Sound Field


Why K-Pop Is More Complex Than You Think

K-Pop has become a global phenomenon. While K-Pop may seem like traditional pop music, it's actually more complex. It borrows from a variety of genres like R&B, EDM, and Hip-Hop while maintaining it's own distinct sound. Nahre Sol investigates why K-Pop is different from other styles of Pop music, speaks to K-Pop producer and songwriter David Amber and attempts to create her own K-Pop track.

AIRED: January 24, 2020 | 0:10:15

(upbeat music)

- When "Gangnum Style" went viral back in 2012,

♪ Oppa Gangnam style ♪

(upbeat music)

the world got a glimpse of the flashy, heavily produced

and entertaining nature of K-pop.

Since then, we've seen a lot, such as witnessing

K-pop group BTS continuously breaking records since 2017

(sings in a foreign language)

Blackpink being the first K-pop girl group

to perform at Coachella

♪ Blackpink ♪

and SuperM being the second K-pop group to reach number one

on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

(upbeat music)

With all of that, there's no doubt that K-pop

has become a global phenomenon.

While K-pop songs seemed like standard flashy pop songs,

they're actually a lot more complex.

So what makes K-pop different?

(techno music)

K-pop songs feature genre twists, mood changes,

and unexpected musical turns.

Most of them have at least three songs built into one.

This started back in 1992

when one of the earliest K-pop groups, Seo Taiji and Boys,

experimented by combining heavy metal, jazz

and ballad genres in one song.

("I Know"

This helped reshape and modernize South Korea's

contemporary music scene.

One of the most popular examples of genre switching

is Girls Generation's 2013 release, "I Got a Boy."

("I Got a Boy")

- My name's David Amber.

I'm a music producer and songwriter

and I've done a lot of work in the K-pop world.

♪ Shaker, shaker (singing in a foreign language) ♪

♪ La, la love bomb ♪

♪ Mystery ♪

- Could you break down some of the elements

that you see are crucial in K-pop?

- From a, like a writing perspective, I mean track-wise,

there's just generally a lot more going on.

- Hm.

- Traditionally, there's more sections.

There's more interesting chord colors that are being used.

There's a lot of people in the groups,

you can be like nine, 10, 11, 12, people,

so there has to be a lot of different parts.

Those are some of the things that are just standard

when we write songs in the genre.

- K-pop also changes things up by using chord progressions

influenced by jazz and classical music

which feature thicker, more harmonically dense chords.

In a typical recent pop song, the chord progressions

resolve neatly, like in Rihanna's "Stay."

One, two, six,

four, two, six.

Four, two, five.

But K-pop progressions often create harmonic instability

by using suspensions.

This creates tension.

A suspension is when we have an unstable chord,

such as this sus4 chord and we resolve downwards.

Apply that to the chords to "Stay," for example,

(piano music)

it might sounds like that.

K-pop's progressions also use secondary dominance,

also know as applied chords,

as part of their chord structure.

Just like how each key has a five chord,

or a dominant chord, each of the diatonic chords

within the key have their own five chords.

So for example, if we're going from C major

to A minor, one to six,

we may insert in between those two chords the five of six,

which is E major in this case

and it'll sound like this.

(gentle piano music)

An example of secondary dominance and jazz harmonies

used in K-pop is in Red Velvet's "One of These Nights."

("One of These Nights")

Suspensions and secondary dominant chords help add

complexity to K-pop melodies.

This allows them to convey the emotions and story

of the song to listeners who may not understand the lyrics.

K-pop melodies also do this by using modal mixture,

which is when chords are borrowed from the parallel key.

Here we have C major

and C natural minor, its parallel minor key.

As you can hear, there are some differences.

C major goes one, two, three, four, five six, seven,

whereas C natural minor goes one, two, flat three,

four, five, flat six, flat seven.

When we go from C major and instead of going

to the major four, F major, we're going to F minor,

which is borrowed from the parallel minor key.

It sounds like this.

(piano chords)

And that's what Day6 does in their song "Cover."

(upbeat electric piano music)


What about lyrics because it's in Korean?

- Most of the time we'll write the song in English.

- In English, okay.

- Yeah, and once the label decides

that they wanna cut the song,

then a lot of times what happens is they'll give the song

to a bunch of different Korean lyricists.

- And you're dealing with a set of lyrics that takes you

from point A to point B but you're having to accommodate

multiple singers with different characteristics.

I would imagine that's very challenging.

- We do, we demo these songs

- Okay.

- and we try to make them sound as close

to what we imagine the finished song

would sound like with the groups singing on it,

so really, that comes down to top-liners

that I work with or if we hire a demo singer.

So they know this is the guy with the high range.

This rapper's got a deep, husky tone, so like,

you know, like,

- That is so cool.

- It is cool.

- They get into character, basically.

- They get into character, yeah, yeah, yeah.

- That is so cool.

Another common musical technique in K-pop is key changes.

Just like Disney soundtracks and musicals,

the K-pop industry loves its modulations.

Mamamoo's funky upbeat song, "You're the Best,"

is in the key of F major for its verses,

and then changes to the key of A flat major

at the chorus.

("You're the Best")

Another way K-pop songs add color to their melodies

is by utilizing chromaticism.

Chromaticism refers to notes that are a semi-tone above

or below their adjacent diatonic pitches.

Here's a plain C major scale.

(piano music)

And now with the chromatic pitches in between

the diatonic pitches added.

(piano music)

And you hear this type of chromaticism in melodies,

maybe something like this.

(piano music)

will sound like this.

(piano music)

And you can hear it in this song's catchy hook,

which makes the song sound bright and playful.


The use of the Phrygian mode in pop music has increased

in popularity and K-pop is no exception.

In fact, the Phrygian mode is currently one

of the most commonly used modes in K-pop.

The main characteristic of the Phrygian mode

is the half step between the first and second degrees,

which creates a Middle Eastern, edgy, badass type of vibe.

("Mic Drop")

The major variant of the Phrygian mode,

known as Phrygian dominant,

appears most often in K-pop songs.


("Love Cherry")

("Windy Day")

K-pop also rarely sticks to the typical pop form

of intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, first pre-chorus,

chorus, bridge, chorus, and outro.

Sometimes it's difficult to know what section is what.

In Red Velvet's "Zimzalabim," what is used as a pre-chorus

in the beginning,

♪ Nah, nah, nah, nah, ha, zimzalabim ♪

is later used as a post-chorus.

♪ Zim, zim, zim, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, na ♪

Do you think over the last few years, K-pop has really

influenced Western pop or the other way around?

- I think that you know Western pop generally,

the music and the image is aimed a little bit older

and it leaves this opening for maybe like a

One Direction used to be.

So K-pop, I think, does that better than any other genre.

So I think in that way,

it's really influenced worldwide culture.

- I can recognize certain sonic elements of K-pop

but the specifics of it, not quite.

So if you have any suggestion for me to,

you know, hey include this, and you'll be,

you'll be closer.

- There's a lot more going on,

melodically and also trackwise.

- What about the types of sounds that I should use?

- It can be anything, but I'd just say that like,

there's never a moment where there's not anything happening.

- Okay, always engaging.

- Yeah, more is more in K-pop.

- Okay.

More is more, okay.

What's so fun about K-pop is that on the surface level,

something may seem quite mainstream and typical,

but if you look closer at specific elements,

there's so much more to be seen and heard.

K-pop is written so that listeners

will be consistently entertained

by the changing styles or unexpected pop form

and now that we've gone over

what makes K-pop music sound

like K-pop, I'm going to create

my own original instrumental track

using some of K-pop's musical elements.

(upbeat keyboard music)


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