Evolution of K-pop Series – Birth of K-pop to 1940’s

In this blog post, we go back to the very early stages of K-pop and appreciate some older forms of K-pop.  The influence of K-pop developed in this period can still be felt today. In fact, K-pop is a fusion of Korean and foreign (mainly western and Japanese) music forms.  Throughout the history of K-pop, you may notice the influence of foreign music.

The 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa opened Korea to foreign influences. People usually trace the birth of K-pop to the American and British folk songs introduced by the U.S. missionary Henry Appenzeller since 1885.  Korean used the melodies of these folk songs with Korean lyrics and these adapted form of songs was called “Changga” (which means “song”) in Korean. For example, Korean “Simcheongga” (which is about father-daughter relationship) was adapted from the U.S. folk song “My Darling Clementine” (which is about a dead lover) and Korean “Danny Boy” was adapted from the Northern Irish folk song “Londonderry Air”.

During the period from 1910 to 1948, Korea was under the colonization of Japan. The following forms of K-pop co-existed during this period:

(a) The resistance of Koreans to the Japanese occupation culminated in the March 1 Independence Movement in 1919.  At that time, Changga was used to express the hopes of restoring the country’s sovereignty.  One of the popular songs was “Huimangga” (희망가 -“Song of Hope”).

(b) There were translated versions of Japanese pop songs. For example, the first known K-pop album, “Yi Pungjin Sewol” (which means “This Tumultuous Time”) released in 1925 by Park Chae-seon and Lee Ryu-saek consisted of translated versions of Japanese pop songs.

(b) Apart from translated versions of foreign songs, original songs composed by Korean artists also appeared.  The first Korean-made pop song was “Nakhwayusu” (낙화유수 – “Fallen Blossoms on Running Water”) recorded by Lee Jeong-suk in 1929.  You can hear this song by watching this video.

(c) Another music genre called “trot” (트로트) also developed as a result of influence of Japan’s “enka” songs.  The Japanese “enka” songs are a fusion music genre combining western musical form and Japanese soundscape.  Although the source of  Korean trot is Japanese “enka” songs, trot differs from “enka” songs with its higher pitch, more upbeat tempo and melismatic Pansori singing style.  Pansori is a form of Korean traditional music and you may read more about Pansori in my blog post dated 6 February 2015.  Trot still survives in South Korea nowadays and you can still find trot songs sung in various TV programmes and concerts.

Let’s first hear one of the trot songs of this period entitled “My Brother is a Street Musician” (오빠는 풍각쟁이야 ) released in 1938 and sung by Park Hyang-rim.  I have chosen this song because it is quite funny and this song was used in the variety show by 2PM aired on 24 September 2011.  You can watch the relevant video clips by clicking the links below:

“My Brother is a Street Musician”(오빠는 풍각쟁이야 ) sung by Park Hyang-rim and released in 1938

“My Brother is a Street Musician”(오빠는 풍각쟁이야 ) sung by 2PM in 2011

Nowadays, there are newly composed trot songs (though in more modern style) released in the market.  One of the well-known songs is “Look at me Gwi Soon!” (날봐, 귀순!) sung by Daesung from the K-pop idol group, Big Bang and released in 2008.  You can hear this song by watching this video.

There is a recent Korean drama called the “Trot Lovers”(트로트의 연인) (aired in 2014) in which you can hear a number of trot songs.  You can look at a video clip of the audition scene of this drama (in which you can also hear a trot song) by clicking the link below:

“Trot Lovers” Audition Scene

K-pop idols/singers also like to sing trot songs to show off their singing skills.  You can watch the following videos to appreciate their singing skills:

Trot songs sung by Kim Jae-jung of JYJ and Lee Hae-ri of Davinci

Trot song sung by Yoseob and Kikwang of Beast

Trot song sung by members of Girls’ Generation

In the next blog post, we will move to the period in which western pop music became the dominant influence on K-pop.

Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 2 March 2015. Watch this space! 


Related Blog Posts:

“Evolution of K-pop Series – An overview” dated 25 February 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 1950’s and 1960’s” dated 4 March 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 1970’s and 1980’s” dated 6 March 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 1990’s (Rise of Modern K-pop) dated 9 March 2015 

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 2000’s and beyond” dated 11 March 2015



John Lie, K-pop: popular music, cultural amnesia and economic innovation in South Korea, Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015

John Lie, “What is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry and National Identity”, Korea Observer, Vol. 43, No.3, Autumn 2012, pp.339-363

Korean Culture and Information Service, K-pop: A new force in pop music, Republic of Korea, 2011



43 thoughts on “Evolution of K-pop Series – Birth of K-pop to 1940’s

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    • Thanks for your comments. During the 1940s, Korea was still under Japanese colonial rule so trot (which was influenced by Japanese music) was the popular music form at that time. Among the hit trot songs of the 1940s, most of the singers were male but I noted one female singer, Paek Nan-A (백난아), and her hit trot song was called “Wild Rose” (찔레꽃) released in 1942 – you can hear this song by clicking the first link below. I also include a second link to a video depicting Paek Nan-A singing another song in a show. Hope you enjoy!




  11. Thank you so much for providing the detailed background information Kalbi. I did some research on “Song of Hope” for my Asian music class (and put the findings on my blog). It appears to be a well-known melody in Korea and Japan, but not a lot of people know where it came from. Do you think it can be considered a classic Korean folk song now despite having foreign roots?


    • It depends on how you define “folk song” – if you adopt a restrictive definition which may mean having its roots in Korea or originally created in Korea, then the “Song of Hope” may not qualify. However, if you adopt a wider definition which may mean popular song sung by the rank and file or ordinary people of the society, then the “Song of Hope” may be considered as Korean folk song – it was first released in the 1920s when Korea was under the Japanese colonial rule, and is a national popular song in Korea. Maybe it’s due to this song being associated with the difficult times experienced in Korea history.

      Hope this helps.




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