Basic Principles of Traditional Korean Music Theory Part I:
Korean music is complex and varied, changing from region to region in both theory and practice. There are far too many concepts to be covered in a article such as this. As a result, I will focus on the basic musical ideas primarily stemming from the fifteenth-century; a time of renaissance in the Korean arts. This music is considered Korean Court Music. It is interesting that during this time the European renaissance was also happening. Although my primary concern here is to present a clear and simple picture of traditional Korean music theory, it seems impractical to talk about the theory of music alone without mention of performance practice. Music theory is meant to serve performance and is not an end unto itself; thus, I will include information about performance practice where I think it is most pertinent.
Pitch is one of the most basic elements of music theory. In the western world we identify with and are taught that pitch is a single note, a specific frequency and set of overtones. However, the Korean idea of pitch is quite different. In traditional Korean music pitch is not a single tone. Instead they consider pitch to be an idea, which encompasses multiple other tones and intonations. Pitch is not a single specific note, but rather it is a melodic gesture which includes melodic ideas and ornamentations. In Korea they use the term um to describe sound, and when speaking of music it is applied to the idea of “pitch.”
As we have already begun to discover, this um may consist of several pitches in the western sense. Thus, we may consider these to be a gesture rather than a single note. Much like a dancer might make a movement, which we perceive as single and fluid, but in reality is made up of a series of smaller movements combined. Musically, this could be a slide from a primary pitch to a secondary one, or perhaps a very wide vibrato ending in the upward movement to a new tone. Even something as decorative as an appoggiatura would be considered a single pitch in the Korean aesthetic.
There is a precise key aspect of Korean performance practice in which these musical gestures are associated with. The idea is called sigimsae, which is the movement and manipulation of pitch. This term can be commonly translated as “embellishment.” The practice gives pitches movement, direction, and shape. Sigimsae is not only applied to the pitch, but it is also applied to the performance within the context of a melody. The modal qualities of Korean music sigimsae or pitch gestures are a key ingredient in determining the characteristics of one mode from another.
The last performance aspect of sigimsae I will discuss is the idea of maturity though aging. Koreans believe that as a musician matures they will be able to enhance the melody in fluidity character and dramatic effect. This is accomplished through the musicians increased technical facility, and music sensitivity which develops and matures over time. Over time the musician has greater sigimsae.