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Learning area: The Arts
Year level: Year 7, Year 8
Country: China, Japan, South Korea

This learning sequence investigates contemporary pop music produced in China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan. Students will explore the diversity of contemporary music and investigate its interrelationship with the popular culture of these countries.

Key inquiry questions

  • What styles of pop music are produced in China, South Korea and Japan, and what are their key characteristics?
  • What factors have shaped the development of pop music in China, South Korea and Japan?
  • How does pop music influence popular culture in China, South Korea and Japan?

PSY, 'Gangnam style' at Seoul College, SeoulPSY, 'Gangnam style' at Seoul College, Seoul


Image: Gangnam_style_PSY_21logo – ‪‪‪‬‬‬‬‬‬(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Related resources

Activity 1: Prepare yourself for Asia-pop

In this activity, you will explore different styles of pop music from China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan.

Key inquiry question: What styles of pop music are produced in China, South Korea and Japan, and what are their key characteristics?

  1. Look at the map of North-East Asia and locate China, South Korea and Japan:

    Sea of Japan Map(East_sea)Map of South-East Asia

  2. Discuss as a class what you know about pop music in these countries and write down some of the shared key facts.
  3. Read the overview of contemporary music in North-East Asia and add any additional information to your notes.
  4. Discuss as a class facts that you didn't know but found interesting.
  5. Watch the three very different pop music videos from China, South Korea and Japan using the overview of contemporary music in North-East Asia.
  6. Draw up a table of three columns and head each with the country of origin (that is China, South Korea and Japan), the title of the song, and the name of the artist.
  7. List all the things you can observe about the songs such as:
    • the number of performers involved
    • the story, if there is one, being told through the film clip and dance
    • the costumes, style, mood, setting and overall emotion of each song
    • the ways in which these songs and performances differ from the popular music you are familiar with, particularly that from Australia and the USA.
  8. Share your observations with your peers and add any elements you may have missed when describing the characteristics of each song.
  9. Have the class vote on their favourite video and discuss why you voted this way.

More about C-pop

Throughout the 20th century, three distinct forms of popular music can be observed in China, aligning with the cultural changes of the time, as is often the case with musical cultural expression.

During the first half of the 20th century, China's increased contact with other cultures, particularly Western ones, saw a rise in the popularity of jazz, popular recorded tunes and nightclub dance music. Shanghai and Canton became centres for bands and singers following popular music styles.

During the second half of the 20th century, the popular music of the first half of the century was denounced by the Communist regime's Cultural Revolution. Revolutionary songs, propaganda films, traditional operas and symphonic concertos became the prevalent music styles and individualistic expression was forbidden.

Since the mid-1970s, China's popular music scene has begun to reintroduce Western-style music mixed with elements of traditional music. The youth of China began accessing the music of bands popular in the West and emulated their styles and instruments. The music industry began to boom again, with instruments, styles, genres, themes and aesthetics being adapted and influenced by Western and other Asian popular cultures.

An example of the emergence of popular music in China is the 2008 Beijing Olympics' ceremonies that featured many Chinese pop musicians. The music industry in China is bigger than any other in the world, reaching an audience of billions in China alone and ever expanding to other countries in Asia and beyond.

More about K-pop

South Korea also has a rich traditional music heritage. Many of the characteristics of other Asian cultures' music are present in Korean traditional music, such as five-note, or pentatonic scales; vocal and instrumental similarities; and a relationship with dance, drama and other arts forms.

In the early part of the 20th century, traditional music was censored in Korea due to the Japanese annexation of the country. After World War II, the split between the Democratic Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea (North and South Korea) resulted in significantly different approaches to music making and performance.

South Korean pop music is influenced by many sources. It is a fusion of traditional styles and techniques, with a heavy influence from American and other Western musical styles. K-pop consists of several sub-genres, most notably dance, hip hop, rock, indie and folk. K-pop has a significant impact on the contemporary culture of South Korea and other parts of the world. Its slick, highly produced aesthetic has had an impact on fashion, film, design and other arts.

More about J-pop

In the 20th century it was heavily influenced by American rock 'n roll, including Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys.

In the 1990s and beyond, the spread of manga culture, electronic devices and computer technologies, including the internet, saw J-pop reach unprecedented audiences. The prevalence of technological advances in Japanese industry has meant that the cultural aesthetic of digitised, synthesised arts reflects the contemporary life of urban Japanese youth.

Activity 2: Investigating C-pop, K-pop and J-pop

In this activity, you will investigate the characteristics of C-pop, K-pop and J-pop.

Key inquiry question: What factors have shaped the development of pop music in China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan?

  1. View the images and read the notes using the notes on C-pop, K-pop and J-pop.
  2. As a class, discuss the similarities and differences between pop music in these countries and Australia.
  3. Form groups of four. Decide on a popular song/music/dance style that you wish to find more information about, choosing from C-pop, K-pop and J-pop.
  4. Find a video of the style of music your group wants to research, either on YouTube or from home.
  5. View the performance more than once to make sure you understand the characteristics of the style and the elements of the music. Listen and watch very carefully.
  6. Create a definition for the style of music. For example, decide what aspects of the music make it unique from other styles of music.
  7. Examine any historical, social and spiritual contexts for the development of the style of music.
  8. Use the musical elements discussed with your teacher to notate the performance. This can be done while watching the video clip.
  9. In your group, divide into pairs. Each pair is to find two other examples of the music/song/dance that you have chosen to research.
  10. Develop a list of performers who use this style of music or dance.
  11. Once you have gathered your information, create a web report/poster on the style of music using software such as ‪‬‬‬‬Glogster to create the presentation, incorporating text, images, and video clips.
  12. Make sure you provide all the appropriate references. Your research will be presented in Activity 3.

Asia pop in focus

Super Junior-M (C-pop)

Super Junior-M's 'Breakdown' is in a minor tonality giving it a menacing, slightly dark mood. This is further reflected in the colours chosen by the artistic directors for the video – cold whites and silvers, contrasted with stark black. The music is heavily influenced by European trance and dance music, as well as South Korean popular dance music. The fusion of styles and techniques creates a hyper-modern atmosphere, as portrayed in the visual setting – a futuristic science fiction stage resembling a Star Wars set. The combination of both Chinese and English lyrics further exemplifies the modernist fusion.

Musically, the song follows a traditional pop song structure consisting of introduction, verses, chorus, a bridging section and returning to the chorus. Filled with electronica techniques, the slick, refined and highly produced sound is characteristic of many current C-pop hits. In addition the rap-style introduction is a contrast to the dance/dubstep-style that ensues.

Girls' Generation (K-pop)

'All my love is for you' is a love ballad featuring a more subtle and subdued aesthetic and mood than most of the group's other pieces. They often perform more synthesised dance music with energetic choreography.

Girls' Generation has an acoustic sound, featuring close harmonies as the voices blend, especially in the chorus sections. In addition, with such a large group, there are numerous sections where short improvisations are added to the main vocal riffs to produce more layers of sound. The songs follow closely the ballad form of popular music, and makes use of riffs and ostinato, in both the rhythms and melodies. This song incorporates Western instrumental influences to create a symphonic sound, especially the full string sound and the use of a snare drum to represent the beating of the heart.

Hatsune Miku (J-pop)

Hatsune Miku is also often called a global icon or 'hub' because the culture around her encourages a worldwide creative community to produce and share Miku-related content. With the increase of remix works and steadily growing global demands Crypton Future Media, INC. engages consciously in the promotion, support and cultivation of the Hatsune Miku community., a consumer-focused media platform where users can collaborate and share their ideas, and the user-focused digital label KARENT have opened to the public via the web. In 2012, Crypton decided to adapt 'Creative Commons License CC BY-NC' to the original illustrations of Hatsune Miku to support open creative activities all over the world.

In this 'live' performance of 'World is mine', Hatsune Miku appears as a 3D projection in front of her band. The music is dance-pop and, musically, the piece follows a traditional popular song form, with introduction, verses, choruses, and bridge sections.

Hatsune Miku is an amalgam of numerous electronic and acoustic techniques, and is influenced by rock, rap, pop, dance and dubstep characteristics. Her voice is sampled from Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. The aesthetic of the character borrows heavily from the strong tradition of manga characters in Japanese popular media.

Activity 3: Pop music and popular culture

In this activity, you will:

  • explore the impact of pop music on popular culture
  • present your research on C-pop, K-pop and J-pop.

Key inquiry question: How does pop music influence popular culture in China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan?

  1. Stay in your groups created in Activity 2 and view the images and video clips, and read the notes about the origins of pop culture.
  2. Complete your presentation by showing how pop music has influenced popular culture in your chosen country.
  3. You may wish to use your images and/or YouTube video clips to provide visual representations.
  4. Once all the presentations have been completed, decide as a class which was the most effective presentation and why.
  5. Complete the activity by discussing whether there were any universal elements present in all forms of pop music and if these could be considered to be global trends.

The origins of popular music

Pop music originated from a combination of elements from urban, dance, rock, Latin and country music styles. The characteristics of pop music are short to medium-length songs written with familiar catchy tunes and a simple musical format such as a verse-chorus structure which is repeated.

Instruments used

Most pop music involves electric guitars including a bass instrument, drums and vocals. The music is commercially recorded with electronic and synthesised effects. In China, pop music can combine any traditional Chinese instruments in conjunction with popular instruments of Western cultures.

Pop music and popular culture

Pop music and popular culture go hand in hand. Each influences the other and both are also intrinsically linked to fashion, performance, digital/screen/print media, visual arts, language, communication technologies and youth consumerism. As China, Japan and South Korea become more industrialised, economic wealth and a higher standard of living with a sizeable disposable income for the average family makes it easier to connect with trends outside a country's borders. Digital mobile communications present young people with opportunities to connect globally and these technologies become a vehicle for rapid change in fashion trends and the styles of new music.

Pop music's message

The message of this generation is empowerment and realisation of their personal image. Girl bands explore their sensuality within the parameters of social respectability. Boy bands emulate rap, hip hop music and dance styles, grunge and street music, which are more common to the populations of the USA than to China, Japan and South Korea.

Global culture

The transference of popular culture isn't a one-way street with Asia absorbing Western cultures and trends. Globalisation also means that musicians, artists, dancers and arts industry celebrities travel to China, Japan and South Korea, among other countries, to learn about their unique styles and artists, music and fashion trends. The internet and digital technologies facilitate demand and opportunities to synthesise cultures and trends into a blended form acceptable to all cultures. Cultural exchanges and performance opportunities provide opportunities for innovation and intercultural understanding about individual expression.

Activity 4: Reflection

To conclude this learning sequence, you will reflect on what you have learned and outline the characteristics of a new genre, Oz-pop, using one of the following:

  1. Thinking about the pop music styles presented in this module and creating a performance piece that reflects the elements of one of them. Here are some examples of what you could do:
  2. Create a 'vocaloid' or 'virtual' singer/character and create a song for them using computers.
  3. Compose a piece of music using the characteristics studied throughout the module.
  4. Use a structure similar to that used to explore C-pop, K-pop and J-pop and create the elements of Oz-pop as a new genre.

This learning sequence provides teachers with the opportunity to discuss with students the characteristics of pop music in China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan. Students develop an insight into the different styles of music throughout Asia by questioning and investigating content and stimulus materials. They apply their knowledge and understanding to create their own music in the style of popular Asian music.

As students investigate popular culture and contemporary pop music, and engage with cultural understanding, it is important that they also develop their musicianship.

Activity 1: Prepare yourself for Asia-pop

This activity introduces students to the world of pop music in China, South Korea and Japan. Start the activity by finding out what students know about these countries and their contemporary music.

Students will refer to the overview of contemporary music in North-East Asia, contained within the text, to provide them with information about pop music and examples of current band performances.

Activity 2: Investigating C-pop, K-pop and J-pop

For this activity students will break into groups and conduct further research. Make sure that all countries are covered in the presentations. Refer to the information about C-pop, K-pop and J-pop, contained within the text.

It is important to discuss with your students the key elements of music. This allows them to access, make and think about music with a set of concepts that describe different parts of the music.

There are many theories as to what the elements of music might be, and below is a list that may assist in the inquiry learning of this module.

  • Duration: relative length of sounds and silences in music (rhythm, beat, pulse, tempo)
  • Expressive devices: ways of influencing the mood and character of music (dynamics, louds and softs, contrast)
  • Pitch: the relative frequency of sound (melody, harmony, tonality)
  • Structure: form and design of music (repetition, variety)
  • Texture: density of sound (layers of sound, melody versus accompaniment)
  • Timbre: characteristic quality of sound sources or tone colour (instrument combinations, brightness, mellowness)

Music elements are non-hierarchical and not every piece of music will have every music element in it.

Activity 3: Pop music and popular culture

In this activity students will complete their presentations by looking at the influence of pop music on popular culture in their focus country. Refer to the information about pop culture, contained within the text. It is important to emphasise that the groups' presentations should be creative and musical, reflecting the key elements of pop music played in their focus country.

Activity 4: Reflection

Students have the opportunity to use their musical or media arts skills to display what they have learned. If they feel threatened by this opportunity, there is the option to create the characteristics of an Oz-pop genre.

Useful websites

It is recommended that teachers preview websites to ensure they are suitable for their students prior to use in class. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.

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