For this blog post, I will be delving into a bit of the history and sound of traditional Korean music. There’s a lot to cover so lets get started.
First, lets start off with a recording of a traditional Korean folksong, called a “minyo” in Korea . Listen well and then I’ll address some of the elements and aspects of this particular piece. (ignore the shaky recording)
There is quite a bit going on in this piece. I was unable to find the name of the folksong this lady is playing, the composer, or her name but I am going to be using this recording as an example. Some of the music elements within this piece are well demonstrated.
The instrument that is being played in the video above is called a Gayageum. The gayageum is a traditional Korean plucked zither. It is similar to that of the Chinese guzheng. A zither is a type of instrument, but the word is also used to describe a class of stringed instruments. “Zithers can be played in a variety of ways: plucked, bowed, hammered or strummed.” (Brighthub, 2011) You can look up more about what a zither is by clicking this link.
In this piece, the musician demonstrates a wide variety of musical elements on her gayageum and with her voice. Notice how her pitch changes from high to low on the gayageum, especially when she strums all the strings at once with a sweep of her hand. Hear the rise and fall of her soprano voice? The interval changes are also quite evident.
As she raises her voice in pitch, notice how her vibrato and dynamics get more intense. Watch her left hand on the gayageum. She demonstrates rapid vibrato by moving the string back and forth with a horizontal wiggling motion.
Why does this piece of music sound different compared to our more western style of music?
For one thing, there is a lot of repetitiveness. Yes, western music is also very repetitive, but there’s a different sort of repetitiveness going on here. It is almost like this repetitiveness is the staple or foundation for the entire piece. The musician keeps going back to the main melody then altering it slightly each time with something new. However, it stays very much the same all the way through. Not only is this piece different in terms of melody, the rhythm and timbre is quite different to our western ears. It is almost as if this piece is abstract compared to our more modern listening.
I noticed how very steady the beat was in this piece. She was swaying to the beat and her hands moved in rhythm. It created a very calming sensation for the listener. I am very aware that she is telling a story through her music, even if I can’t understand the lyrics.
The music of Korea is soaked in a quite a lot of history. “It includes court music, folk music, poetic songs, and religious music used in shamanistic and Buddhist traditions.”(Wiki, music of Korea,2020)
Korean people were described by the Chinese long ago as the “Eastern people who love to sing.” It is told that the “eastern people” traveling the roads at night would sing and there seemed to be no end to their music because of how much they loved to sing.
“Korean traditional or folk music (called “gukak” in Korean) has been passed down through the generations since antiquity. Gukak has many distinct traits, from the most basic elements of the music to its tone and format. Although it was influenced by the instruments and music of China, Korean traditional music has a unique and well-developed musical personality all its own that has absorbed the characteristics and musical preferences of the Korean people for more than a millennia.”(Antique Alive, 2004)
This next piece is a demonstration of shamanistic music. It greatly reflects the spiritual and religious side of Korean culture. (It is very long but the first 5 minutes into the recording is what I am going to be talking about.)
The sound and timbre here is very exotic and different. I hardly ever listen to music like this on a regular basis so it sounds quite strange to my ears.
The steady beat of the Korean janggo drum, the use of vocals, the gayageum, and the haegeum (a Korean fiddle) craft some very unique sounds. To my ears, I distinguish this sound to be very sporadic and buzzy.
There’s quite a lot of vibrato which really adds to the intensity of the piece. Since this particular piece was composed for some dark ritual, it only makes sense that it be intense.
Something I noticed about all the musicians in this piece was that they all seem to be almost “attacking” their instruments, especially the gayageum player. This adds even more intensity into their performance. This video recording is over an hour long and is riddled with many pieces. I was unable to find the composer, because, well, it’s mostly all in Korean. But for representative purposes, this video demonstrates very well the sound and technique of religious music in Korea.
Lastly, here is an older recording of a more historical representation on traditional Korean music.
Instruments Present: HAEGEUM (KOREAN FIDDLE), GAYAGEUM (12 STRING INSTRUMENT), JANGGO (KOREAN DRUM) AND DANSO (KOREAN FLUTE)
“Minyo is a type of Korean folk song created by ordinary people and transmitted by mouth over time. Rooted in everyday life, it expresses emotions and lifestyles of people.”(YouTube, Koreanet, 2011)
This recording (the entire video is narrated in Korean) demonstrates some very traditional Korean music. The dress, the instruments, the sound; all is focused on the feeling and representation of the people and lifestyle of Korea.
Hear how very Asian it sounds. (When comparing it to Japanese and Chinese music) The instruments here are very close to ones used in China and Japan, giving it a similar sound. However, it possess a uniqueness like no other Asian musical performance I have seen or heard. Very syncopated, lots of vibrato, and a distinct buzzing sound. Such an interesting culture and style of music.
With all the research I did, listening to many recordings, and learning about the different Korean instruments, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t particularly care for the traditional Korean ensemble. There is a lot of syncopation and it is really hard for me to listen and do something at the same time. I do however, enjoy the solo instrumentation or even straight up orchestra of the Gayageum instrument. That particular instrument is very relaxing and I enjoy hearing it played solo or with a bunch of other ones together. All in all, I found traditional Korean music to be very unique and I hope you were intrigued to listen to a few more recordings, or even of the instruments being played separately.
—. “Music of Korea.” Wikipedia, 21 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Korea.
“Traditional Korean Music and Dance.” Antique Alive, 2004, www.antiquealive.com/Blogs/Traditional_Korean_Music_Dance.html.
“Traditional Korean Musical Instruments.” BrightHub Education, 31 Aug. 2011, www.brighthubeducation.com/social-studies-help/124127-traditional-korean-musical-instruments.
“Korean Traditional Music Performance.” YouTube, uploaded by Koreanet, 26 Sept. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qipbKdvxVao&feature=youtu.be.