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Chongganbo – Sejong’s Musical Alphabet

A piece for danso in Chongganbo notation
A piece for danso – Korean flute – in Chongganbo notation

By Matthew Jackson

King Sejong is most famous for his invention of the Korean alphabet. His other achievements, in social and legal reform, science and art, are less well known. The Chongganbo (정간보), which could be regarded as a musical alphabet, is one such achievement.

The five-line staff notation that we use in modern music has its origins in the middle ages. The original ‘neume’ system represented the movement of melody, with notes moving up and down the page according to their pitch. It is still used today in the traditional music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Originally, it was not able to represent the length of a note.

The Titanic theme
The Titanic theme
During the same period in Korea, King Sejong developed the Chongganbo, a form of musical notation which made it possible to record both the pitch and length of the note, and therefore to compose pieces for orchestra.

King Sejong was himself a composer of music, and from his relationship with Pak Yon, the most talented musician of the Choson Dynasty, emerged many of the great advances in the music of 15th century Korea.

Arirang in Chongganbo notation
Arirang in Chongganbo notation
The Chongganbo notation consists of blocks of cells, each representing a unit of time, with symbols written in each cell depicting the notes. If the name of a note appeared in two consecutive cells, the note would be played for twice as long; if two characters were written in one cell, they would be played twice as fast.

Thanks to this musical notation, it is possible to recreate the music of the Royal Palace today. Considering that the staff notation, which is now universally used in modern music, took many centuries to evolve into its current state, the fact that this system was devised by one individual is remarkable in itself.

The Chongganbo survives in its original form in the Sejong Sillok, and, alongside the modern five-line notation, is still widely used in Korean music.

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