The Koreas–Music


Korea has no doubt had distinct forms of traditional music since well before the 15th century when written materials began to document the role the four types of traditional Korean music (courtly, aristocratic, scholarly, and religious) played in public life. Korea has developed three kinds of Korean court music — aak (Chinese/Confucian ritual music), hyangak (purely Korean), and tangak (a combination of Chinese and Korean court music) — as well as several folk styles, such as:

sanjo: a completely instrumental music, performed with shifting rhythms and melodies on instruments such as the gayageum.
pansori: a theatrical form of music performed by one singer and one drummer. The singer tells one of five different stories but individualizes the telling with jokes and social commentary.
nongak (“farmers’ dance”): a public form of percussion performed by twenty to thirty performers, most often in a rural setting.

All Koreans shared these traditional genres as part of their cultural heritage. The split of Korea in 1948 resulted in North and South diverging substantially in their musical development.


After the Korean War, tens of thousands of U.S. and Allied troops remained on South Korean soil. Western soldiers shared the styles that were popular at home with South Korean musicians, teaching them big band, rock and eventually pop music. South Korean musicians fused Western and even Japanese styles with their own, creating new musical blends such as “teuroteu,” or “trot,” which finds it origin in Japanese enka, the Western foxtrot, or both. (Trot disappeared as an active genre for decades but is undergoing a revival thanks to young musicians such as Jang Yoon Jeong, who we’ll discuss below.)

South Korean popular music (K-Pop) started in earnest in the 1960s forming from a combination of trot and early South Korean rock like Shin JungHyun’s 1961 hit “The Woman In The Rain.” In the 1970s and ’80s, facing some of the darkest days of the military dictatorship, the South Korean government censored and even imprisoned musicians who dared infuse their songs with political ides. Some South Korean songwriters such as Kim Min-Ki (more about him below) pioneered a genre of protest music called “Norae Undong,” (“New Song Movement,”) through which they expressed support for democracy and human rights. Others responded by removing all social content from their music, instead developing a love song style that came to be known as “ballad.” (Shin Seung-Hoon’s “You, Reflected in a Smile,” is a good example.)

After the dictatorship ended, Korean musicians embraced all kinds of traditional and modern music, socially important or otherwise, taking pride in their folk instruments and ancient genres while infusing them with a modern energy and musical sensibility. Since the ’90s Korean popular music (K-Pop), especially its dance hits like Sao Taji and the Boys “I Know”, has become a pan-Asian phenomenon, joining Korean fashion, movies, television and other media in what Koreans proudly call a “Hallyu” — a massive wave of Asian infatuation with Korean culture.

More information:
Wikipedia on South Korean music | Another overview of Korean music (scroll down a bit) | Introduction to Korean traditional music | A history of K-Pop


Since the split in 1951, North Korean music has taken a markedly different path from that of its neighbor to the south. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, all music must serve the state. The state controls all media, so only it can approve music for public distribution. In 1990 Kim Jong-Il declared that all North Korean music must encourage people to respect the country and its political system. (The North Korean song we sing in
class, “Potato Pride,” provides an example.) Many North Korean propagandistic ensembles exist, composed of all male choirs and military bands. North Korean pop music does exist, but it’s whitewashed to the nth degree. North Korean pop songs, most often performed by a young female singer in front of a set of electric organs, or, in videos, plunked down somewhere in the North Korean countryside, have titles, according to Wikipedia’s take on North Korean music, “Our Life Is Precisely a Song”, “We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly” and “The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst the Song of Mechanisation.” In addition to a sanctioned handful of individual pop singers like Ri Pun-hui, there are only a handful publicly promoted popular bands in North Korea:

Wangjaesan Light Music Band
Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, and
the Mansudae Art Troupe

Listening to South Korean music is a punishable crime. All foreign music–labeled with the blanket pejorative “jazz”–is thought to be decadent. So, jazz is forbidden, but this is okay.

More information:
Wikipedia on North Korean music | A bit about North Korean pop music

In class we’re going to listen to:

— “Morning Dew” by Kim Min-Ki, sung by Yang Hee-Eun.
Written by Norae Undong icon Kim Min-Ki, who pioneered Korean Norae Undong (“Song Movement) in the ’70s, until the Korean government censored him (from ’75 to ’87), “Morning Dew” is the staple song of Yang Hee-Eun. Yang became popular in the ’70s singing Kim songs like “Morning Dew” and “The Evergreen.” She continues to be one of Korea’s most beloved folk musicians. (In class we’re going to sing Kim Min-Ki’s (“Little Pond“).

More information:
Watch Yang Hee-Eun sing “Morning Dew” to a million Koreans at a recent pro-democracy protest | Wikipedia on Kim Min-ki | Kim’s song “The Evergreen” accompanies this YouTube video depicting the life and tragic end of former Korean president Rho Moon Hyun

— “Eomeona” by Jang Yun-Jeong:
Jang Yun-Jeong burst onto the Korean music scene in 2005 with “Eomeona” (loosely translated as “Oh my goodness!”), a “semi-trot” song that appealed to both older Koreans who listen to trot and younger Koreans who connected with Jang Yun-Jeong because she was in her mid-20’s when the song became popular. She has since continued to perform semi-trot, helping introduce trot to a K-pop crowd.

More information:
Wikipedia on Jang Yun-Jeong | Eomeona! | Trot makes a comeback | “Trot Music as Popular Music?” | You want to know Jang Yun-Jeong’s blood type, don’t you?,

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