This article is the conclusion of a 3-part mini-series discussing different methods for carrying out a song analysis project. In this article I will detail 5 key musical aspects that I personally look out for, every time I carry out an analysis/review of a k-pop song.
At the end of the article I will make a few suggestions to help you get started with your own projects. Being able to identify musical features takes a lot of time and practice and transcribing them accurately on a score takes even longer! If at first you don’t succeed, keep on trying and trying again! Most pop song review sites wouldn’t dream of delving into this much musical detail for a short review, instead reserving their criticism for the overall performance, the interpretation of the lyrics or a few generalised comments about the song’s composition (without offering anything tangible to back their criticism up with). I personally think it’s a great shame when that happens. Identifying and discussing musical details does take a while but it provides genuine substance to your argument.
What is a ‘transcription’? – if you don’t know the answer, I recommend reading my previous articles on BTS diagrams and Song Transcription. Song analysis can be a very thorough process and should definitely not be rushed!
What Do I Look Out For?
One aspect that always interests me is how intervals (the quantifiable gaps from one note to another) can affect the backing harmony of a passage. Take the introduction from Elris’ ‘We, First’ for example, as can be seen in fig A below, the backing chords suggest a brief tonic key (home chord) of D Major, however suspense is generated from the juxtaposition of a sharpened 7th (leading note/C#) against the home chord. This dissonance is brought out even more by the backing synth line, which repeats the same C# six times within the first two bars!
What’s the overall effect? One of suspense, as if ‘something is about to happen’ (in this case the rest of the song, as we’ve literally only just started!)
(fig A – Introduction from Elris’ ‘We, First’)
Syncopation is a distinctive rhythmic technique, which can make a section of music sound ‘off-beat’ for effect. Take the introduction to KARD’s ‘Rumor’ for example, as can be seen in fig B below. The time signature is in 4/4 (4x ¼ note beats or 4x crotchets to a bar), therefore one would be forgiven for expecting to detect an equal/symmetrical rhythmic pulse between beats 1-4. However, in this case, no notes align at the start of either beats 2 or 4 due to the dotted rhythms in the keys line, thereby altering our sense of rhythm.
Ultimately, rhythmic syncopation offers composers another useful dimension to explore when trying to add subliminal tension/suspense/variety to a song.
(fig B – syncopation in KARD’s ‘Rumor’)
Instrumental Solo Sections
Including and discussing an instrumental flourish or solo section in your transcription or analysis can often seem like a little bit of a vanity project but it is a good inclusion to any article for 3 reasons:
- They almost always look ‘cool’ (see fig C from Dreamcatcher’s ‘Fly High’)
- They force you to really listen to a track, often dozens of times in order to note the passage down accurately
- They’re invaluable if you ever want to perform the song yourself
I discussed at length how I transcribe solos in my previous article. All I would add is that I am still amazed at how many songs in this flourishing modern k-pop industry actually feature genuinely skillful instrumental passages – it is a testimony to the Korean music industry that they have an apparent admiration for genuine instrumental talent in their mainstream.
(fig C – instrumental solo in Dreamcatcher’s ‘Fly High’)
Other songs I have reviewed which feature excellent instrumental sections are:
(fig D – piano solo from Lee Jin Ah’s ‘Random’)
(fig E – guitar solo from GFriend’s ‘Love Whisper’)
Interesting Harmonic Progressions
I personally consider harmony to be one of the most important aspects of any song I listen to. We can all think of particular songs, which have a stirring background harmony. However, being able to spot such a feature ‘in the wild’ and then being able to accurately transcribe it allows you the opportunity to understand it in much greater detail and figure out how the composer achieved it in the first place. This provides great ammunition if you want to learn to write music or if you just want to explain why you like a particular part of a song!
A paragraph discussing good harmony in K-pop would not be complete without a reference to Hyun Hwang’s wonderful song ‘Hear The Sea’, as performed by Red Velvet. The whole song is a masterclass on harmonic movement in k-pop – for further detail, check out my full review here
In most analysis/review articles, I tend to focus on the ‘path’ the harmony takes throughout a prolonged passage, with particular focus on whether it affects or sets up a transition between one phrase to another, or one section to another. It is particularly interesting when a melody repeats itself, but the harmony is different on the repetition, thereby changing the overall ‘feel’ of the passage.
(fig F – The Harmony in the chorus of Red Velvet’s ‘Hear The Sea’)
Unusual ‘Easter Eggs’
There is no useful advice that I can offer for spotting an ‘easter egg’ in a k-pop song’s backing music. It simply depends on how analytical you are willing to go and how many genres of music you are willing to listen to! Significant surprise references are rare and extremely hard to find.
I previously discussed how Kard’s ‘Hola Hola’ and ‘Rumor’ have elements that reference their previous songs (usually rhythmic inflections or very small instrumental nuances). However the biggest easter egg I have witnessed in a k-pop song so far was the reference to Schumann’s Dichterleibe in GFriend’s ‘Love Whisper’, which later became a very prominent feature of their song ‘Summer Rain’.
I am still baffled by the inclusion of the reference and that it formed the foundation for an entire song, but it was a fun find and it was fun pointing out what the “creepy music” was in various different Youtube comments!
(fig G – im wunderschönen monat mai – referenced inGFriend’s ‘Love Whisper’ and Summer Rain)
How To Get Started
Even if you can’t manage a full-blown transcription of a song, the chances are (if you can read and write music notation) that you’ll be able to at least figure out the song’s melody after a few listens…
But once you have your transcription what should you comment on in your analysis?
Here are some things, I’d recommend asking yourself as you go along…
- How does the melody rise and fall in pitch?
- What sort of chords support the melody and how do they change?
- What’s going on with the background rhythm?
- Is there anything interesting happening in the backing instrumentals?
- Does this song sound similar to anything else you already know?
- Are the vocals splitting into harmony? If so, what are they doing in relation to the backing harmony? Do they clash in any way?
- Do you hear any major/minor/chromatic scales (top tip: from personal experience, you’ll probably find a lot of chromaticism in the bass line of the average k-pop song)
The important thing though is to have fun with this and spread the project out over time. My fastest analysis and review, starting with the BTS diagram and ending with the essay, took me roughly 6 hours!
Don’t lose courage! This mini-series is by no means a ‘quick fire’ guide to producing an analysis/review article but rather I hope it provides an insight to my thought process and what I tend to listen out for. I’m not saying that my approach is the best or definitive way of listening to or analysing a song, I’m simply pointing out what I tend to do and what works for me.
Do you listen out for the same musical aspects in k-pop songs? Do you look out for different elements? Let me know in the comments *groan* (don’t worry, this website isn’t monetized, I’m just genuinely interested to see if people prefer a different approach)
Otherwise, if you’ve made it this far, best of luck with your own projects and hoping these short articles were of assistance!