Updated: Apr 19
This piece got away from me and now it is a beast. A musical beast from someone with minimal music knowledge. Yet, I dare to hope you enjoy it! 😅
P.S. Also enjoy an out-of-context Yoo-Know-Who, haha! (It will make sense later, if you keep reading!)
Paroma and I just recorded our Spoiled Yak all about Sisyphus (keep your eyes peeled, it’s coming soon!) where we talked about when the show hooked us—Episode 7, I told Paroma. But when an hour later, we got to talking about the soundtrack, I suddenly realised I had it all wrong. The moment Sisyphus caught me good wasn’t Episode 7—it was the end of Episode 2, at the train station, when Park Shin-hye and Jo Seung-woo nearly glimpse each other across the tracks.
The whole scene is backed by this gorgeous guitar, and that—that moment, that music—set the tone of the whole drama for me: a wistful, longing, bittersweet creature which wasn’t about a happy ending, but a fitting ending. When the very first chords of it kick in, I felt a feeling. You know what I mean, right?
And this is when I realised that that playlist in my head of haunting, captivating tracks actually has a common thread in setting the tone for a show. You see, when those first notes of what I consider the signature track kicks in, it primes my brain for FEELINGS.
I think an obvious one is fantasy romance drama, Goblin (2016). Pretty much every track used in the show was blisteringly, heartrendingly perfect, and the music admittedly does more than its fair share of the heavy-lifting for the show…but how can I begrudge it when it sounds like this? It’s the wistful piano track, Amnesia, that performs the most incredible alchemy of feelings for the show. Actually, I am not sure I can be coherent about it: it taps deep into your emotions and then carries you on this wave of heartache to the very end of the world.
Music is a huge part of storytelling on screen, but it’s not just romance and legend that are elevated by the perfect score. Thrillers rely heavily on their instrumentals, and I think they actually pack some of the best emo. Perhaps a bit of that is because they’re trying to convey urgency and foreboding as much as emotion.
You know I’m a thriller junkie, right? Well, I can pin the beginning of my present thriller-hunger to one piece of music in early 2015: Was Justice Delivered? from Missing Noir: M. It was part of a triangle of thrillers I was watching at the time that just squished me to its dark bosom and never let go since. Just listen to those strings, that cello! Kim Kang-woo took this role after headlining Golden Cross (a show which just killed me—write it down as one of the best revenge melos of the last decade), and he and Park Hee-soon play reluctantly-partnered detectives chasing after some awfully gruesome crimes, in proper OCN style. But also in proper OCN style, the show is an unkept promise, ending on a ??? cliffhanger that left the central story badly unfinished. Second season? Lol nope. But was justice delivered? I’d say yes:
We’ve talked a lot about how much we love the Season 2 Overture in Stranger/Forest of Secrets. I recently rewatched Season 1, of which Overture also features as the signature score. Stranger is one of the still-rare-for-K-drama multi-season shows, and while they didn’t have to revamp the music for the new season, they did, taking an already complex, rich, orchestral piece and outdoing themselves. Just listen to the incredible fidelity and sophistication of the sound, the handpan, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, dammit. The evolution of the Overture is a perfect mirror to the evolution of the show, as it steps up from an individual murder case in Season 1 to a string of deaths that launch them into the forest of complex systemic problems they deal with in Season 2.
But Signal (2016) is always #1 in my heart, and though the show is a time-travel thriller, the emotional architecture of the show surpasses the trappings of genre, yet it’s also the genre that heightens it, because it’s a story of impossibilities—impossible meetings, impossible feats, impossible sorrow—colliding with sudden possibility: the most harrowing junctures of a “what if” or an “if only”. And the score that accompanies this odyssey of emotion is absolutely masterful, amplifying every note of feeling it already has you drowning in.
Everything this show made me feel is captured in resin in the track, Conclusive Evidence:
More recently, I rewatched Pride and Prejudice (2014), and it is a lot like Signal in the way it’s characterised by a heavy undercurrent of sadness. Like Signal, it has a distinctive, eerie score, and though Pride and Prejudice has many more moments of levity, this track always brings us back to the core of the story: grief, loss, injustice, and a promise never to forget what we lost. This track is aptly titled Lingering Sadness:
Good Music, Bad Show?
Does the power of a good score lie only in elevating a good show to higher heights? Or can good music make a bad show good? Well, to be honest, I don’t know the definitive answer to that, but I feel safe in saying that there have been times where a mediocre show was made more watchable by having a kickin’ OST—okay I hated Rooftop Prince to the bitter end but it had a GREAT OST…but it didn’t make the show better. The show was still trash…aaaand I offer this as my definitive answer. 😅 Similarly, Jackpot (2016) was totally CRACKPOT, but oh what a gloriously epic soundtrack! But alas, good music cannot save a show you hate for every other reason. I’ve been duped by this in the past (my own fault 😂), but thankfully I learned to drop shows, and also to make secret youtube playlists for that one song (like J-drama Repeat which was pretty much good for nothing but this one exceptional song by Day6). (Said secret playlist has also reminded me of Superdaddy Yeol, which was UTTER PANTS…but had a great soundtrack, and introduced me to one of my all-time favourite songs to sing when nobody’s listening – I prefer the IU) version over the original, it fits my paltry vocal range better. 🤣)
However, that said, I have a few shows where I’m quite aware that the show is only so-so, but one good track will a) create the momentum that keeps me watching to the end, and b) will make me come away from it feeling like it was a better show than perhaps it really was.
Remember—Son’s War/War of the Son was a thriller-melodrama about a young man with hyperthymesia (i.e. he remembers everything with perfect recall) trying to save his father from being wrongfully framed for a murder he didn’t commit, while tackling early-onset Alzheimer’s. I mean! You’re talking melo-and-the-kitchen-sink level melo, grief-porn, and the last time Namgoong Min played a psychopathic villain before he quit those roles for good (because it was having a bad effect on his own mental health). And, well, everyone else thinks of it as a highly imperfect show…but not me. And quite apart from having one Yoo Seung-ho doing all his best crying SO MUCH CRYING, it was also elevated by a really outstanding score. The reason I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the heaviness of this show is because I pretty much was watching it instrumental to instrumental, waiting for my violin-administered dopamine kicks. But the best track of all is this, Frozen Epica:
Another show that was arguably kind of the worst is Memories of the Alhambra (okay, fine, it wasn’t, BUT ALSO IT WAS), but its signature track still gives me the chills. Even though the show rudely disrespected my life, you can’t be sorry for Inevitable Duel, which is epic and thrilling and a full story in its own right:
Okay, look, I’m not all emo. I’M NOT! I’ll prove it!
The Bright and the Badass
Everyone loves Healer (2014) for Michael Learns to Rock, but I love the score the most. There’s one scene in that show I have just watched so. many. times. Yes, the elevator rescue scene that I’m always talking about, set to its best music: To Battle. Here is bright and badass:
In the same vein, City Hunter (2011) gave us some of the best action suspense music of all time. The entire instrumental score was superb, but it runs a little darker and more complex than Healer, which feels appropriate, because while I’d put the two dramas next to each other on the shelf, City Hunter had a bleaker, more conflicted core. Lee Min-ho made a much more broken hero than Ji Chang-wook, and needed more than Park Min-young’s love to heal him.
I love the whole score, but if I had to pick just one track to keep…I’d pick two 😅: Eagle Eye and Sad Run. And for such an emo-ly named song, Sad Run never fails to make me downright happy:
What, enough with the thrillers? Okay, okay! Here is bright and feel-good, a melody of halcyon days—there’s a hint of bittersweetness (goodbye to carefree youth!), but it’s offset by a promise that our best days are yet to come. As an anthem for cheer, of course it’s from our fave cheerleading drama, Sassy Go Go (or Cheer Up; 2015), and the song is called Hold on There:
And now, I think I have overused and abused the words “wistful” and “bittersweet” enough for one night, so I shall go to bed. 😂
Your turn! What kind of music grabs you and doesn’t let go? What are your mood-shifting, tone-setting, instrumental favourites? Did music ever drive you away in a drama? Please share in the comments, I would love to know!