Korea Busan 3404 06 Pansori

The ubiquity of noraebang - karaoke rooms - is the first sign of how integral music is to the culture of Korea.

Korea’s musical culture is intrinsically linked to its storied history. Today, going to the noraebang is a way to party, to relieve stress and to feel free. It’s both a social affair and a pastime. In major cities like Seoul, you can barely walk more than one or two streets without seeing a noraebang. It’s safe to say that it’s a music-obsessed culture and the best way to understand it is to embrace it.  

Noraebangs, unlike most Western karaoke bars, don’t have a main room where strangers are forced to listen to each other. Instead, they house private rooms with multiple microphones, allowing everyone in a group to jump in on the fun.

But the culture of music in Korea isn’t just about where music is enjoyed - it’s also about what music is enjoyed. K-pop was born in the early 1990s but really rose to popularity later in the decade. A dismissal of this genre because it might sound like any other fluff-pop and lauds outlandish, outrageous videos, costumes, and choreography would be unfair. In the grand tradition of contemporary music, K-pop comes with a message, a saccharine-sounding rebellion. K-popstars take on the social issues the world is tackling today through their lyrics and music videos.

But the role of K-pop goes further. One of the most important exports from Korea to the world is its Hallyu, or ‘The Korean Wave’. Essentially, Hallyu is pop culture. From music to TV shows, Korea owns a massive segment of the entire world’s pop culture. It is a result of this Hallyu trade that strengthened the relationship between Korea and Japan; after a 50-year ban on pop culture exchange between the two countries was lifted in 2000, Korean culture gained popularity in Japan, leading to a positive ripple effect on their relationship in other ways.

K-pop band performing in white room

The trade of Korea’s pop culture across Asia helped lift countries out of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The rebranding and reshaping of infrastructure that took place as Hallyu experimented with Korea’s image worked wonders. Today, Korea is the 7th largest export economy in the world. The world wants what Korea has.

And the roots of this musical culture go much deeper. Korea has 60 traditional musical instruments alone. And with two main types of traditional music - jeongak for nobles and sogak for common people - music has been a part of the culture for everyone for centuries.

Traditional Korean music

These days, Koreans and visitors to Korea enjoy performances of traditional Korean music, such as Pansori, a storytelling genre performed by singer and drummer, or Korean folk music and dance at the National Gugak Center in Seoul. The preservation of these beautiful traditions is a significant part of the musical culture today.