gugak and gagaku

Many years ago, possibly before I went to Korean the first time, I came across a reference to gugak, or Korean traditional music. In the Korea the first time, I saw and heard various performances of traditional music, but did not encounter the word. In Korea the second time, I wandered around the regional city I was living in on various occasions. One day, I saw a museum of traditional arts and crafts. I had always thought that gugak was gu+gak, but the hangeul at the museum read 국악 or gukak. (One advantage of hangeul is that it tells you where the syllables are.) Guk by itself means (among other things) nation (most often found in words like 대한민국 (dae-han-min-guk, the official name of the Republic of Korea), 한국 (han-guk, the short name) and 외국 (oi-guk [way-guk], any foreign country). Ak by itself is related to 음악 (eum-ak, the general word for music) (which I incorporated into my Korean name, which I rarely use). So gugak is literally “national music” (국가 음악).

Last night I came across a reference to gagaku, or the classical music of Japan. Are the words gugak and gagaku related? Possibly, but after some research this morning, it’s impossible to be sure, working across Chinese characters, Japanese kanji, hangeul, pronunciation, transliteration and translation of all three language into English, and dictionary and encyclopedia entries. Gagaku is 雅楽, literally “elegant music”. The syllabification seems to be ga+gaku, because there is a related word bugaku, or “dance music”. Gugak includes court music, folk music, poetic songs, and religious music used in shamanistic and Buddhist traditions. Gagaku is primarily court music and dances, but also Shinto religious music and folk songs and dance.

I find it difficult to believe that the words aren’t related, in the same way that the word for music in most European languages is related to Greek ΜΟΥΣΙΚΗ. But a full investigation needs more knowledge of Chinese and Japanese than I’ve got. Vietnamese is easier to read, using the Roman alphabet, and the relevant words are Âm nhạc (“music”), clearly related to Korean eumak, and khúc nhạc (“music, symphony, air”), clearly related to Korean gugak.

So what does any of this sound like? It is difficult to illustrate an art form spanning a thousand years with one example, but the National Gugak Center’s promotional video is here (most of the music in the video is clearly a modern take on traditional forms), and UNESCO’s video of gagaku is here.

Thinking about it, it’s slightly strange that I didn’t investigate Korean traditional music more fully while I was there. Maybe because I can’t take photos of music or of musicians during a formal performance, though I did take photos of informal performances.

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3 thoughts on “gugak and gagaku

  1. Thanks for those fabulous videos! I have been a fan of what music stores file under “world music” since I young. Somehow, I had never been exposed to Korean music before. Now, I’m probably going to spend too much money on beefing up my music collection. Later this month I am taking Carly to a performance of traditional Chinese music and dance.


    • I must admit that I didn’t listen to the gagaku video all the way through before I linked to it (I trust UNESCO). I have now.
      Some years ago, I bought four CDs produced by Rough Guides, best known for travel guides – one of a selection of ‘world music’ and one each of music from Thailand, Greece and Ireland. I had to go and check, because it’s a long time since I’ve thought about them, let alone listened to them.


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