Music as a Gateway to Other Cultures: Learning about a Different Culture through music

By Hyun Ji Oh

Kingston Korean Festival 2017 (photo: KBCE)

I have always been interested in learning about different parts of the world. Many people believe that learning a wide range of languages is one of the best ways to open one’s mind and explore new cultures. However, music also represents a great way to explore many vibrant and fascinating cultures. Music exists in every culture, and it tells the story of a society’s character and history. If learning a language can lead us to communicate with other people, learning local music can help us to learn about their culture, history, and so much more. For example, when one learns about a different culture’s music and its distinctive instruments, one can naturally acquire its language by learning lyrics. Also, becoming part of a performance one can learn a people’s customs, costumes, and even dance movements. Last but by no means least, the experience of learning and playing a culture’s music can naturally lead one to become a non-judgemental and open-minded person.

Hyun Ji Oh playing her 12-string gayageum
Hyun Ji Oh playing her 12-string gayageum

I am Korean, but I am ashamed to say that for many years I wasn’t familiar with my own nation’s culture. Finally I made a conscious decision to further learn about Korea by studying its traditional music and more particularly its representative string instrument, the gayageum. In order to learn the instrument I visited the Korean Performing Arts Center in New York City. It was there that I met my gayageum teacher, Jung Hae Oh, who is a professional gayageum performer and teacher. I still remember my first lesson. It was difficult for me to even make a sound by plucking the string! Every new skill was challenging, such as finding the correct string among the 12 strings with a quickly moving left hand. Also, after practicing, my right hand’s second and third fingers were bleeding from the gayageum’s strings. Even the broader matter of preparing for the gayageum performance proved to be challenging, because I was used to preparing for Western-style music performances. Every experience was unfamiliar to me, from learning how to bow to an audience, how to sit correctly, and how to wear the traditional Korean gown known as the hanbok.

My first performance was at Teachers College, Columbia University. I played the “Arirang Medley” that consists of three different arirangs: Gyeonggi, Gangwondo, and Milyang Arirang. “Arirang” is a representative Korean folk song that has been passed down orally. Koreans sing Arirang in order to express their deep sorrow. People have many different opinions about the origin of arirang, and there are various iterations of it. They can be classified according to geographical region such as Haeju Arirang, Jungsun Arirang, Milyang Arirang, and Gangwondo Arirang. The melody, rhythm, and lyrics vary from region to region. I chose to play the “Arirang Medley,” which includes the three different types of arirang I just noted. Their distinctive characteristics are as follows.

Gyeonggi Arirang is also called “Seoul Arirang.” This arirang is in Samachi Jangdan, a characteristic rhythmic pattern which accords well with Koreans’ strong emotions. Although it is not clear precisely when Gyeonggi Arirang came into being, people suppose that it was created during the Japanese colonial period and served to assuage Koreans’ sorrows at that time. In 1926, Gyeonggi Arirang gained broaden fame when it was adopted as the theme song for Na Un Kyu’s movie, Arirang. Through the film, the song became well known throughout Korea.

Gangwondo Arirang is a traditional folk song that people who lived in the Gangwon province enjoyed. The tempo of the song is slow, and its rhythmic beat is closely related to Korea’s agrarian past when farmers would do their slow and patient work in the fields to the rhythmic beat of the song, perhaps modifying the lyrics but singing the song at that tempo.

Milyang Arirang is a traditional folk song that stems from the Gyeongsang region, the one where my hometown is located. By now, however, the song has spread widely throughout Korea. Although the composer of the song is not known, scholars speculate that the song may have been composed between 1950 and 1960. Its tempo, also in Samachi Jangdan, is fast and cheerful.

As you can tell, each of the three arirangs that comprise the medley I played has its own special characteristics, and the moods of the songs contrast with one another. This contrast originates not only from the different gayageum techniques employed but also from the expressive features of each arirang.

Although the whole learning and performing process was challenging, it also was exciting and educational. Not only did I immerse myself in Korean culture in a way I never had before, but I also met many good people while doing so. In addition to interacting with audience members, I became friends with many Korean performers as well as those from other countries. In particular I recall fondly the people I met who came from The India Music Center and shared with us so many fascinating facts about their nation’s music and culture.

I think the reader can tell that this performance, and all that went into making it happen, was a very meaningful experience for me. It may sound strange for a Korean person to say that an experience such as this one helped her to learn not just about other cultures but also her own. However, since Korea’s culture and traditional music have such deep historical roots, a modern Korean needs to work hard to become acquainted with them. Indeed, I have learned that becoming familiar with any culture, and especially one that is geographically distant from one’s home country is not an easy endeavor. It takes years, and calls for tremendous efforts. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that delving deeply into the music of other cultures is a great way to acquire a knowledge of more than just their music. Because music exists everywhere and because it lives in such close relation to our daily lives, none of us should hesitate to “dive right in,” enjoying the music and learning all of the related cultural lessons.

Lead image photo credit: Korea British Cultural Exchange, at Kingston Korean Festival 2017

One thought on “Music as a Gateway to Other Cultures: Learning about a Different Culture through music

  1. Raymond Sweetman: An excellent article! Like many others I too was drawn to the cultures of East Asia via music and dance.

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