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Hanguk Eumak

Hanguk Eumak, literally meaning Korean music, often shortened to gugak, is a term that encompasses both the traditional music passed down for centuries, and changjak gugak, the newly composed national music for modern tastes.

Music and dance were means of religious worship, a tradition that continued through the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. – 668 A.D.). More than 30 musical instruments were used during the Three Kingdoms period, and particularly noteworthy was the hyeonhakgeum (black crane zither), which Wang San-ak of Goguryeo created by altering the seven-stringed zither of Jin Dynasty China. Also notable was the gayageum, a zither used in Gaya (42-562) made by Ureuk of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). The twelve-string gayageum is still played in modern Korea. There is also a modern adaptation of the gayageum consisting of 20 to 25 strings also popular among learners of traditional music.

Goryeo (918-1392) followed the musical tradition of Silla in its early years, but came to have more diversified genres later. There were three types of music in Goryeo -- dang-ak (music from the Chinese Tang Dynasty), hyangak (village music), and a-ak (court music). Some Goryeo music was inherited by Joseon (1392-1910) and is still used in ceremonies today, especially those involving ancestral worship.

A national classical music ensemble performing Sujecheon (Long Life as Eternal as the Heavens)

During the Joseon Dynasty, music was respected as an important element of rituals and ceremonies. Early in the dynasty, two offices dealing with musical matters were established and efforts were made to compile musical texts.

As a result, a canon of music called Akhak gwebeom was produced in 1493. The book classified music to be played in court into three categories: ceremonial music, Chinese music, and native songs. During King Sejong's reign in particular, scores of new musical instruments were developed.

The creativity of this period added richness to the highest court music, Jongmyo jereak, the music of the royal shrine to pay respect to deceased kings and queens. Jongmyo jereak was designated an intangible cultural heritage of the world by UNESCO, together with Jongmyo jerye, the royal ancestral rite.

The other half of gugak, folk music, also enjoyed a rich tradition of minyo (folk songs), nongak (farmers' music), muak (shamanistic ritual music), and theater music used for a masked dance called talchum. These kinds of traditional music promote the participation of the audience. In the course of a traditional Korean music performance, audiences are invited to encourage the performers with a cheer and joyful dance.

In the religious sphere there is beompae, which is a series of long, drawn-out notes played during Buddhist ritual ceremonies, and seungmu, a slow, solo dance by a biguni or a female monk among other musical performances.

Pansori - A genre of musical story-telling, performed by a vocalist with drum accompaniment.

Mask dance from the Gangneung Danoje Festival

Pansori (a traditional Korean opera performance) and sanjo, (solo instrumental music) were originally forms of folk music but became art music after they were sponsored by the aristocracy in the late Joseon Period.

Separately, changjak gugak is open to wider experimentation with traditional music. The best example is samul nori, a percussion quartet style which refined the outdoor music of nongak to put it on the stage in 1978. It celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2008.

As of today, traditional Korean music is rapidly spreading around the world. If in the past, Korean musicians focused on performing traditional Korean music as it is, they are now introducing new versions and adaptations of Korean music fused with diverse genres. Gugak genres are in search of new possibilities through joint performances with western music as well, such as breakdancers and more.

For more information on Korean classical music, click here.

For more information on K-pop, click here.

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