SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Lessons for Schools: 2 Korea

Keith Howard

Korea is today best known for electronics and cars – Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo are major Korean companies. Today, Seoul (hence the pun in my title), democratic South Korea’s capital, is a major world economic powerhouse. Many will remember the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted in Korea and Japan, where Korea’s fans and supporters – the ‘Red Devils’ – provided a loud and vocal backing to all matches. Korea has a long and illustrious history stretching back 5,000 years – Koreans invented, apart from many other things, movable type and iron-clad battleships – so, not surprisingly, Korean music is very different from the music of its neighbours, China and Japan. Here, I offer some background material, then suggest a lesson plan on Korean rhythm.


  • The Silk Roads reached Korea from China, bringing musics and instruments from Central Asia as well as China. Tomb paintings, and bronze and stone reliefs on temple bells and buildings, document how a distinct Korean court music emerged by the 5th century. Legends talk about the plucked zithers, komun’go and kayagum, in which 6th-century kings ordered musicians to devise Korean instruments distinct from Chinese equivalent, and of the 7th-century invention of a horizontal flute, taegum, which calmed storms and brought peace whenever it was blown. Folk music is more difficult to track back, although written documents beginning in the 3rd century tell us that Koreans then, as now, loved to sing and dance to percussion music.
  • Korean court music is refined and ethereal, reflecting the moral codes of Confucianism. Folk music – just as Koreans love spicy food (notably the pickled cabbage staple, kimch’i) – is full of earthy vigour. There are some 65 instruments used in traditional music, some originally imported from China to use in court rituals, but Koreans consider all the main melodic and percussive instruments to be indigenous. Korean instrumental timbres tend to be soft, and incorporate elements of noise (plucking silk strings, plectra hitting wood after striking a string, breath sounds on wind instruments).
  • Korean traditional music can be characterised as follows:
    • melody (melodic flow, the ‘tune’, is less important than often complex ornamentation of individual tones);
    • harmony (traditional music has virtually no harmony);
    • rhythm (this is the key to Korean music – see below);
    • scales (pentatonic scales favoured);
    • time (court music can be very slow, with each beat measured in terms of breath – imagine a cloud flowing over an empty field, or a long stroke of the calligrapher’s brush; most folk music suits the Korean propensity to dance).
      For more, explore websites. The best Korean site is the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (; from here click on GugakFM to listen to radio programmes of Korean music.
  • Western music arrived in Korea a century ago. Today, Western rather than traditional music dominates the local scene, and Korean opera singers, pianists, violinists and conductors have global fame. In the 1990s, Korean pop rapidly assimilated and amalgamated rap, hip hop, reggae and more and, together with TV dramas and films, forms the basis of the popular ‘Korea Wave’ or ‘Korea Cool’ throughout Asia.

Lesson Plan

Part I: Rhythm as the core of Korean music.
  • Rhythm is the most important ingredient of Korean music (unlike Western music, where melody and harmony take primary place). Virtually all genres are built around rhythmic cycles, changdan. A cycle is repeated for a whole section (but with lots of improvised variants), and consists of a strong downbeat and set accents (which are always kept, keeping all musicians playing in time). Cycles are metrical, hence can be assigned Western time signatures. Below are basic changdan, running from slow to fast, notated for the key instrument, changgo. The changgo is a versatile double-headed hourglass drum, higher-pitched skin struck with thin long stick – notated tails up –, lower pitched skin struck with hand or mallet stick, notated tails down. Google ‘changgo images’ for pictures; use classroom instruments to play the changdan.
Korean Score 1


  • How about exploring sound/video clips to identify changdan? On youtube, type in ‘sanjo’ (a once improvised piece, with a sequence of slow to fast movements, played by melody instrument plus drum) or ‘pansori’ (extended sung storytelling genre with solo singer and drum accompaniment), and identify changdan in each excerpt.
  • Develop variant changdan; all should keep downbeat and accented tones.
Nongak musicians
Part II: Percussion Bands.
  • Add three more instruments to the changgo, since bands are a mix of drums and gongs:
    • Kkwaenggwari (small, hand held gong, hit with round headed beater), name is onomatopoeia for sound. Loud and in bands played by the leader; google ‘kkwaenggwari images’.
    • Ching (big, hand held gong, hit with cloth-covered beater), name is onomatopoeic, ‘head’ of band – plays downbeats or important beats only.
    • Puk (squashed barrel drum) played with a wooden beater. Fills out ching material.
  • These four instruments are typical for percussion bands known as nongak and pungmul. Percussion bands are very common in Korea, and used to be used for farming, rituals, fund-raising and entertainment. Now they are used just for entertainment. In 1978, the percussion bands of old were remodelled for urban stages, and the quartet/group SamulNori (= ‘four things play’, the same four instruments) was born.
  • SamulNori often perform seated rather than including dance. They first adapted old music for the contemporary world. The next notation is the opening of one of their pieces, derived from band music of Korea’s southeastern coast: Yongnam nongak. Try the top line (kkwaenggwari) first, then add the two parts on the bottom line (ching (tails down) and puk (tails up), finally try to build the middle line part (changgo). This is taken from my book, Creating Korean Music (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006). Western metrical conventions are used here, but keep quaver/crotchet pulse constant, so the music flows. Note that each pattern flows to the next, creating a seamless whole, so let each rhythm gradually get faster (repeats are marked), then progress to the next rhythm. The sequence is: a processional (kil kunak) in three parts – each getting shorter, which in village life marked the band processing to a village, slowing as they entered the village, stopping and waiting to enter a house; a pattern associated with rice paddy field weeding (taduraegi) that builds to a cadence.
Korean Score 2


Part III: Rhythm today and tomorrow

In the 1980s, SamulNori began to explore fusions with jazz or other Korean/Western music, or dance such as b-boys. Today, a popular group based on SamulNori is Dulsori, who regularly tour Britain (and give an annual summer school at SOAS).