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Developed over the course of several
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
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
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
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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