While speaking about traditional Korean music, our imagination brings us to the realm of diverse musical instruments and music forms, the variety of religious songs, folk music, court music and rich shaman rituals. All these components express the soul of the Korean nation, who has a wonderful history full of events and filled with fascinating, colorful and magnificent tales. Traditional Korean music is an integral and constituent part of the Korean culture. Traditional Korean music represents a rich world of charming melodies and captivating rhythms whose sounds make the whole world around us stop and make us listen to the music holding our breath.
There exists the problem of dividing Korean traditional music into classes or categories, as “classifying traditional Korean music is somewhat challenging as the boundaries between the various music forms are not always distinct”. (Modes/Rhythms.) In general, traditional Korean music usually falls under two main categories: chongak and sogak. Chongak is the music of the upper classes of the society, and sogak is the music of the lower or common classes of the society. Correspondingly, chongak is translated and understood as classical music, and sogak is usually translated and understood as folk music. There also exist the additional categories of religious and contemporary music. Sometimes they may result in particular forms.
So, the main styles of Korean traditional music are: religious music, aristocratic chamber music, Korean folk music and Korean court music. (Korean music) Religious music is based on the rituals of Buddhism and native shamans. The most vivid examples of religious Korean music is sinawi (also known as shinavi). This is musical improvisation during shamanistic rituals. The musical elements of the religious performances include instrumental accompaniment, vocal songs and purely instrumental pieces. A shaman is usually the main performer, and he accompanies his music with a small but very energetic instrumental troupe. There are several purposes for ritual performances: sending people’s appeals and wishes to the gods, to contact our ancestors’ souls, or simply to entertain gods of Korean people.
Aristocratic chamber music historically was aimed at entertaining. It was usually performed for the members of the richest aristocratic Korean families. This music can be either performed entirely instrumentally or is sung by female and male signers in the kagok style.
Korean folk music consists of the following subdivisions: Dongbu folk songs, Pansori (also known as Korean Opera), Nongak and Sanjo. Dongbu folk songs are very simple and bright positive optimistic songs. Their style of performance usually deviates according to the region they originate from. Korean Opera or Pansori music is usually performed by a soloist – one singer; there is also one drummer. The lyrics of these songs tell different stories. Nongak songs are a rather rural form of the Korean percussion music. It is always performed by large bands of about twenty or thirty drummers. Sanjo is an instrumental type of Korean folk music. It is a combination of melodic modes and rhythms. The word sanjo literally means scattered modes and refers to the fact that these pieces employ a variety of rhythmic and tonal modes”. (Folk Music Pieces) When Korean court musicians first heard the rhythms of sanjo, they could not believe the fact that this was not a cacophony and “disorganised collection of scattered modes”, but a piece of music. (Folk Music Pieces) The first sanjo piece of music was created by Kayagum master Kim Chang-Jo approximately in 1890. Since that time this solo instrumental form of sanjo was adapted for the majority of traditional instruments. Sanjo is mostly the music of improvisation. Its most prominent and distinguishing feature is the increase in tempo through various rhythmic modes as the music progresses. The proper rhythm is usually established with the help of the janggu accompaniment. So, technically sanjo is very brilliant and difficult music, especially with a quick tempo and strident rhythms in the final parts of the piece. The most common Korean folk songs are: Miryang Arirang, Arirang, Banga-Taryong, Nongbuga, Kangwondo-Arirang, Susimga, Cheonan-Samgeori and Yukjabaegi. These traditional and very popular songs are associated with such activities as fishing songs, farm songs, work songs, marriage songs, ceremonial songs, and children's songs.
The origin of the Korean court music can be traced back from the 14th century’s beginning of the Chosin Dynasty. Korean court music is subdivided into the following types: Aak, that originated from the Chinese ritual music, Dang-ak, that is a mixture between the Chinese and the Korean music, and Hyang-ak, that is purely Korean music, performed with string instruments and piri (Korean oboe). Aak appeared in Korea in 1116. Before dying out it became very popular. In 1430 on the basis of some old melodies it was reconstructed and revived. Nowadays aak music is very specialized because it has only two main melodies that are rather different. In present days aak music is performed very rarely on special occasions, for example on the Sacrifice to Confucius concert in Seoul. Dang-ak, as well as aak is practiced very rarely. There are only two short pieces that lived up to present days: Pacing the Void and Springtime in Luoyang. Hyang-ak is considered to be the most extant form of Korean court music in the present. Hyang-ak is performed with a piri that is a type of oboe and other stringed musical instruments.
There is an impressive collection of various musical instruments in Korean musical culture. Each instrument sings with a unique voice that expresses the soul of the Korean nation and sings from the very depth of Korean people hearts. There is a great amount of instruments that are Korean in their origin. There also exist musical instruments that were brought to Korea from such parts of the world as Asia, especially China. Korean musical instruments can be classified according to the following principles:
Construction Material (wood, stone, silk, clay, metal, bamboo, leather, gourd)
National Heritage (Korean, Chinese, "Refined")
Physical Principles (Sachs-Hornbostel) (Chordophones, Aerophones, Idiophones, Membranophones)
Performance Method (Strings, Winds, Percussion) (Musical Instruments)
There also exists another classification that is more traditional Western one (Musical Instruments):
Plucked (Kayagum, Komungo, Wolgeum, Daejaeng, Gonghu)
Bowed (Haegum, Ajaeng)
Transverse (Junggum, Sogum, Dangjok, Ji)
Reed (Taepyongso, Dang-Piri, Hyang-Piri, Saeng-Hwang)
Non-Reed (Danso, Tungso, Jeok, Yak, Hun)
Percussion (Pyeongyeong, Banghyang, Ulla, Teukgyeong)
In conclusion, Korean music is a very integral and constituent part of the Korean culture. Korean traditional music has several subdivisions that greatly vary from each other and thus make Korean music various, diverse and very rich. Great variety of traditional Korean musical instruments add to this diversity of musical types, and together all these constituent parts make Korean traditional music magnificent and significant manifestation of the diverse souls of the Korean people.
Folk Music Pieces. Traditional Korean Music Pages. 27 May 2012. http://www.angelfire.com/alt/koreanmusic/folk.html
Korean Music. SeoulKoreaAsia. com. 27 May 2012. http://www.seoulkoreaasia.com/Korean-music.htm
Modes/Rhythms. Traditional Korean Music Pages. 27 May 2012. http://www.angelfire.com/alt/koreanmusic/index.html
Musical Instruments. Traditional Korean Music Pages. 27 May 2012. http://www.angelfire.com/alt/koreanmusic/instruments.html