South Korea


Wonkak Kim

Youmee Kim

Tony Rauche

John O. Robison


Nation/Culture.   Korea has 4,346 years of history as an independent nation. The origin of the Korean people comes from one source, and hence one race. Throughout its history, Korea has endured the ambitions of neighboring countries vying for its geographical advantage yet, it was able to defend its autonomy throughout its entire history with an exception of the 34-year occupation by Imperial Japan from 1911-1945. The democratic government began in 1945.

Culturally, Korean people are known for their whimsical humor, persistent sustainability, and musical talent. The traditional Korean ethos comes from the teachings of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. In the modern era, a peculiar phenomenon has swept the Korean people with a religious awakening to Christianity. Naturally industrious, the South Korean people have risen to the occasion, and developed the post-war poverty into their highly productive and technologically advanced modern economy. Some attribute this phenomenon to the prevailing Christian ethos.

The native Korean musical heritage comes from two rich sources: Court music of the upper class and folk music of the common people. While this heritage is well preserved by the government-chartered institutes and universities, Western music has blossomed in the Korean peninsula since around the late 18th and 19th centuries. Today's Korean music students have opportunities to study Korean traditional music and Western music in many of the highly-ranked universities.


Features and Genres. A great deal of Korean traditional music is very serene and restrained in style, although certain repertories, such as pansori, display greater freedom of emotions. One of the most remarkable traits is the special treatment given to individual tones. Individual pitches, often held for long periods of time, will be given added life through the use of microtonal intervals, pitch bending, ornaments (turns, glissandos, portamentos, etc.), dynamic shadings, and vibrato. Vibrato is a common feature in Korean traditional music, although it is generally reserved for specific notes. When present, one finds that there are many different speeds and strengths of vibrato, ranging from slow to fast and strong to weak; one common occurrence, for example, is to have a slow and wide vibrato on long notes. The vibrato may also change in speed and in intensity for the duration of a long note. Dynamic shadings on individual notes and on note groups are quite prevalent, and these shadings may be quite harsh. Scales consisting of either three notes or five notes are quite common, and standardized melodic ideas may be employed. Some genres, such as the courtly Aak music, will be extremely slow in tempo, having a pulse that may last for two or three seconds, with long notes spanning the duration of several beats. Among the many different rhythmic cycles found in Korean traditional music, one notices the frequent use of either triple or compound meter. One additional rhythmic trait, derived from drumming practices, is the use of accelerating (or decelerating), unequal pulses. In the case of such genres as the solo instrumental sanjo repertory, each successive section has a faster tempo than the previous one, creating considerable excitement during a performance. Text settings are often melismatic, and the singing styles range from gentler (gagok, sijo) to more dramatic, as in pansori. Significant genres include Aak (Confucian Shrine Ritual Music), Pompae (Buddhist chant), Gagok (a long, lyrical song cycle for vocal soloist(s) with 5-7 instruments), Sijo (a popular Korean poem set as a short lyric song), Sanjo (a solo instrumental genre in multiple movements with janggo accompaniment), Ch’angjak kugak (new compositions for Korean traditional instruments), Nongak (farmer’s band music, and heavily percussion oriented), and Samul nori (derived from Nongak, with infectious rhythms and multiple rhythmic layers, using an ensemble of two drums and two metal percussion instruments).


Notable Musicians.   The performance standards are quite high in Korea, with notable musicians in the areas of Korean traditional music, Western instruments, and jazz/popular traditions.

For Korean instruments, either performing entirely traditional repertory or also crossing over into contemporary works including Korean instruments, one of the most renowned gayageum performers, scholars, and promoters of traditional music in Korea since the 1950s has been Hwang Byung-ki. He was a long-time professor at Ewha Womans University until his retirement; other outstanding Korean traditional performers include gayageum virtuoso Lee Jae-Suk, the outstanding Daegeum artist Won Jang-Hyun, and ggwaengwari performer Yu Kyung-Hwa, who is the leader of the well-known Sai Ensemble. Three of the most active gayageum players today are Kwak Eun-Ah (a professor at Ewha), Ji Aeri, and Yi Ji-Young, all of whom are traditional gayateum virtuosos who have established themselves as world-class leaders in the performance of contemporary works by Korean and Western composers. Regarding leading artists outside of the gayageum realm, two of the most prominent figures in the world of Korean traditional/fusion music are haegeum artist Kang Eun-Il (leader of Haegeum plus) and komungo virtuoso Heo Yun-Jeong. Komungo virtuoso Kim Jin-Hi, who lives in the United States, is an accomplished artist who crosses boundaries between the classical and popular traditions, has invented the electric komungo, and is a strong advocate for multi-media productions. One recent addition to the Korean traditional music repertory, samulnori, which developed in the 1980s, has been centered around the mastery of percussionist Kim Duk-Soo. Regarding popular traditions in Korea, some of the world's leading K-Pop figures are Seo Tai-Ji and Psy, while some of the leading K-pop groups are Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls Generation, and Wonder Girls. Two of the leading Jazz musicians are pianist Ruma Yi and guitarist Jae-Yeol Chung (a former professor at Mokwon University).


On the Western end of the spectrum, some of the notable musicians include:

Sumi Jo, soprano, winner of Grammy Award

Young-ok Shin, soprano, Metropolitan Opera

Hay-Kyung Hong, soprano, Metropolitan Opera

Kyung-wha Chung, violin

Myung-hoon Chung, conductor, piano

Sarah Chang, violin

HaeSun Paik, piano, winner of Queen Elisabeth, Leeds and Tchaikovsky Competitions

Yeol Eum Son, piano, winner of Van Cliburn Competition

For the past century, Koreans have passionately embraced the concept of Western-style composition, with spectacular results; it still tends to be a male-dominated field, but the majority of composers in South Korea are women, and there have been improvements in the status of women over the past few decades. Pioneering male composers Yun Isang, Chung Hoe-Gap, and Lee Sung-Jae, born between 1917 and 1924, were strongly German-Austrian influenced. They insisted upon knowledge and respect for Korean traditions and were major figures in the development of the composition programs at Seoul National University and at Yonsei University. Several outstanding, German-oriented second generation males gave their students at SNU strong foundations in the European avant-garde (Kim Chung-Gil, Paik Byung-Dong, Kang Sukhi). One outstanding third generation male composer, Lee Young-Jo (b. 1943), and one of the many Korean composers gifted at integrating Korean with Western elements, was a major force behind the development of the composition program at the Korean National University of the Arts. First generation women composers born between 1931-1945, including Lee Young-Ja, Suh Kyungsun, and Lee Chan-Hae, helped to pave the way and provide more opportunities for women born after the Korean War who were fortunate enough to study in Germany (Cho In-Sun), France (Kim Eun-Hye), England (Lee Shinuh), and the United States (Lee Boknam, Lee Gui-Sook, Lee Hyun-Joo, Lim Jiesun, and Lim June-Hee). Given the stiff competition among women composers in Korea, some have benefited from developing their careers in Germany (Pagh-Paan Younghi, Chin Unsuk) and the United States (Kim Hi Kyung, Na Hyo-shin).


Higher Education.  Within Seoul, traditionally the most comprehensive Colleges of Music have been located at the finest government-supported institution in Korea (Seoul National University), along with two of the oldest and best private universities in this part of East Asia, both founded in the 1880s by Christian missionaries (Yonsei University, 1885, and Ewha Womans University, 1886). Twenty years ago, the Korean Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Sports also founded the Korea National University of the Arts, which also has one of the best music programs in Seoul.


SNU, Department of Voice: Founded in 1946 along with the university itself, the vocal department includes seven full-time voice professors, and has received attention for the consistently high quality of its full-fledged opera productions. The curriculum includes an extensive background in the major repertories of European art songs, as well as the Korean art song repertory.


SNU, Department of Composition: One of the most prestigious composition programs in Korea, they cross boundaries between disciplines, including composition, theory, and conducting. Their eleven full-time composition professors were preceded by a distinguished series of first and second-generation Korean composers who were particularly well-connected with current European trends, including Paik Byung-Dong and Kang Sukhi.


SNU, Department of Instrumental Music: Divided into piano, string, and wind/percussion faculty, the instrumental department includes seventeen full-time faculty 50% of them full-time pianists, and the others divided between violin, viola, cello, flute, horn, and percussion.

SNU, Department of Korean Music: Founded in 1959, the Korean music department has for more than half a century been one of the most prestigious places to study Korean traditional music in Seoul; one of its most distinctive features is their history of supporting both traditional music and the composition of new music for Korean instruments.


Yonsei: The Church Music Department, which includes both organ and choral conducting majors, has one of the finest sacred music programs in South Korea. With five full-time faculty having strong European training, they have one of the finest vocal departments in Korea. Their piano department has five full-time faculty, and a rigorous curriculum that includes significant exposure to European music, contemporary piano music, and the extensive chamber music repertory. In addition to their strong instrumental department, Yonsei also has developed, since its inception in 1955, one of the strongest composition departments in Korea, with five full-time composition faculty and an impressive curriculum.


Ewha Womans University, the largest and most prestigious woman’s university in the world, was formed in 1886 by American missionary Mary Scranton. They founded the first music department in Korea in 1925, and in 1947 they established the first Korean degree programs in piano, orchestral instruments, voice, and composition. Their department of Korean traditional music, formed later, in 1974, is one of the best on the Korean peninsula.


The Korea National University of the Arts, although formed by the Korean Ministry of Culture only two decades ago in 1993, is also one of the most prominent institutions in Seoul, with three voice concentrations (voice, opera, lied/oratorio), instrumental music, composition, conducting, and musicology; they also have one of the best concentrations in music technology. A major accomplishment in 2008 was their establishment of the Korean National Institute for the Gifted in Arts, which is headed up by third-generation composer Lee Young-Jo, the former Dean of the KNUA School of Music. They are conveniently located in the Seocho-dong area of Seoul, next to the Seoul Arts Center and the National Gugak center.


In addition to Ewha, Yonsei, Seoul National University, and the KNUA, there are many other impressive universities with outstanding Schools of Music, including Chugye University of the Arts, Hanyang University, Kookmin University, Sangmyung University, Sejong University, Sookmyung Women’s University, Sung-shin Women’s University, and Dong-duk Women’s University. Several of the theological colleges in Seoul also have wonderful music programs (Seoul Theological University, Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary, Chongshin University, and Methodist Theological University). With stiff competition in music, many people have benefited from attending special middle/high schools with outstanding music programs (Seoul High School of Music and Art, Sunhwa Arts High School, Kaywon High School of Arts, Pusan Arts High School, and Kyungpook Arts High School).


South of Seoul, there are many terrific institutions with excellent Schools of Music, and in an attempt to distribute things more equally throughout the peninsula, some music programs have been shifted to alternate campuses south of the capital city. These include Suwon University in Hwaseong, Myongji University in Yongjin, Mokwon University in Daejeon (with one of the best jazz programs), Pai Chai University in Daejeon (one of the oldest universities in Korea), Chung-Ang Universtity in Anseong city, Kyungpook National University in Daegu, and Pusan National University on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.


For the study of Korean traditional music, the National Gugak Center (formerly known as the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts) is essential. Beginning with developments in the early 1950s, it has developed over the past fifty years into a government-sponsored organization that has the admiration of many traditional musicians in East Asian cultures. With more than 300 full-time faculty, their institution includes a strong research division, a performance division featuring many of the most accomplished traditional artists in Korea, a folk music group, Korean traditional dance, a traditional court music orchestra, and one of the finest contemporary Gugak orchestras. They function as leading figures for the preservation of Korean traditional music throughout the world. Their buildings include a main theater (Yeak-dang), a small theater (Umyeon-dang), and an excellent Gugak museum. For people interested in Korean traditional music, since 2001 the NGC has offered a biennial Korean Traditional Music Workshop for International Musicologists, which is divided equally between scholarly endeavors and instruction on Korean instruments such as the gayageum, changgo, and danso. Two CMS ambassadors were invited to participate in these summer workshops (Tony Rauche in 2005, and John O. Robison in 2001 and 2007), which provided a great introduction to many Korean music traditions and are highly recommended!


Suggested Reading.

Andrew C. Nahm, Introduction to Korean History and Culture. Hollym International Corporation, 1993.

Alan Heyman, editor, The Tradiitonal Music and Dance of Korea. National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 1993.

Ji-Yeon Byeon, Robert Koehler: Traditional Music: Sounds in Harmony with Nature. Seoul Selection, 2012.

Byong Won Lee, Styles and Esthetics in Korean Traditional Music. Korean Music Resources Series, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 1997.

Myong Won Yoon, Myong-Hee Hahn, A Study of Musical Instruments in Korean Traditional Music. Korean Music Resources Series, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 1998.

Keith Howard, Korean Music: A Listening Guide. Korean Music Resources Series, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 1999.

Hye-Jin Song, A Stroll through Korean Music History. Korean Music Resources Series, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2000.

Inhwa So, Theoretical Perspectives on Korean Traditional Music. Korean Music Resources Series, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2002.

Byond Won Lee and Yong-Shik Lee, editors, Music of Korea, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2007.

Choon Mee Kim, Gateway to the Study of Korean Contemporary Composers. Minsokwon, 2008.

John O. Robison, Korean Women Composers and Their Music. College Music Society, 2012.


Suggested Viewing.

Munmyo Jeryeak, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2002.

Royal Court Banquet for Seniors, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 200

The Royal Ancestral Shrine Music, National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2004.

Royal Court Banquet Music: Music of Peace, Dream of the Dynasty. National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2003

Chunhyang (pansori), directed by Im Kwon Taek; New Yorker Video, Lot 47 Films, DVD 82601



Samulnori, Percussion Ensemble

Gayageum, Twelve String Zither

(Each volume comes with a DVD and they are published by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Korea).


Samulnori, Ensemble for 4 Percussion Instruments; JIGU JM DVD-001

Sanjo Collection, Virtuoso Solo for Komungo, Kayagum & Daegum;  JIGU JM DVD-002


Suggested Listening. While there are many good CD series for the study of Korean traditional music, this one, published in 2001, is one of the best anthologies available; It can be purchased from the National Gugak Center (National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts).

Korean Traditional Music, 15-volume series published by Yejeon Media:

Volume 1: Court Music Highlights.

Volume 2: Folk Music Highlights.

Volume 3: Ryong-San-Hoi-Sang.

Volume 4: Sanjo Collection no. 1.

Volume 5: Sanjo Collection no. 2.

Volume 6: Sanjo Collection no. 3.

Volume 7: Sanjo Collection no. 4.

Volume 8: Haegum Sanjo, Sanjo Ensemble.

Volume 9: Royal Ancestral Shrine Music.

Volume 10: Shinawi.

Volume 11: P’yojong-Manbangjigok.

Volume 12: SamulNori.

Volume 13: Untitled

Volume 14: Untitled

Volume 15: Seoul Gayageum Trio, performing works by modern composers.