Folk Music Korea

folk music korea

Folk Music Korea encompasses an expansive range of styles – pungmul (farmers’ band percussion music) and samulnori (a modern urban staged form), to acoustic guitar folk songs, traditional zithers like the Komun’go zither being some examples.

In the 1970s, P’ok’u became synonymous with youth culture and student opposition against Park Chung Hee’s increasing dictatorship. My dissertation explores how this genre emerged under censorship to represent both romantic sentiment and courageous resistance.

Jeju folk songs

Jeju Island lies off of Korea’s south peninsula and boasts an extensive repertoire of folk songs and music unique to this island. Famous for its exotic dialect, these melodies often employ pentatonic melodies with compound meters for an exotic yet upbeat sound; others feature lilting rhythms while still others boast fast beats; their joy-laced tunes contain elements of sadness to give these folk songs their own identity among Korean genres.

Common misperception of Korean folk music known as gukak is that it’s slow, sad and depressing. However, this is far from accurate: while traditional genres do often use songs to express sadness in different ways, many joyful songs remain and encourage empathy and sympathy among listeners. Furthermore, standard gukak genres have simple composition styles which make learning the music easy for novice listeners.

Traditional Korean folk music has an intriguing history. Although not well documented during colonial rule, Korean culture has experienced a remarkable revival and revitalization since the 1990s; including court music preservation, genre expansion, and folklore preservation.

Korean folk music encompasses an expansive spectrum, from funeral and ritual laments to folk songs associated with agricultural chores, such as winnowing barely, planting rice and weeding the fields. Each region in Korea has their own distinctive singing style: in the central parts, light and clear songs predominate; while southwest regions tend toward loud and complex pieces with lyrics derived from shaman rituals. There are even pure instrumental pieces written especially for such purposes.

Koreans have a rich tradition of singing and playing percussion instruments, as well as dancing. At first, these dances would appear at public festivals or rural communities and be accompanied by various instruments like the geomungo six-string zither, daegeum bamboo transverse flute and gayageum twelve string zither.

Today, Korean folk dances remain immensely popular forms of entertainment and continue to thrive as an integral component of Korean life. Reviving them in urban staged performances remains popular. Additionally, stores sell traditional musical instruments while music teachers provide classes in pungmul nori (Korean folk drumming) which has recently witnessed an exciting comeback.


Nongak is a folk music style beloved by Koreans that features light instruments designed for ease of portability during farming and dancing activities. This centuries-old musical tradition was recently designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property by its Korean government. Nongak music can often be heard during community festival celebrations, spring planting and harvesting rituals and memorial services for royal ancestors.

Nongak can take many forms, with drumming and dancing being among the most prominent types. Most performances take place outdoors with many players constantly moving. Pungmul’s roots lie within dure (collective labor culture of traditional Korea). It was often played during farm work, village festivals or community-building events; and sometimes to accompany shamanistic dance and mask drama performances as well as political protest during pro-democracy movements.

Pungmul music features many diverse tempos and melodies, from simple melodies that lyrical to complex rhythmic compositions that vary according to region and style of singing; one popular example being Arirang as national folk song.

Pungmul encompasses more than drums; it encompasses various percussion and string instruments. Percussion instruments used in Pungmul include the following: jing (hanging gong), kkwaenggwari (hand-held gong), buk (barrel drum), and janggu (hourglass drum), as well as various string T’ang instruments with bows instead of horsehair, bows rosined stick bowing techniques called “sigimsae,” ornamentation techniques which differ depending on instrument type/region:

A sigimsae is an embellishment used to alter a note’s tone or pitch by vibrating or dropping its pitch using glissando; this produces an eerie yet mesmerizing sound which singers use in various ways, including giving songs an “sighing or weeping” quality.

Examples of Pungmul songs include Seya seya, an ode to legendary female warrior Hwang Sun-sook and Notdukkot which tells the tale of Donghak Peasant Rebellion. Both these tunes have become immensely popular among Koreans and have been recreated into movies, TV series and musical works multiple times.


Pansori is a traditional Korean form of musical storytelling performed by one singer accompanied by a drummer. Each song in a Pansori performance relates to either folk tales or classical novels and lasts up to eight hours – traditionally performed only by men; now female artists have also joined this tradition and revived this genre once thought to have vanished from Korean society.

Pansori artists spend years training to become masters of this ancient art form, honing centuries-old chant and musical and dramatic techniques that may range from ancient chant to singing techniques that convey emotions ranging from anger, love and grief; they must also read their audiences mood accurately as well as move their bodies and create intense physical contact allowing the spectators to share in his or her emotions as part of an artistic experience.

Like any opera singer, pansori artists must learn how to improvise. Their performance must match the rhythm of a drum with her voice and interpret its meaning as though it were language. Their training method includes practicing outdoors near a waterfall where she must mimic its sounds with her vocal performance – her interpretation is incredible!

Song rhythm can often change to match the emotion of an editorial, from slow and heavy beats of armies marching to faster rat-a-tat snapping of breaking branches, with changes in speed signifying urgency or relaxation. Furthermore, the singer often displays her vocal skills by growling, summoning, trilling or belting.

Contemporary musicians have recently combined pansori with more modern forms, including funk and rock. LeeNalchi is a good example of such a group; their performances blend melodies from Korean folk songs with funk instruments to create an exciting blend that encapsulates ancient Koreans’ joyous lifestyles.


Arirang is Korea’s national folk song, an elegant yet lyrical tune with a repetitive refrain of “Arirang, Arirang.” Sung at special family occasions or to express love or grief, it stands as a testament to how closely knit society remains within families and communities.

In 2014, North Korean’s version of this song was inducted onto UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This musical component plays an integral part in everyday life for its citizens as well as being a source of national pride, symbolizing both their spirit and hope for better days ahead.

According to popular belief, this song’s name derives from its origins during the Three Kingdoms era when King Park Heonkgeose visited silkworm cultivation sites to support and encourage farmers. Furthermore, this traditional folk tune was also performed to praise Queen Aryeong who provided support in times of need – it is one of Korea’s most iconic songs today.

This song features an ensemble of musical instruments, from plucked string zithers and bamboo flutes to double reed instruments adapted from Chinese prototypes, providing rhythms characterized by long-short patterns or short-long patterns, melodies generally performed within either minor or major scales.

Folk music in Korea is a genre that blends traditional melodies with contemporary lyrics and instruments to convey social issues and daily lives to its listeners. Although influenced by Western styles and techniques, folk music retains its unique characteristics such as distinct rhythms and sounds that characterize this form.

Folk songs were traditionally written to convey specific messages or events, often covering such social and political matters as work, war or public opinion. Over time, melodies passed from generation to generation without their authors becoming known – some even became so timeless they remain unknown today.