Hyang-ak Court Music

Hyang-ak (鄕樂, “local music”) refers to classical Korean Court music distinguished from the influence of Tang Dynasty China (Dang-ak music). References to hyang-ak first came around the mid-9th century in poems by Chi Chiwon, and is often characterized as the music of Korean origin that more focuses on folk tradition and incorporates singing, dance, and instrument ensembles. It is important to distinguish, however, that the local music that is hyang-ak stems from the Silla kingdom and localized traditions, and did not formally become a staple of traditional Korean court music and the aristocracy until the Goryeo period around the beginning of the 12th century. Korean court music shares heritage with that of Japan, Vietnam, and China; the origin of the phrase hyang-ak comes from the word Aak, which is depicted using the same characters as Chinese yayue, Japanese gagaku, and Vietnamese nha nhac.[1]


Although the influx of Confucian-inspired ritualistic music became increasingly pervasive when Silla Korea formed an alliance with Tang China in the 9th century, as noted by Inhwa So, during the second half of the Joseon Dynasty, hyang-ak became the more popular style of state and royal music. Despite the popularization of more stylistically traditional Korean instrumentation and musicality, lyrics and singing tended to be markedly influenced by that of Chinese Tzu music. Western influence was also seen from the 16th century onward, as Korean court music began to be more and more divided into “garaks”—very similar to a “movement” in a Western composition.

Hyang-ak typicalhyangak2ly consists of long, horizontal string instruments (such as the Kayageum seen to the left), woodwinds (such as Joonggeum seen below and to the right), and hand drums.  Court music was often steeped in the Confucian social culture present; it was understood that music was seen as an accompaniment for praising the individual or state success. Music was also employed to preserve the auspicious nature of the seasons—ancestral shrine music would be played during the first month of each season. In traditional fashion, music would be preceded by conversing with the spirits, offering tribute and food, and then making numerous consecutive offerings of wine (and sometimes other forms of alcohol). After such strictures, music would be performed. Unique to Korean court music is the notion of nine repeated iterations of a given melody during a performance—the number nine reflects the spirits of the humanity .hyangak3

Since the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, most hyang-ak and dang-ak music has been abolished and lost, but state institutions such as the Royal Music Department (1951) were established to help preserve the art. Today, hyang-ak is still performed, but mostly for cultural heritage concerts.

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