Korean Dramas and Music: A Narrative Experience



While there are so many aspects that contribute to one’s enjoyment of a particular K-drama, besides the writing and performances, music is one of the most significant aspects of TV binge-watching pleasure. Who hasn’t watched a drama without bawling over a particularly pretty ballad, placed at just the right moment? Alternatively, who hasn’t had a totally awesome drama ruined by terrible music?
It isn’t all a matter of opinion either; according to Elizabeth Lim, who is both a fiction author and PhD graduate in music composition, “…music itself can describe and guide a narrative, and intensify a story’s emotional impact”
Although this may seem somewhat obvious, how often do we say that we enjoy the music in a particular show, but can’t really put out finger on what makes it so special?
Here, I list some of my favourite drama soundtrack, and try to piece together what makes them so darn catchy (mild spoilers ahead)!!
1. Scarlet Heart: Ryeo
Anyone who’s been keeping up with my blogs over the last year knows that I’m a pretty big fan of Scarlet Heart: Ryeo. It may not have been super popular, ratings-wise, in Korea, but it garnered a huge fan base throughout other parts of Asia and around the globe, with its lavish set design and costumes, detailed casting, and, of course, its eclectic soundtrack.
Although music can be very explicitly demonstrative of a drama or scene’s intended emotion, SHR takes it to a new level by making larger narrative and thematic choices. For example, when Hae Soo (IU) and 4th Prince Wang So (Lee Joon-Gi) first meet, Exo’s “For You” plays. While it may, at first, only seem like a fun, upbeat song (and it is this), it also becomes a thematic song for Soo and So. The song that marks their first meeting, with So rescuing Soo on horseback, is also the song that plays when they reach a turning point in their relationship mid-way through the drama. Similarly, when (spoiler alert!) Soo dies in her Goryeo life, only to remember So in her 21st Century life, we get a flashback of the So-Soo couple in happier times, ending the drama with “For You” playing while So gives Soo a piggy-back ride.
In terms of genre, SHR is a very blended, hybrid genre, being that it mostly takes place in the past, but is still a time-travel drama, thus having a parallel future storyline. In this sense, the overall combination of K-pop inspired songs, mixed with softer, more traditional operettic melodies (such as Sunhae Im’s “Will be Back” ), keeps well with the intertwined past and present narratives and historical-yet-modern tone.
2. Radio Romance
With a title like Radio Romance, you’d definitely expect some great music! In this case, though, some of the most powerful songs are English hits, placed in narrative-specific scenes. One of my personal favourites is in Episode 8, when actor-turned-radio host, Su-Ho (Yoon Doo-Joon) is hosting a broadcast at a children’s hospital ward after arguing with his dysfunctional, micro-managing parents. When the terminally ill little girl, who is co-hosting with Su-Ho, touches the audience by talking about how she only gets to see her father one a month because he works as a delivery driver to pay for her hospital bills, and that she loves seeing Su-Ho and his parents “always together,” Su-Ho, unable to talk, cuts to a song-break, and Adele’s “Someone Like You” plays while we see close-ups of Su-Ho and his parents’ reflective faces. It’s truly a scene that requires no words!
3. Bride of the Water God

The soundtrack for Bride of the Water God is one that reflects the series’ overall, recurring “water” motif. Although lyrics vary, most of the songs’ melodies have a “watery” quality to them. For example, Lucia’s “Without You” takes on the swaying motion of lapping waves, while Kassy’s “The Day I Dream”[‘s] final notes sound almost like a mermaid’s siren call. This is soundtrack that’s hard to describe in writing alone; it deserves a listen for full impact!!
4. Your Honor
Your Honor is such a great drama—a delicious combo of goofy comedy, tear-jerking drama, and dreamy romance. The soundtrack has an amazing, emotional melodic quality (I always cry whenever I hear the opening piano strains of Raina’s “Home”), but in this case, it’s also important to examine the lyrics in relation to the narrative.
As the two main characters have biological family, yet are often alone, the concepts of “home” and “family” and what it means to journey forward to find those things, all become significant. The music reflects this wonderfully.

For example, in the concluding verse of Kim EZ’s “Shine” (Romanised version), Kim recounts an entire journey, beginning to end, of finding love and acceptance, with lines such as, “Someday, when darkness breaks/And I face you at the end of this road/Wrap your warmth around my painful life.” In addition to “Shine,” most of the soundtrack’s songs have titles that focus on these positive and comforting themes, such as Raina’s “Home” and Jung-In’s “Comfort.” Make a date with this soundtrack the next time you feel like having a good cry!

What soundtracks/songs from Korean dramas make you happy? Or do you know any that really, really did not work? Let us know in the comments!

Source: Anjirbag, Michelle Anya. “CRCLC Asks: 7 Questions with Elizabeth Lim.” 6 Nov. 2018. Cambridgechildrenslit.wordpress.com. https://cambridgechildrenslit.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/crclc-asks-7-questions-with-elizabeth-lim/

8 replies »

  1. This is so true. Music adds a whole other dimension to a drama. Right now, I just finished tracking down Park Wan Kyu, who sang “When time Stops” in “Jackpot” (The Royal Gambler) When I hear a voice like that, all my hair stands on end, and I just have to go searching Youtube for the culprit. I have even ordered an album by Kim Hyun-Sik after hearing “My Love by my Side.” I don’t understand the words, but he travels with me all the time just the same, rest his soul.

    • Thanks so much, Diane! I’m totally with you–YouTube is the best for tracking down those pesky “who was singing xyz song” queries (and SoundHound!!) I definitely need to check Kim Hyun-Sik out. I agree, even if you can’t understand the words, the emotion is always there <3

  2. OSTs always have a huge impact on me! I love the role music plays in the first four episodes of Love Rain, and Stay With Me (Punch and Chanyeol) from Goblin is a song that I still can’t stop listening to. Thanks for this post – I’m now interested in Bride of the Water God and will have to check it out!

    • Thank you so much for your comment!!! I agree–the Goblin soundtrack had such a huge impact on me too! I love Stay with Me, and When time stops (I think that’s the track title, hehe). It really was wicked. Bride of the Water God is so hard to find with DramaFever now, but it’s super worth a watch! Hope you enjoy it!!

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