Yŏngsan hoesang (Preaching on Spirit Mountain). The music starts at an amazingly slow pace, but towards the end – about fifty minutes later – builds to more cheerful dance pieces known as T’aryŏng and Kunak. The chief aristocratic vocal music, known as kagok, comprises 25 complex and lengthy pieces for singers accompanied by strings, wind and percussion. The lyrics of another genre, shijo, consist simply of three-line poems. Often performed only by a singer and drummer, and lasting around four minutes, the aristocracy once composed and sang shijo at parties.

Religious Music

The music played for the Rite to Confucius and the Rite to Royal Ancestors is in the Confucian tradition – ceremonial but not, strictly speaking, religious. Korean religious music belongs to the native shamanistic and imported Buddhist traditions, although in recent decades attempts have been made to create a Korean Christian music, notably through the group Yegahoe (Christian Praise Society).

The traditional repertoire of Buddhist chant consists of three main types: highly complex, extended chants (pŏmp’ae) performed by highly trained singers; rapid sutra chanting (yŏmbul) performed by monks and followers; and Korean-language folk-style music (hwach’ŏng) on Buddhist themes. Today, pŏmp’ae is rarely heard outside formal services, but yŏmbul is everywhere, usually sung on recordings by a solo monk accompanied only by a small wooden bell (mokt’ak) or gong (ching). Beginning with the meditative album Son by Kim Young Dong in 1989, Buddhist “light music” setting sutras as children’s songs and hymns proliferated during the 1990s and today is sold in most temples.

Shamanistic music comes in two main forms: vocal chanting of texts (muga) and instrumental improvisation (shinawi) – the latter may include a vocalist singing lexically meaningless syllables. Shinawi can be rather like Dixieland jazz, with animated rhythms on changgo (a double-headed hourglass drum) coupled to several melody instruments playing simultaneously, creating a raucous, swaying and danceable polyphony. Shinawi spawned a concert form during the first decades of the twentieth century, moving it away from ritual, and this latter form features on many CD releases.

Korean Folk

In Korea, “folk music” spans the gamut from what ordinary people play and sing to highly professional genres. What holds it together is a consistent and easily recognizable set of rhythmic patterns and a less well-defined set of melodic modes. You can see regular performances of local folk songs, percussion bands, mask-dance plays and staged shamanic rituals at several outdoor venues in Seoul and its environs. Shinawi, p’ansori and sanjo are essentially indoor forms performed in standard concert venues and at annual festivals in Chŏnju and Namwŏn, cities to the south of Seoul.

P’ansori and Sanjo

One of the most striking folk genres, p’ansori is performed by a single singer and drummer (playing a puk barrel drum). A story, presented in song, mime and narration, may continue for five or more hours. For each song, the singer cues the drummer to a particular rhythmic cycle. The drummer (and often the audience) reacts to the singer with shouts of encouragement.

There are only five traditional stories in the active p’ansori repertoire, supplemented by a rapidly evolving contemporary repertoire. Years of difficult training are required for this demanding form: singers, by tradition, practise near a loud waterfall or in large caves to develop the powerful voice required. It really is grassroots music – intricate, rough-edged, enormously appealing and popular. Famous p’ansori singers include Pak Tongjin (d. 2003), Sŏng Ch’angsunCho Sanghyŏn, and Ahn Sooksun.

The instrumental form sanjo arranges rhythmic patterns and melodic modes in a standard order from slow to fast. Drawing melodic and expressive inspiration from p’ansori and shamanic shinawi, sanjo sets a melodic instrument against a changgo rhythmic accompaniment. A single sanjo lasts anything from ten minutes to an hour, and is popularly played on the kayagŭm, a twelve-stringed plucked zither; the kŏmun’go, a six-stringed plectrum-plucked zither; the taegŭm, a transverse bamboo flute; the p’iri, the haegŭm and the ajaeng. Although there are different schools of sanjo, they are all traced back to Kim Ch’angjo (d. 1918). Performers to look out for include Chaesuk LeeYang Seung HeeMun Chaesuk (all kayagŭm), Yi Saenggang (taegŭm), and Wŏn Kwangho (kŏmun’go).

Describing the instrumental ­ornamentation in these solo styles, Byungki Hwang (see box on p.663) observes: “What is essential when playing a melody on the kayagŭm is the vibrato and the microtonal shading on the notes. If a melody drops down you can think of it like a waterfall: the bottom note needs to vibrate in the way that water bubbles at the bottom of a waterfall. This is something that gives Korean music its special character.”

Folk Song

Korean folk song comes in several varieties – chief among them being local min’yo (folk songs proper), categorized according to several regional melodic modes corresponding to dialect areas; the professional shin min’yo (new folk songs); and chapka (miscellaneous songs) with more fixed melodies. Min’yo from Seoul and the central area are generally in a lyrical and simple pentatonic mode and have a gently moving tempo. Those from the southwest are more expressive and often very sad, using a mainly tritonic melodic mode called kyemyŏnjo (also much used in p’ansori and sanjo), while the northwest uses a more nasal voice with considerable rubato. Favourite songs are the central “Arirang”, the southwestern “Yukchabaegi” and the northwestern “Sushimga”.


One of the most appealing and increasingly international forms of Korean music is p’ungmul (in older texts called nongak). This raucous, complicated genre has dirt under its musical fingernails. In its full form, it consists of twenty or more percussionists playing small gongs (kkwaenggwari), large ching gongs, puk and changgo drums, and acrobatic dancing.

Percussion quartet SamulNori (photo: CMP Records)

Since the late 1970s, small samulnori percussion groups deriving their style from p’ungmul have become very popular among Korea’s urban population, with some travelling widely abroad. The best known is the quartet SamulNori, which created and gave its name to this new genre. These groups play complex percussion music at a professional level, and many contemporary concerts of traditional music feature it as a climax. To see these musicians dancing, wearing hats with long swirling ribbons, is truly spectacular. SamulNori have continued their pioneering role, joining forces with rock and jazz musicians such as SXL and Red Sun to create fusion music, and performing as soloists in concertos with Korean and Western orchestras.

Contemporary Traditions

Since 2001, GugakFM (99.1 FM in Korea or streamed from www.gugakfm.co.kr) has broadcast traditional Korean music with a twist. Much of the programming consists of new versions of older music: for the 2002 World Cup, one of its programmes mixed jazz piano and Korean percussion, rock, opera, samulnori and new compositions. Today, close to half of all traditional Korean concerts include one or more new compositions, which are celebrated in an annual Gugak Festival.

Flautist and composer Kim Young Dong initiated many of the creative moves, starting with songs in the 1970s, moving to film and TV drama scores, then to instrumental compositions and ambient meditation music. Most of his music neatly combines East and West by juxtaposing melodies sung or played on iconic Korean instruments with guitar and keyboard harmonies. Kim Soochul followed suit with his million-selling soundtrack to the 1993 film Seopyonje.

Over a twenty-year period, the crossover group Seulgidoong have produced a series of vocal and instrumental albums that mix old and new. “Shin paennorae”, a West Coast fishing song arranged by Won Il, is perhaps their greatest success to date. Their haegŭm player, Soonyon Chung, has single-handedly popularized her instrument among teenagers, and in 2003 their former singer Yong Woo Kim reached the pop charts with his album of updated folksongs, Chilkkonaengi. Other significant groups are The LimDasureumKuunmong, and anything involving jazz pianist Yang Bang Eun, Won Il, or composer/pianist Lim Dong Chang.

Fusion is increasingly the name of the game. The traditional kayagŭm zither is now heard in quartets (notably Sagye), for whom arrangements of Bach and Vivaldi are as fashionable as Korean arrangements and original compositions, while a kayagŭm orchestra recently released an album of Beatles songs. Not all of these experiments work: the pentatonic tuning of Korean instruments hampers the playing of heptatonic Western scales. Composers have attempted to develop traditional instruments, increasing pitch ranges, making them heptatonic and increasing their volume. The twelve-stringed kayagŭm, for example, first became larger (for theatre use), then smaller (for children to play); then it evolved into seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one and twenty-five stringed versions.

Korean Pop

“Korea wave” (Hallyu, also known as “K-wave”) swept Asia at the dawn of the new millennium. As Time reported in July 2002:

Teenagers from Tokyo to Taipei swoon over performers such as singer Park Ji Yoon and boy band Shinhwa … “Korea is the next epicenter of pop culture in Asia”, says Jessica Kam, vice-president for MTV Networks Asia.

That year, BoA became the first Korean solo artist to have both a debut single and album top Japan’s pop charts, and the Korean domestic music market had a turnover of $300 million, primarily from pop music by the likes of boy bands god (Groove Over Dose) and H.O.T., who sold ten million albums in their seven-year existence.


Think of a constantly repeating foxtrot rhythm (ppongtchak, ppongtchak), and this onomatopoeic word becomes clear. It was formerly called yuhaengga and taejung kayo, a song style akin to Japanese enka that emerged in Korea in the 1920s. Ppongtchak are fixed in solid duple meter, contrasting with the dominance of triple meter in traditional music. The first examples set Korean words to foreign melodies, “Glorification of Death”, recorded by the soprano Yun Shimdŏk in 1926 and using a melody by Ivanovich being particularly well-known. Ppongtchak blossomed with the growth of the recording industry, continuing after the defeat of Japan brought Korean independence in 1945.

One of the most prominent singers in recent decades has been Lee Mi-ja, whose career began in the 1950s. Her “Tongbaek Agassi/Camellia Maiden”, released in 1964 but later banned by the South Korean ethics committee because of supposedly overt Japanese “colour”, is particularly typical. Today, ppongtchak remains popular where the elderly gather to gossip and dance. It is often the background music played in cafés and on buses, and a staple of local karaoke machines. Famous singers include Nam JinNa Huna, Choo Hyun-mi (the “Queen of Trot”) and E-Pak-Sa (the stage name of Yi Yongsŏk).

American Influences

The Korean War (1950–53) brought many American servicemen to Korea, and from 1951 the American Forces Korea Network (AFKN) broadcast American popular music across the peninsula. Many Korean stars such as Patti KimYun Pokhŭi and Hyŏn Mi began their careers singing in military clubs. They imitated popular styles across the Pacific and added supposedly “Oriental” songs such as “Slow Boat to China” and “China Night”. The Kim Sisters went on to travel to America; they were known for playing Korean instruments and singing folksongs such as “Arirang” and “Toraji t’aryŏng/Bellflower Song”, as well as American songs. By the 1960s, American styles were Koreanized in, for example, “Toraji Mambo” and “Nilliri Mambo”.

The American folk revival was mirrored in Korean t’ong guitar, songs accompanied by acoustic guitar. From the late 1960s, this style often fused covers of American songs with elements of the earlier ppongtchak. Rather than war and nuclear destruction, the lyrics spoke of love, or the emerging urban youth culture. More political songs arose away from the mainstream, within what became known as the Norae Undong (Song Movement). Political oppression led college students to develop alternative styles, fuelled by pro-democracy movements and festivals that promoted the local over the foreign. Kim Min’gi (b.1951) was arrested for fomenting anti-government sentiment in 1972 by singing his “Kkot p’iunŭn ai/A Child Growing a Flower”.

By the 1980s t’ong guitar had transformed into ballads sung by teen heart-throb stars, which have remained a permanent feature of Korean pop, often coupled to soft rock. Cho Young Pil was perhaps the best-known male singer in the 1980s, while Kim Hyun Chul and Shin Seung Hoon led in the 1990s. Lee Sun-Hee is one of the most enduring female ballad singers.

Rap, Punk and Dance

In March 1992, Seo Taiji devised a grammar for Korean rap and kick-started contemporary pop production, launching a solo career in 1996. An underground heavy metal scene had developed in the 1980s, and Seo started his career in one such band, Shinawe. As travel restrictions were lifted and satellite TV introduced, Koreans began to learn about contemporary American pop trends. Albums by 015B and Shin Hae Chul and his group N.EX.T freely mixed jazz, metal, latin, acoustic and rap. The 1990s pop scene was characterized by appropriation, diversification and expansion of the market. Music videos arrived with the first domestic reggae track, Kim Gun Mo’s “P’inggye/Excuse”. In 1994 the group Roo’ra combined reggae with rap. Later, hip-hop, dance and techno came to dominate.

Punk took to the underground in the mid 1990s, with bands such as Crying Nut, Yellow Kitchen and No Brain laying claim to Koreanized punk. The mainstream has remained much softer, with dance groups such as CLON, H.O.T., ShinhwaS.E.S. and the female Fin.K.L, and soloists such as Yoo Seungjun dominating video space before BoA’s debut. Today, chasing shrinking album sales in the world’s most broadband-savvy country, Korean pop is ever-changing. Current stars M.C.MongRainSe7enand SG Wanabee are likely to be history by the time you read this.

North Korea – Follow-my-Leader

North Korean music is difficult to obtain beyond the hermetically sealed borders of this totalitarian state. Occasional websites in Japan and elsewhere, and the Pyongyang-based Korea Publications Exchange Association, offer songs to download or buy on CD, but the massive output of the state-run recording company, KMC, has proved impossible to track down in its entirety. Between them, the two state-sponsored pop groups, Wanjaesan Light Music Band and Pochonbo Electric Ensemble, claim to have published 180 CDs. Both bands have existed since the 1980s and, continuing a Stalinist socialist tradition, are named after supposedly famous battle sites where the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, allegedly defeated hordes of Japanese imperialists during 1930s colonial rule. Other recordings appear on the Songs of Korea series (which ostensibly runs to 64 albums).

After World War II, many left-leaning artists moved to the northern state; many were mercilessly purged as ideology shifted towards the notion of proletarian artists. Kim noted that musicians had “lost touch with life” and lagged behind “rapidly advancing reality”. The first new song to meet his approval, “The Song of General Kim Il Sung”, was written in 1947 by the farmer Kim Wŏn’gyun (b. 1917); the same composer then wrote the (northern) national anthem. Revolutionary songs and orchestral tone poems became the only music permitted until the late 1950s, when, following the Chinese Great Leap Forward, musicians were sent to the countryside to learn (and rewrite the words to) folk songs. In the 1970s came “revolutionary operas” and “people’s operas”, with the former extolling “immortal” triumphs of the leadership, and the latter, achievements of the populace. The first opera was Sea of Blood, followed by The Flower Girl and A True Daughter of the Party – these are still performed today by a collective known as the Sea of Blood Opera Company.

Traditional instruments have all been revised in keeping with official dogma: North Koreans refer to these as “improved” (kaeryang) instruments, capable of playing both Korean and Western music. Thus, the kayagŭm zither has grown from twelve to twenty-one strings, with nylon replacing the silk strings of old, while the single two-stringed haegŭm fiddle has developed into four distinct four-stringed instruments corresponding to the violin, viola, cello and bass of a Western orchestra. The kŏmun’go zither, long associated with the aristocracy rather than with popular culture, was abandoned. These adapted traditional instruments feature in operas, are sometimes used to accompany folk songs, and are taught and performed at “children’s palaces” and at the Pyongyang Music and Dance College.

Strict ideological control is maintained over all music production and performance. Apart from those already mentioned, the best-known groups are the Mansudae Art Troupe and the various bands and choirs attached to the People’s Army; the primary Western orchestra is known either as the State Symphony Orchestra or the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ideology favours songs, which by definition are popular, and thousands have been written that mix the earlier ppongtchak style with conservative Western styles. Song titles give a taste of the joys: “Tankers and Girls”, “My Homeland is Bright under the Star and Sun”, “We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly”, “Song Of Snipers”, “The Joy Of Bumper Harvest Overflows”, “The World Envies Us” and so on. Even today, there can be no mention of political oppression, economic collapse, or the desperate hunger that many millions have faced. Indeed, some songs cock a snook at the world outside, such as Wangjaesan’s “Socialism is Ours”, popularized after the unification of Germany:

We go straight along the path we have chosen,

Though others forsake, we remain faithful.

Socialism is ours, socialism is ours,

Socialism defended by our Party’s red flag is ours.

Even love songs must be ideologically correct, so “The Girl I Love” runs:

It is good if a girl has a nice figure,

But better if she is an able worker and good-natured with it;

I like a girl who makes life pleasant

By singing the songs of creation!

Songs become the basis for mass gymnastics and dancing displays for holidays, festivals and the birthdays of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) and the Dear Leader (his son Kim Jong Il); distributed to artistic units in every school and factory, activists teach them with appropriate dancing steps.

Kim Il Sung died in 1994, just as CD publishing got going in Pyongyang, and the resulting impasse allowed KMC to briefly publish albums of folk songs and foreign songs (on Wangjaesan’s 23rd–45th albums) until Kim Jong Il gained absolute control. In 1997, production resumed its sound ideological footing with Wangjaesan 46, Pochonbo 84 and Songs of Korea 56. And there it solidly remains, caught in a veritable time warp of denial.

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