Music of South Korea

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The Music of South Korea has evolved over the course of the decades since the end of the Korean War, and has its roots in the music of the Korean people, who have inhabited the Korean peninsula for over a millennium. Contemporary South Korean music can be divided into three different main categories: Traditional Korean folk music, popular music, or K-pop, and Western-influenced non-popular music.

Korean War 1950–1953 war between North Korea and South Korea

The Korean War was a war between North Korea and South Korea. The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following a series of clashes along the border.

Music of Korea

The music of Korea refers to music from the Korean peninsula ranging from prehistoric times to the division of Korea into South and North in 1945. It includes court music, folk music, poetic songs, and religious music used in shamanistic and Buddhist traditions. Together, traditional Korean music is referred to as gugak, which literally means "national music."


Traditional music

Korean traditional music is also known as Kugak (national music). The first evidence of Korean music appeared in the extant text of Samguk sagi (History of the three kingdoms) in 1145, which described two string-like instruments; Kayagum and Komun’go [1] . Traditional Korean music was brought to heights of excellence under the Lee kings of the Joseon Dynasty (Chosun Dynasty) between 1392-1897. During the Chosun Dynasty, a social hierarchy was observed with the King and the Yangban (government officials, generals, and the elite) at the top and the Sangmin (merchants, craftsman) and slaves at the bottom. There were two forms of music: Jeongak (“orthodox music”) and Minsokak (“people’s music”). Jeongak was the music category that the Yangban listened to for enjoyment and was played during state rituals like banquets, military processions, etc. Jeongak was considered as aristocratic music. However, Minsokak or Nongak (farmer’s music) dominated among the common people. The different types of people’s music were: Pansori, Pungmul (Samul) Nori, and Minyo (folk song). Pansori became definite in the seventeenth century and gained respect overtime. It is now considered as the ideal traditional music in Contemporary South Korea [1] . Pansori requires a solo singer as well as a percussionist. This type of music contains body language, emotions, and sounds observed in nature. Pungmul Nori is the traditional Korean Percussion music with the sound of drums standing out. As for Minyo, it was enjoyed by commoners while Nongak was played during agrarian festivals. Folk songs were not specific; as in, the features varied among different regions. The most famous folk song of South (and North) Korea is “Arirang”. The popularity of this song sky-rocketed after it was sung solo at the screening of a silent nationalistic film produced by Na Un’gyu in 1926 [2] . There are several regional variations of this song.

The Yangban, were part of the traditional ruling class or gentry of dynastic Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. The yangban were mainly composed of civil servants and military officers—landed or unlanded aristocrats who individually exemplified the Korean Confucian idea of a "scholarly official". Basically, they were administrators and bureaucrats who oversaw ancient Korea's traditional agrarian bureaucracy until the Joseon Dynasty ended in 1894. In a broader sense, an office holder's family and descendants as well as country families who claimed such descent were socially accepted as yangban.

The sangmin were the common people of Joseon-era Korea. About 75% of all Koreans at that time were sangmin.


Pansori is a Korean genre of musical storytelling performed by a singer and a drummer.

However, Chosun Dynasty came to an end after Japan's military won against China (1894-1895) and Russia (1904-1905) and ultimately took over the Korean peninsula. Japan then controlled the major levers of politics, economics, and culture in Korea [1] . During this period, the Japanese did not impose gagaku (the Japanese music of Chinese influenced court music) but instead imposed European art music. Western music education soon became a part of the Korean educational curriculum for the elite and included choral singing and playing instruments. Hence, the Japanese and Korean elites embraced Western music; thereby neglecting Kugak. However, to not go extinct, Kugak adapted the western style of music. In the 1900’s, Pansori gave rise to a new genre influenced by western music called Ch’angga (choral song/theater) which gave way to musical theaters and opera. Since Western music was not accessible to the common people, two different cultural groups arose; one where the elite listened to the government-imposed western music and as for the commoners, traditional music. This led to a new generation, often termed as 'modernized', who were accustomed to listening to Western music.

Gagaku is a type of Japanese classical music that has been performed at the Imperial Court in Kyoto for several centuries and today by the Board of Ceremonies at the Tokyo Imperial Palace. This kind of music was first imported into Japan from China; however, artistically it differs from the music of the corresponding Chinese form yayue which is a term reserved for ceremonial music. Gagaku consists of three primary repertoires:

  1. Native Shinto religious music and imperial songs and dance, called Kuniburi no utamai
  2. Vocal music based on native folk poetry, called Utaimono
  3. Songs and dance based on foreign music

Western influenced music

Western influenced Korean music is also sometimes referred to as popular music and is seen in the early twentieth century. The western influence in South Korean music gave rise to new genres; some of which are Ch’angga, Kagok, and Yuhaengga.

Ch’angga arose from Pansori but became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century for its fusion of European anthems, American hymns, Western folk tunes, and Japanese choral music. Though it had Western melodies, the lyrics were in Korean. The most well-known example of ch’angga is the song “My Darling Clementine” [1] .

Kagok (Lieder; referring to German art songs) is Western vocal music sung by a solo artist rather than an ensemble.

Yuhaengga (which literally means popular songs) is also known as sin kayo (new song). It became a part of everyday life in urban Korea in the mid-1920s as well as a crucial element of the term “modern”. [1]

Popular Korean music, typically referred to as K-pop in English, or gayo (가요) in Korean, is a highly commercial industry throughout Asia. Contemporary K-pop is dominated by dance groups featuring young entertainers with the latest looks and dance skills. Contemporary Korean music and pop stars are very popular across Asia, and the spread of contemporary Korean culture designated a word to reflect this fact. The Korean Wave, or Hallyu (한류), is the word used to discuss the influence of contemporary Korean popular culture on the rest of Asia, and the rest of the world. [3]

Korean language Language spoken in Korea

The Korean language is an East Asian language spoken by about 77 million people. It is a member of the Koreanic language family and is the official and national language of both Koreas: North Korea and South Korea, with different standardized official forms used in each country. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Changbai Korean Autonomous County of Jilin province, China. It is also spoken in parts of Sakhalin, Ukraine and Central Asia.

The Korean Wave (Hangul: 한류; Hanja: 韓流; RR: Hallyu; MR: Hallyu, listen , a neologism is the increase in global popularity of South Korean culture since the 1990s. First driven by the spread of K-dramas and K-pop across East, South and Southeast Asia during its initial stages, the Korean Wave evolved from a regional development into a global phenomenon, carried by the Internet and social media and the proliferation of K-pop music videos on YouTube. The term Hallyu was first used by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Korea in 1999, when the ministry produced a music CD titled in Chinese "Hallyu—Song From Korea". The term was adopted by Chinese media to describe the success of Korean popular culture in China. The term was reintroduced in Japan as hanryu or kanryu by the Asahi Shimbun in 2001.

The dominant trend in popular Korean music is currently "idol" (아이돌) groups. Idol groups typically feature several entertainers of the same gender who perform a fusion of dance music, rhythm and blues, funk, hip-hop and electronic influenced songs. Some of the most famous K-pop groups include Super Junior, BTS, SHINee, INFINITE, TWICE, EXO, BIGBANG, TVXQ, T-ARA, WINNER, Monsta_X, NCT (band), Seventeen, Wanna One, GOT7, iKON, Red Velvet, Wonder Girls, 2NE1, Blackpink, f(x), Mamamoo, KARA and Girls' Generation. There are also co-ed groups where both genders are present like KARD.



Trot, pronounced as "teuroteu" in Korean (sometimes called ppongjjak (뽕짝), due to its distinctive background rhythm), is the oldest form of Korean pop music. It was developed in the years before and during World War II around the early 1900s. Famous interpreters of this genre are South Korean singers Tae Jin Ah and Song Dae Gwan. Rock musicians such as Cho Yong Pil also performed this type of music.

In the contemporary South Korea, it has enjoyed a revival at the hands of Jang Yoon Jeong, who recorded the popular trot songs "Jjanjjara" ("짠짜라") and "Oemoena." ("어머나")


Rock music is said to have spread to Korea from the Eighth United States Army (EUSA) bases after the Korean War. Shin Jung-hyeon, frequently referred to as the "Godfather of Korean Rock," got his start playing popular rock covers for American servicemen in the 1950s, [4] particularly being noted for his take on Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Shin developed his own style of psychedelic rock in the '60s and '70s and recorded albums with several bands, such as the Add 4, the Men, and the Yup Juns, and wrote songs and played on albums for well-known singers, such as Kim Chu Ja and Jang Hyun, and lesser known singers, like Kim Jung Mi. After refusing an order from then-president Park Chung-hee to write a song praising the president, Park banned Shin's music and ultimately imprisoned him for marijuana possession. The imprisonment of Shin slowed the production of Korean rock, but other artists, most notably Sanulrim emerged during the late '70s, before dance music came to dominate Korean popular music in the '80s.

In the 1980s, popular musical tastes had moved away from rock music. The scene was dominated by heavy metal music, in particular Boohwal, Baekdoosan, and Sinawe, collectively known as the Big 3. [5]

Rock music was revived in the early '90s with democratization following the presidency of Roh Tae-woo. As information flowed more freely into the country, Korean youths were exposed to decades of popular foreign music in a short span of time, and some began to form bands. [6] Two of the earliest bands were Crying Nut and No Brain, which introduced the country to a variety of new genres in a localized blend called "Chosun Punk," spearheaded by indie label Drug Records which also managed Club Drug. With increased globalization and access to the Internet, the music scene diversified and incorporated more styles of music. The late '90s saw increasing diversity in musical influences, as younger bands like Rux emerged and The Geeks introduced Korea to straight edge hardcore punk.


T'onga guitar (or tong guitar) is a form of Korean folk and folk rock music developed in the early 1960s and '70s. It was heavily influenced by American folk music, and artists in the genre were considered Korean versions of American folk singers, such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

Notable early Korean folk musicians include the American-educated Hahn Dae-soo, and Kim Min-ki. Hahn and Kim recorded socially and politically conscious folk songs, and both artists had their music censored and banned by the autocratic Park Chung-hee government, much as the psychedelic rock guitarist Shin Jung-hyeon had his songs censored and banned. Despite the government's efforts to censor political music, though, popular folk songs increasingly came to be used as rallying cries for social change within Korea, leading to the term norae undong (노래운동), or literally, "song movement," being coined to describe songs targeted at social change. As South Korea was transitioning to democracy in 1987, the late folk musician Kim Kwang-Seok was noted for being politically active, and his songs were popular at democratic rallies.


In South Korea, hip hop expanded into a cultural phenomenon in Seoul, Busan and Daegu. The movement has been growing since the mid-90s, especially after the success of Seo Taiji and Boys' smash hit Nan arayo (난 알아요), or "I know," and has been gaining attention internationally, as Koreans have won various championships around the world since the early 2000s. In 2004, Rain released his It's Raining album, making him one of the first international stars outside of South Korea. Aside from mainstream dance pop infused hip hop, there is also an underground hip hop scene that has developed throughout South Korea. Online webzines have contributed to spreading the culture into the Korean mainstream.


Influenced by Western melodies and the sentimental ballad, ballad-style songs were initially introduced into the mainstream market in the 1960s [7] . The Korean ballad style of music rose into popularity in the 1980s to become a staple genre in modern Korean music. Its song style is meant to capture the feelings of love, unrequited love, or heartbreak. Many official soundtracks (OSTs) for popular Korean dramas contain slow, dramatic ballad songs that are played whenever important plot points occur. Balladeers are behind the main theme songs for many dramas such as Winter Sonata, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God , and My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox .


The music genre primarily changed from ballad to western music styles, including rap, reggae, R&B, and hip hop in the early twenty–first century. [8] K – pop music has experienced the process of hybridization as it was influenced by the globalized western music genres. The term hybridization refers to local cultures create unique combinations as that incorporate foreign and globalizing influenced. [9] Other than hybrid music genres of K – pop, English mixing in the lyrics of K- pop is another important change in contemporary K- pop music culture. According to Jin and Ryoo, K – pop has incorporated diverse stylistic input from abroad which has been related to the boom of hybrid K – pop through a Korean – English mix in lyrics. Instead of providing beautiful melodies, K – pop idols also try to maximize melody line with easy English lyrics. The Korean entertainment companies have developed the mixing language of English into lyrics because it is easier for foreigners to remember the song.

Independent popular music, such as "indie rock," or indie (인디), and independent hip hop, is growing in popularity in Korea, fueled by an increase in the number of independent acts, as well as an increase in the coverage of those independent acts by blogs. Notable popular indie groups from the 1990s and 2000s include Jaurim (자우림), Huckleberry Finn (허클베리 핀), Nell (넬), Mot (못), Cherry Filter (체리 필터), and Third Line Butterfly (3호선 버터플라이), as well as the more recent Busker Busker, among others.

Classical music

With the arrival of Western culture in South Korea, European classical music has been significantly popular in the Korean music scene. The genre has produced a number of preeminent classical musicians such as Yiruma. The fine range of Korean symphonic orchestras have been bolstered by notable performers and soloists, as well as highly skilled orchestra directors. Internationally known Korean composers of classical music include such notables as Yi Suin, who specializes in music for children, and is known for the famous "Song of My Homeland".

Another of Korea's internationally prominent composers is Young-ja Lee. She was born in 1931 in Wonju and studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. She continued her education at the Manhattan School of Music. Lee endured hardships during the Japanese occupation and Korean War, but emerged to become one of the dominant forces in Korean music in the 20th century. [10]

Hyo-Won Woo was born in 1974 and wrote mainly Christian choral music, for example Gloria, using elements of both traditional Korean music and contemporary classical music.

Korean contemporary Christian music

With the importation of Christianity, the evangelical use of music for proselytizing has led to many choirs, both within and without churches, and the importation of traditional American styles of Christian folksongs sung in Korean.

Western and traditional crossover

Korean traditional instruments have been integrated into western percussion, and are beginning a new wave of Korean world music since 1998. Traditional instruments are amplified, and sampled, with traditional songs rescored for new age audiences.

See also

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