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Traditional Korean Music Pages
Religious Music
of Korea

Religious music in Korea is centered on the three main religious influences in Korea's historical development: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shamanism.
Featured Religious Piece:
Hoisimgok (Song of Release)
Hoisimgok was originally a Buddhist chant which was sechularised and adopted into the folk music tradition.
"Historically, Buddhism has always been based on the principles of harmony and agreement and it is these qualities which created the necessary circumstances for Buddhism to cease being a foreign teaching and become truly Korean. Later on, Buddhism served not only as a religion but also as a culture, philosophy and spiritual pivot point around which to sublimate all the joys and sorrows of life."

Kim Young-Tae
(Buddhist scholar)
Age, Birthdays, and You

When Koreans are born, they are said to be one year old and the age is increased not on birthdays, but on New Year's Day. Thus the difference between Korean age and Western age is 2 years until one's birthday. Then the difference is one year.

Religious Music Forms

1. Buddhist Music

Buddhism was brought to Korea from China late in the 4th century, where it harmonised with Korean culture and a Korean form of Buddhism emerged. During the Unified Shilla Dynasty, Buddhism was supported by the state and embraced by the people. Buddhist festivals at that time drew great crowds of people who would gather to perform elaborate Buddhist ceremonies which included music and dance. Later during the Koryo Dynasty, Buddhism continued to develop and played a significant role in the cultural growth of the nation. In the late 14th century however, the Chosun Dynasty took control of Korea and adopted Confucianism in favour of Buddhism. One major reason for this is that Buddhist temples had accumulated a great deal of land and material wealth, forcing the closing of temples meant that the court could take control of the land and seize the material objects kept in the temples.
Music was an important part of traditional Buddhist ceremonies, normally including vocal chants sung solo or in unison with rhythmic accompaniment of woodblocks or bells. Melodic instruments were not played by monks during ceremonies but sometimes small troupes of local musicians would play accompaniment to Buddhist dances. Today music performances at Buddhist temples are rarely practiced, found only on occasion at the largest temples, and these music performances are normally of a scale much smaller than the elaborate musical elements practiced centuries ago.

2. Confucian Music

At the end of the 14th century the ruling powers of the Chosun Dynasty adopted Confucianism as its philosophical base and Confucian thought then became a strong influence on Korean society. Of course, Confucianism could not completely replace Buddhism and as Korean society evolved both modes of thought were weaved into the cultural fabric as both continued to influence the soul of the nation. A recent study suggested that Confucianism was stronger in South Korea than in any other country of the region, including China where Confucianism originated.
An annual ceremony honouring Confucious is held at the Confucian Shrine in Seoul, the ceremony includes instrumental music, vocal music, and dance. The music was brought to Korea from China's Song Dynasty during the Koryo Dynasty around the year 1116. After some centuries the music became Koreanised, thus in the 15th century King Sejong decided to restore the music to its original form as it had existed in China. Today it is performed from the notation which has been passed down since the 15th century. The music used in the Confucian Shrine Ceremony consists of six pieces constructed on a 7-tone scale in melismatic form. Like the Royal Ancestral Shrine music this ceremony employs two full orchestras: deungga (terrace orchestra) and hunga (courtyard orchestra), notably the hunga does not use a single string instrument.

3. Shaman Music

For centuries Korean people have cultivated shamanism, developing a large collection of lively mystical performance rituals. The musical elements include vocal songs, instrumental accompaniment, and purely instrumental pieces, such as sinawi. The rituals are normally led by a single shaman accompanied by a small energetic instrumental troupe. Rituals are performed for several purposes, such as sending wishes or appeals to the gods, to contact the souls of ancient people, or simply to entertain and appease the gods. The musical characteristics of these shaman rituals differ somewhat according to region much like the various folk song styles. A number of shaman songs have become quite popular and have essentially been assimilated into the general folk music tradition.

.....a journey of a thousand li begins with a single step.....