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Distinguishing Features of Korea's Traditional Music


Developed over the course of several millenniums, traditional Korean music possesses a number of distinguishing features. Korean music influenced that of China or Japan in ancient times, and later, it was in turn significantly influenced by Chinese or Central Asian music. During the late twentieth century, Western-style music was introduced to Korea and in terms of quantity, became more pervasive than traditional music forms.

Historically, Korean music has developed through frequent exchanges with neighboring nations; yet, it has preserved and developed a number of features that are unique.

First, a leisurely tempo is a general feature of Korean music. In particular, most of the music that makes up the genre known as Chong-ak has a slow tempo. The Korean musical some pieces can last as long as three seconds. Such a slow tempo gives pieces a distinctly calm, meditative character. The leisurely pace of some Korean music is due to the importance placed on breathing, with each beat being matched to the player's inhalation and exhalation. In this respect, Korean music differs markedly from Western music in which the beats occur at a tempo similar to the beating of the heart. In other words, Western music, based on a "heart-beat" tempo, tends (like the heart) to be active and progressive, whereas Korea's Chong-ak genre of music, based on breathing, is sedate and contemplative.

Second, the tone color of Korean music in general, and the Chong-ak genre in particular, is warm and soft. In fact, the timbre is so gentle that the fusion of tones and melodies does not result in discord. The gentle timbre of the music can be attributed to the fact that Korean instruments are made of nonmetallic substances. In the West, wind instruments such as the flute or clarinet are made of metal. In Korea, on the other hand, the wind instruments tend to be made of wood; even the stringed instruments have silk strings instead of wire. To this extent, Koreans like the warm and gentle feeling of natural materials.

Third, Korean music is characterized by spontaneity. This is more evident in folk music genres, with their emphasis on feeling, than in the Chong-ak style which seeks to control emotional expression. Most would agree that Koreans tend to be emotional rather than intellectual. This emotional exuberance makes it easy for Koreans to enter into religious ecstasy. Hence, in the past, there were numerous ecstatic shamans in Korea who would pass into an ecstatic state until their exuberance had completely run its course. In music, too, emotions can reach such heights that they transcend the music's formal elements. Indeed, when emotion plays a central role, precise formal elements have no raison d'etre. Within such spontaneous genres, there is only a general framework with the precise contents primarily determined by the feelings of the moment. The music genres known as sanjo (solo instrument and drum accompaniment) and p'ansori (solo vocalist with drum accompaniment) amply demonstrate this. Unlike the numerous musical forms that have been fixed in musical scores, these genres have an open form that encourages spontaneous creativity. Even when the exact same sanjo piece is performed, different artists may interpret it quite differently. In fact, the same artist may give a significantly varied performance according to the time or location. Thus, the same piece might be condensed into ten minutes or extended to twenty or thirty minutes. Likewise, folk singers who wish to extend a song due to extra enthusiasm, or, for other reasons, will often spontaneously ad-lib.


Fourth, Korean musical pieces are usually linked together when performed. This phenomena is evident in kagok, a Korean genre similar to the Western song cycle. A good example is Yongsan hoesang, a composition that resembles a Western suite. Kagok consist of over twenty long vocal pieces that are accompanied by a small chamber ensemble. When sung, each piece is run into the composition that follows without any clear break. Yongsan hoesang is a representative instrumental composition consisting of nine pieces with absolutely no pause between each part. It is thus impossible to figure out which piece is being performed unless one is familiar with the composition. The lack of a hiatus between musical pieces is associated with the unique character of the Korean people who are outwardly gentle but inwardly tenacious. This aspect of the Korean character is best exemplified in the vocal genre known as p'ansori. In the p'ansori epic Ch'unhyangga, for example the vocalist assumes numerous roles while singing nonstop for over eight hours.

Fifth, the tempo distribution of traditional Korean music is unique. Unlike Western music, which alternates between slow and fast movements, Korean music normally begins with a slow tempo that gradually speeds up as a piece progresses.

The often-performed sanjo genre, for example, begins with a slow movement known as chinyangjo, which is followed by the chungmori (appropriate speed) movement.

This, in turn, is followed by a rapid movement called chajinmori. Such a gradual progression is not limited to sanjo, a genre involving a relatively unified composition, but is also evident in suites made up of numerous separate pieces. In suites, the initial pieces are performed at a slow tempo which gradually picks up in the pieces that follow. This phenomena can perhaps be attributed to the emotional, non-intellectual character of the Korean people. The gradual increasing tempo leads to self-absorption which finally culminates in an ecstatic state beyond the confines of ego-a phenomena common to Korea's shamanic culture.

Lastly, in order to understand Korean music, one cannot disregard the prominent role of Cum-yang (Chin. yin-yang) and five elements theory in ritual music. Pot'aep'yong, a type of music performed at Chongmyo (the royal ancestral shrine), serves as a good example. In Pot'aep'yong, two instruments, called a ch'uk and an Co, are used. The ch'uk, which is only played in the beginning, is always situated in the east and is painted blue (symbolic of the east), while the Co, which is played at the music's conclusion, is situated in the west and is painted white (symbolic of the west). Thus, one cannot understand such music through merely listening: to fully appreciate it, one must be aware of its underlying philosophical significance.


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