The Koreans are very fond of music. In ancient Chinese texts, Koreans were described in the “Legend of the Eastern Barbarians” as people who liked to dance and have a good time at musical festivals. Research has indicated that many forms of classical music and folk music heard in Korea today have their origins in the Three Kingdoms (57 B.C. to A.D. 668) and Silla dynasty (A.D. 676 to 936) periods. Even though many traditional Korean instruments were derived from Chinese instruments, Korean music has a very distinct triple meter sound not found in China and Japan.

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Korean music and dance evolved over three thousand years from the religious ceremonies of shamanism and Buddhism and often were linked to the agricultural cycle. Traditional music has two genres: Chong'ak ("correct music"), a genre of chamber music with a leisurely tempo and a meditative character, and minsok'ak (folk music), characterized by spontaneity and emotionality. Among folk instrumental music, samul nori has been the most popular form since the 1970s. The primarily percussive music is played on gongs made of bronze and leather and double-headed hourglass and barrel drums. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In English, birds sing. In Korean, birds cry. Traditional Korean songs are plaintive — played in minor keys. Korea's national folk song — Arirang — is a simple four verse song expressing frustration, disappointment and hardship. There are four regional versions of the song: the most common one is about a man who has to walk a long distance to see the woman he loves.

Importance of Rhythm in Korean Music

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korean children traditionally grew up hearing percussion patterns all around them, from chopsticks being beaten on the wineshop table to the sounds of their mothers "ironing" clothes by pounding them with flat wooden sticks, and the drumming of village musicians. Percussion, in fact, is a major element in Korean music and was an indispensable part of nong'ak, or "farmers' music," a form of entertainment and celebration in rural Korea that was performed by touring bands of musicians and has recently been revived as an authentic Korean art form. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Nongak is a form of folk music, a genre that includes folk songs (minyo) that express the joys and sorrows of rural life in traditional Korea. But whereas folk songs stress storytelling and melody (and most of the songs were never written down and are long forgotten), the rhythms of the folk songs have endured in a kind of national subconscious, being repeated and learned over and over again by successive generations. Some of the rhythms had to do with work, for example, cooperative projects like plowing and digging and pounding. Though vestiges of work songs continued into modern times, as in the "Oisha, oisha" chant of men rocking a car to get it free of the mud, for example, the mechanization of work in Korea has made rhythmic singing and chanting less a part of daily life.

“One of the most unforgettable styles of rhythm in the countryside was the funeral chant used by pallbearers as they carried the coffin of their friend or loved one to the burial site. These chants differed from village to village, but they normally consisted of verses and a refrain that gave the leader a chance to sing short stanzas about the deceased and for everyone else to join in on the chorus. Villagers learned the community chant in early childhood and grew up hearing and watching the organized grief that accompanied village funerals, with rhythms and singing as essential components. The night before the burial itself the strong men of the village would rehearse their chant by torchlight, sending chills up and down the spines of onlookers. In the morning the body in the coffin would be carried on a bier through the alleyways of the village and out across the fields that the dead man had owned, and finally to a carefully selected site on a hill above the village for burial. The prescribed ritual gave everyone a role to play and impressed upon the participants the importance of family life and community support. Among the important lessons for the children was the inculcation of music as a part of life and death.

Singing and Folk Music in South Korea

The Koreans love to sing. Guests at parties are often asked to step up to a microphone and sing a song, and a popular weekend pastime is having a few drinks with some friends and singing karaoke-style at a noraebang (singing room). In the old days, Koreans sang and danced to the accompaniment of drums and flutes in the fields, and even on construction sites. Sometimes, you can still see grandmas singing and bouncing up and down to ponchack music on long distance bus trips.

Korea has a rich heritage of folk songs, including funeral and ritual laments and songs associated with agricultural chores such as winnowing barely, planting rice, and weeding the paddies as well as spinning and weaving. Each region has a somewhat distinctive singing style, the two best known being the light and clear style of the central region and the husky elaborate style from the Honam region in the southwest. Sinawai, improvised music based on shaman rituals, comes from southern Korea.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Singing is an essential part of social life in Korea. Like all civilizations, Korea has its own rich store of children's songs, love songs, folk ballads, and chants. These tunes and lyrics are part of the bond that unites Koreans and makes them feel like part of their shared community. There are children's songs about bunnies, Buddhist songs about going to the "Western Paradise" in a boat made of a crescent moon, romantic songs about being away from home, drinking songs, and songs about being in love. Koreans love to sing. Karaoke is only the latest version of informal entertainment that Koreans have always provided for each other, taking turns singing solos for friends at virtually any social occasion. Korean children are often told to sing for their elders and then are praised lavishly for doing so, and they grow up confident in their singing skills and ability to entertain others with their individual repertoires.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Younger generations of Koreans live in cities and have missed out on many of the opportunities their parents had to enjoy and learn the basic rhythms of Korean music through village rituals and celebrations. Recognizing this, university students have struggled to preserve their national musical heritage by forming music clubs and drumming societies that practice folk singing, dancing, and drumming during leisure hours, creating sounds that greatly enrich the atmosphere on Korean campus afternoons. On many afternoons at Seoul's Yonsei University, for example, Korean folk music societies meet in a large grove on one of the campus hills to tap out the rhythms on their gongs and drums. The percussion of the enthusiastic young performers is a pleasing counterpoint to the cacophony of construction equipment, passing trains, buses, and car horns. University students spontaneously study Korean folk music because they want to make it part of their own lives. The Korean government, for its part, has institutionalized the preservation of nongak by funding folk music groups, dance troupes, and "living national treasures," musicians and performers whose skills maintain the tradition. Although some argue that government-sponsored preservation means political control of "approved" art forms — and that, in fact, "folk tradition" belongs entirely to the people and should be free to evolve — cultural preservation has saved much of what is left of Korean music.”

Shaman Rituals and Korean Music and Dance

Shaman use various techniques to put themselves into trances: taking hallucinogenic drugs, asphyxiating themselves, and/or being taken over by hypnotic drums, dance rhythms or chants. When in a trance they have visions, speak in strange voices or languages, communicate with dead ancestors, gods, demons and natural spirits, and receive instruction from them about how to help the person who has sought the shaman's help.

Shaman rituals in Korea are often held in front of shrines or altar in the shaman's house, where the shaman goes into trance, is possessed by spirits, shakes and trembles, and speaks in strange languages. They often dance to the rhythm of gongs and drums, and ring a bell, and sometimes perform feats such as walking on the blades of knives without hurting themselves.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: The nucleus of Korean shamanism is the [kut] gut ceremony. It can be a private, individual ceremony, which, for example, is aimed at curing a disease, ensuring longevity or paving the way to the after-world. This kind of ceremony can also be addressed to a deceased person. A gut ceremony can also be a grandiose, communal happening. A village gut may, for example, aim to ensure a good harvest, or luck for the fishermen, or to cure an epidemic illness. Serious, ritualistic sections are combined with more entertaining dance and music numbers. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Kut include songs, dances, and incantations that are performed at various places to secure good fortune, cure illnesses, or guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “For the kut the shaman is dressed in special clothing, wears a special hat, and is armed with tools, usually a sword or a trident. She holds a collection of small bells and shakes them while a nearby drummer beats a rhythm. She calls the spirit that is thought to be causing the trouble and tries to start a conversation with it. As the shaman performs the kut she works herself into a semihysterical state that suggests that her powers are fully engaged. She dances energetically, jumping and twirling. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

She chants, shouts, and sings. She wields her weapons and shakes her bells. At times she may try to show that she has reached the supernatural state by doing supernatural things, such as walking barefoot on the upturned blade of her sword. If a sacrificial animal (usually a pig) is involved in the kut, she may balance the dead pig on the vertical sword without using any other means of support. These things heighten the sense of dread and magic in the kut and demonstrate the shaman's power over the spirit world. There are many different kinds of kut and not all of them involve such unusual displays.

Traditional Korean Music

Traditional music in Korea — sometimes called Hanguk Eumak — has its own unique characteristics and has traditionally used in court settings and religious rituals, combined with prayer and dance. Concerts showcasing traditional court and temple music are sometimes It has been said that Koreans have lyrical sensibility and use music to express their emotions. Traditional Korean music can be divided into music listened by the royal family and by the commoners, each differing greatly in style. Among the different styles are gullyeak (music used in military ceremonies), yeollyeak (court banquet music) and nongak (farmers music). Yeomillak (“Joy of the People”) was composed during the reign of King Sejong in the 15th century. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Jongmyo Jeryeak, royal ancestral ritual music, the representative royal court music and played during ancestral rites, was solemn and splendid. In contrast, the commoners and farmers who worked in the rice paddy or fields usually sung folk songs and pansori, a traditional Korean music that narrates a themed story. With a distinct, inimitable sound, rhythm, and singing technique, pansori was designated as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO. In recent years, traditional Korean music has been influenced by Korean pop music. There are fusion art troupes that combine traditional Korean music with contemporary music. Performances such as 'Nanta' and 'Gugak B-boy', were created through the mix of traditional Korean rhythms and rock music. Some of this fusion has gained attention abroad.

Traditional Korean music is typically classified into several types: the “legitimate music” (called jeongak or jeongga) enjoyed by the royalty and aristocracy of Chosun; folk music including pansori, sanjo and japga; jeongjae (court music and dance) performed for the King at celebratory state events; music and dance connected with shamanic and Buddhist traditions such as salpuri, seungmu, and beompae; and poetic songs beloved of the literati elite such as gagok and sijo. Of the numerous folk songs, Arirang””inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012"”is particularly cherished by the common people as there are many variations with special lyrics and melodies devised to touch their hearts. [Source:]

In the folk music category, the genre called nongak refers to the farmers band music performed with percussion and wind instruments. Also called pungmullori, it is a comprehensive art that combines singing, dancing, and acrobatics. This later became samullori(featuring four performers, each playing kkwaenggwari, jing, janggu, or buk), a modern adaptation of pungmul for staged performances.

The National Classical Music Institute is very active in preserving and promoting traditional Korean music. Some skilled musicians are recognized as "living national treasures." Korean folk songs, sometimes call "ballads", are very expressive. When one person is singing, many others support him or her in the chorus. It is said that this not because "a person who is good at singing has many followers" but rather because that "songs from the heart can evoke the strongest sympathetic response". Folk songs such as “Song of the Root of Balloon Flower," “Young Men from Ah Li," “By the Riverside of Noduoer” are well-known among Koreans in China. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

Traditional Instruments

The sound Korean music often depends on the instrument or human voice used to create the sound. There are about 60 traditional instruments in Korea. Some have local origins and date back as far as the 4th century; while others were adapted in Korea after having been introduced to Korea from the West or China. Though some of these instruments have not stood the test of time, others have only increased in popular throughout the passing years. In fact, there are 20 or so traditional instruments still widely used today. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Korean traditional instruments are made using locally available materials and are said to be merely carriers of the sound naturally produced by their materials. A text written in 1903 classifies Korean traditional musical instruments into eight groups based their materials: metal, string, bamboo, animal skin, wood, clay, gourd, and stone. Today, instruments are classified by the same system used in the west, i.e. according to how the sound is produced. Based on this system, traditional instruments are divided into wind, string, and percussion categories.

Korean traditional instruments can also be categorized according to the genre, which is generally defined by the occasion at which the music is performed/the instrument is used. Although there are many types of traditional Korean music under this system, Korean traditional music can be largely divided into the main groups of court music and folk music. Court music is, according to the type of ceremony, subdivided into Jeryeak (royal ancestral ritual music) and Gullyeak (music used in military ceremonies).

Instruments used in Korean classical music, traditionally enjoyed by the upper classes, include the taegum (a Korean wind instrument); the kayagum (a 12-string zither whose sound is produced by pressing the strings with the left hand and plucking them with the right); kumungo (traditional six-string Korean zither), ajaeng (seven-string zither); cholkayagum (12-metal-string zither); and pyenchong, (an instrument made up of 16 bronze bells first used in the 12th century). Other wind instruments include flutes, hollow vertical bamboo flutes and short vertical bamboo flutes. Among the copper wind instruments are suona horns and clanking horns.

Among the main three main categories are: 1) wind instruments such as the piri, daegeum, danso and taepyeongso; 2) stringed instruments such as the gayageum, geomungo, haegeum, ajaeng and bipa; and 3) percussion instruments such as the buk, janggu, pyeonjong, pyeongyeong, kkwaenggwari and jing. Instruments similar to the haegum include the samisen (Japan) kohyu (mainland Japan), Okinawan kohyu (Okinawa), erhu (China) and gidjak (Uzbekistan). Confucian temples sometimes host concerts of 500-year-old music played with an orchestra of flutes, oboes and stone chimes played by musicians and dancers in brightly-colored dragon and bird costumes. The music is similar to that played before Chosun dynasty kings. [Source:]


The most commonly played classical Korean instrument is the kayagum. Describing the music produced by this instrument Hwang Byung-ki told the Rough Guide to World Music, "The pieces have the beauty of the ages, like old and grand trees. There is no feeling of structure or climax...What you hear in this music is a natural rather than artificial beauty. What is essential when playing a melody on the kayagum is the vibrato and the microtanal shading on the notes. If a melody makes a leap a leap down you can think of it like a waterfall, and the bottom note needs to vibrate in the water bubbles at the bottom of a waterfall. This is what gives Korean music its special character."

Looking like a cross between a harp and an autoharp and related to the Chinese zheng and the Japanese koto, the kayagum is played flat on the floor. The kayagum and koto musical scale is pentatonic but does not include the sounds “re” and “so” in the Western seven-note scale. The instrument is tuned by moving the frets under the strings. Early versions of the kayagum were simply a piece of wood with strings pulled across it. Modern versions have a hollow body and are made mostly by hand. The koto was imported from China to Japan about 1300 years ago and was mentioned in the Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century. The earliest koto had only five strings (later six) and was about a meter long. In the Nara period (710-794), the thirteen-stringed koto, measuring about two meters in length, was introduced from China and used in the court music ensemble.

Dating back to the Silla Period (57 B.C. - A.D. 935), the kayagum comes in two types: one used in ceremonial classical music and one used in popular music. The former one is about 177 centimeters in length and 33 centimeters in width. Each has 12 strings, and each string has one post to adjust the pitch. The latter is around 152 centimeters long, and about 17-21 centimeters wide. Each has also 12 strings. The 18 string version has two pitches of 4 and 7 that were added to widen the range and increase the volume. When you the kayagum, put one end of the instrument on your knee, the other end on the floor. It can be played both as a solo and accompanying instrument.

Gagak and the Royal, Ancestral Ritual Music of Jongmyo Shrine

The term gugak, which literally means “national music,” refers to traditional Korean music and other related art forms including songs, dances and ceremonial movements. The history of music in Korea should be as long as Korean history itself, but it was only in the early 15th century, during the reign of King Sejong of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), that Korean music became a subject of serious study and was developed into a system, resulting in the creation of the oldest mensural notation system, called jeongganbo, in Asia. King Sejongs efforts to reform the court music led not only to the creation of Korea’s own notation system but also to the composition of a special ritual music to be performed during the Royal Ancestral Rite at the Jongmyo Shrine”, and Yeomillak. The term gugak was first used by the Jangagwon, a government agency of late Chosun responsible for music, to distinguish traditional Korean music from foreign music. [Source:]

Jongmyo Jeryeak, royal ancestral ritual music, is of representative royal court music and was played during ancestral rites. Royal Ancestral Rituals in Jongmyo Shrine and its Music were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity List in 2008. Jongmyo Jerye is a national ceremony held for the kings and queens of the Chosun Period in Jongmyo Shrine where the ancestral tablets are preserved. The ritual is conducted by chief priests who dressed formely for the ritual and prepared food and achohol for the ancestors. The ritual service is considered as an important symbol which is the foundation of national survival and the spirit of Korean, demonstrating filial peity toward the deceased, one of the valued concept in confucianism and a sense of unity of the whole nation. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Jongmyo Jeryeak, Royal Ancestral Ritual Music, was performed when the royal family held a ceremony for the repose of their ancestors in the Shrine, simply named 'Jongmyoak.' Traditional Korean instruments are used following the order of the ritual. According to UNESCO: “The Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul is the setting for a Confucian ritual dedicated to the ancestors of the Chosun dynasty (14th to the 19th century) that encompasses song, dance and music. The ritual is practised once a year on the first Sunday in May and is organized by the descendants of the royal family. It offers a unique example of a Confucian ritual, which is no longer celebrated in China. The tradition is inspired by classical Chinese texts concerning the cult of ancestors and the notion of filial piety. It also includes a prayer for the eternal peace of the ancestors’ spirits in a shrine conceived as their spiritual resting place. The order of the ceremony was defined in the fifteenth century and most elements have remained unchanged until today. [Source: UNESCO]

“During the rite, the priests, dressed in ritual costume with a crown for the king and diadems for the others, make offerings of food and wine in ritual vessels. The Jongmyo Jerye is music played to accompany the rituals and is performed on traditional instruments, such as gongs, bells, lutes, zithers and flutes. The dances are performed by 64 dancers in 8 lines representing the opposing yet complementary forces of Yin and Yang as set out in the Confucian texts.The Munmu dance, accompanied by the harmonious and soothing Botaepyong music, is characterized by a first step to the left. While the Munmu dance symbolizes the force of the Yang, the Mumu dance, accompanied by Jeongdaeeop music and characterized by a movement to the right, represents the force of the Yin. The ancestral ritual is nowadays often considered to be devoid of meaning, especially in the context of the growing importance of Christianity. However, the ritual and its music are protected through the National List of Intangible Heritage and the 1982 Law for the Protection of Cultural Property.

Gagok: Lyric Song Cycles Accompanied by an Orchestra

Gagok refers to a genre of Korean vocal music composed of traditional three-line poetry (sijo) and accompanied by an ensemble of native instruments, including of a twelve- or six-stringed zither and various percussion instruments. Most gagok songs are very slow, requiring a high level of concentration to control the tempo and many years of practice to perfect one's learning. The style was very strongly influenced by Korean’s characteristics of endurance and patience. Although the present form of gagok has transformed to include songs of a more fast-tempo variety, the majority of the songs still bear peaceful tunes of slow- to medium-tempo. Gagok was originally designed for aristocrats' taste, but as it became more widespread, many commoners also began to enjoy this music style. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

The major form of the songs has remained the same, largely distinguished into ‘namchang’ and ‘yeochang’ where the former is sung by a male vocalist while the latter is performed by female vocalist (nam- means man and yeo- means woman in Korean). The aforementioned Korean zithers (geomungo and gayageum) and bamboo flutes (daegeum, piri), combined with the fine voice of the singer, make the orchestra complete.

Gagok; Lyric Song Cycles Accompanied by an Orchestra was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2010. According to UNESCO: Gagok is a genre of traditional Korean vocal music sung by men and women to the accompaniment of a small orchestra, one of several forms of singing that together constitute ''jeongga,'' or ‘right song’. Formerly a music associated with the higher classes, Gagok is today widely popular throughout the country. Gagok comprises twenty-six ''namchang'' or songs for men, and fifteen ''yeochang'' or songs for women. ''Namchang'' are characterized by strong, deep, resonant voices, while ''yeochang'' are characterized by high-pitched, thin voices. Gagok songs are composed either in a solemn, peaceful key or a melancholic one, and use 10-beat or 16-beat rhythm. The traditional instrumentation of the orchestra includes the ''geomungo'' six-string zither, ''daegeum'' bamboo transverse flute, ''gayageum'' twelve-string zither and ''piri'' (small double-reed pipe). Gagok songs are acclaimed for their lyrical patterns, balance, refined melodies and advanced musical composition. Acquiring skill as a singer takes extensive time and effort and performance requires dedication and extreme control. Gagok is preserved and transmitted by practitioners, their communities and related organizations in local heritage training centres. Gagok has played an important role in the establishment of Korean identity.

Arirang: the National Folk Song of Korea

Korea's national folk song — “Arirang” — is a simple four verse song expressing frustration, disappointment and hardship. There are four regional versions of the song: the most common one is about a man who has to walk a long distance to see the woman he loves. The lyrics consists of the phrase ‘Arirang, arirang, arariyo’ and two simple lines, which differ from region to region.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ The "Arirang" lyric is “ostensibly sung by a girl whose lover is about to leave her to head over the mountains via "Arirang Pass": Arirang, Arirang, Ara-ri-yo, Heading over Arirang Pass, If you cast me away and leave me, You'll get footsore before you go ten li. The words to "Arirang" are amusing because of their petulance, but it is the haunting melody that enchants Koreans and has inspired variations and elaborations so that there is a special version of the song for many of Korea's different regions and counties. Composers have written adaptations for everything from brass ensembles to full orchestras. “ [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Arirang is said to sum up the outcome of collective contributions made by ordinary Koreans over many generations. While dealing with diverse universal themes, the simple musical and literary composition invites improvisation, imitation and singing in unison, encouraging its acceptance by different musical genres, giving opportunities to be sung and enjoyed by almost all Koreans. Arirang is also a popular subject and motif in diverse arts and media, including movies, musicals, dramas, dances and literatures. It is an evocative hymn with the power to enhance communication and unity among Korean people, whether at home or abroad.

Arirangs of North and South Korea

Arirang, lyrical folk song in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was named to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2012. According to UNESCO: Experts estimate the total number of folk songs carrying the title ‘Arirang’ at some 3,600 variations belonging to about sixty versions. A great virtue of Arirang is its respect for human creativity, freedom of expression and empathy. Everyone can create new lyrics, adding to the song’s regional, historical and genre variations, and cultural diversity. [Source: UNESCO]

“Arirang is universally sung and enjoyed by the Korean nation. At the same time, an array of practitioners of regional versions, including local communities, private groups and individuals, actively lead efforts for its popularization and transmission, highlighting the general and local characteristics of individual versions. Arirang is also a popular subject and motif in diverse arts and media, including cinema, musicals, drama, dance and literature. It is an evocative hymn with the power to enhance communication and unity among the Korean people, whether at home or abroad.”

The North Korean version of the song — the Arirang folk song in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — was added to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. UNESCO says: Arirang is a popular lyrical singing genre transmitted and recreated orally. It exists in multiple traditional forms as well as symphonic and modern arrangements. Arirang typically contains a gentle and lyrical melody, accompanied by the refrain: ‘Arirang, arirang, arariyo, Over the Arirang hill you go’. Arirang songs speak about leaving and reunion, sorrow, joy and happiness. The various categories differ according to the lyrics and melody used; the thirty-six known versions of Arirang have also undergone continuous development. Arirang is performed on various occasions among family, friends and communities, as well as on public occasions and at festivities. Children learn the songs from their parents and neighbours, in school and other settings. Professional art troupes in Pyongyang perform different forms of Arirang, while safeguarding societies play an important role in enacting, preserving and transmitting local versions. Arirang folk songs reinforce social relations, thus contributing to mutual respect and peaceful social development, and help people to express their feelings and overcome grief. They function as an important symbol of unity and occupy a place of pride in the performing arts, cinema, literature and other works of contemporary art.

Buddhist Music of Korea

According to Pomp'e is the most captivating form of Buddhist ceremonial music. Origination in India, it is believed to have first been brought to Silla from Tang China by Ch'an (Son) Master Chin-gam (774-850). In pomp'e, music mixes with song and chant, solo voices interchange with chorus. [Source:]

“Long ago, 72 instruments accompanied the singer; these days there are only thirteen instruments. Contemporary versions of Pomp'e are shorter than the lengthy chants of old, and fewer monks take the time to learn this ancient art. Consequently, it has become more frequently performed on stage. The recitative texts were originally brought to Korea in Chinese and Sanskrit but some portions are now read and recited in Korean, accompanied by only two instruments, a gong and cymbals.

Buddhist music is constantly evolving and new compositions in Buddhist hymns and popular songs have been added in recent years and becoming popular all over Korea. Now there are singing groups in most large temples and concert are frequently performed.

Samulnori Drum Music

Also known as farmer's dance music, samulnori is a rhythmic style of drumming, gong-playing and dancing that incorporates elements of Asian philosophy such as yin and yang. The performers are viewed as mediums between earth and heaven and each instrument represents a natural force necessary for a good harvest: 1) the changgo (an hour glass-shaped dog-skin drum): falling rain; 2) the buk (dog-skin barrel drum): clouds; 3) the kwaenggwari (a small gong): lightening; and 4) the ching (a large gong), wind. In dynastic Korea, samulnori was enjoyed by the common people but looked down upon by the upper classes.

“Samulnori is the name of a traditional four-man percussion ensemble that produces samulnori music and dance. The music has it origins in epic poems and field work songs. Samul means “four” and it refers to four instruments: the changgo, buk and ching. Nori means “play”.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In 1978, a musician named Kim Toksu started a percussion troupe called SamulNori. SamulNori compressed the many players of farm music bands into a four-musician troupe, creating a kind of musical "team." The word samulnori quickly became the generic word for this kind of combination, which remains wildly popular across Korea and has toured the world introducing other people to Korea's elegant and intricate rhythms. There are now samulnori troupes in Korean communities in the United States, Europe, and even central Asia. Critics say that samulnori has "frozen" Korean rhythm into a few set forms, something like cutting down a forest full of thousands of tree species and replacing them all with rows and rows of just one type. This criticism is a natural consequence of trying to preserve what was, after all, a varied tradition springing from isolated villages all across the country. Nevertheless, insofar as samulnori has preserved and shared something extraordinary and beautiful, it has been a great contribution to the world's appreciation of Korean culture.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Live samulnori is a wild, high-energy, rock-show-like experience, with the audience often dancing, clapping and shouting with the rhythms. It was often performed in the old days by troupes of musicians who traveled from village to village. While performing, samulnori musicians wear a “sangmo,” a hat with a 10-foot ribbon that whirls around when the performers dance and hop round and do acrobatics without missing a beat on their drums. . The drummers hold their drum sticks lie chopsticks and have an unusual technique of hitting both sides of their drums with one hand.

"With is dynamic triple-beat structure, the farmer's band music touches off the hidden nature of Koreans," the famous Samulnori musician Kim Duk-soo told the Korea Times. "Korea's triple rhythm is the natural manifestation of the sound of horse hooves commonly heard in daily life of the ancient Korea. The dynamic unbridled nature of nomadic, horse-mounted ancestors of Korean people died hard even after they had settled as farmers."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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