What Makes a Great K-Pop Melody?
What makes a perfect K-Pop track? Is it the beat? Is it the bassline? If neither of these quite do the trick for you then it is probably the most accessible part of most songs – the melody.
But what does it mean when we talk about a song’s melody? How do K-Pop artists and producers go about creating a melody? And what does it take to make that melody really stand out?
Join us now as we attempt to answer these questions and more on the final installment of our mini-series analyzing what goes into making a perfect K-Pop song.
Read our thoughts, take a listen to some great tracks, and then tell us about your favorite K-Pop melodies in the comments below.
In the two previous articles in this mini-series, we discussed the nuts and bolts of a track – the beat and bass. If you are making uptempo dance songs, like most K-Pop artists, you are not going to achieve that without a strong beat and a powerful bassline.
That is very evident with acts who favor a harder, more dance-driven audio sound, like Block B.
But even artists that have a slightly “softer” image and sound, such as A Pink, would agree. The bassline and beat are very prominent even in songs like this.
However, just a good bassline and a beat is not enough for most folks. People don’t walk down the street humming drum tracks or basslines to themselves.
But what you will hear people doing is whistling, humming, and singing melodies, which are a good deal catchier.
Even Drum n Bass (DNB), a dance genre that (unsurprisingly) puts beats and bass sounds at the fore, does not forgo melody altogether. In fact, for many DNB artists, such as Seba, basslines can actually carry melody.
Without melody (and its partner, harmony), modern music would be lost in the woods.
In the rock genre, bassists and drummers provide a song’s rhythm. They set the tempo, and provide a beat and a groove. But the guitarists and vocalists tend to provide the song’s melody. This is especially true for early rock artists like The Beatles.
A few K-Pop artist follow the rock format, especially the likes of Royal Pirates, CNBLUE, FTISLAND, and N.Flying.
In reality, rock acts are something of a rarity in K-Pop. In fact, even CNBLUE are partial to recording the odd dance-influenced track here and there.
The same goes for Royal Pirates.
Most K-Pop artists tend to shy away from traditional rock altogether, and instead tend towards dance music. That means they have to come up with melodies using instruments other than the guitar. It is technically possible to use guitars to create melodies in dance songs, but it certainly is not easy.
Infinite and producers Sweetune did a great job of getting around that problem with the wonderfully addictive “Come Back Again” in 2010.
Instead of guitar sounds, though, K-Pop producers are much more likely to use a range of other instruments (many of which are synthetic, created on a computer) to create catchy sounds designed to stick in your head and draw you back for more.
Some musicians refer to these sounds as a song’s texture, but in reality, they are also melodies in their own right.
For many, the best melody weapons are brass instruments.
BTS’ “Sick” uses a thin-sounding brass trumpet (almost certainly synthetic) as a foil to the boys’ deeper vocals and the track’s low bassline.
Super Junior’s “Spy” uses a larger range of (often distorted) brass sounds in a very similar way.
But when it comes to girl groups, producers often tend to splash the horns around even more liberally. The horn sounds in EXID’s “Up and Down” are the secret of the song’s phenomenal success.
Well, OK, maybe with just a little help from this kind of thing.
In many cases, producers will go with deeper and lower horn sounds, probably to balance the fact that girls tend to have higher-pitched singing voices than the boys. Brass sounds are the Secret girls’ go-to for up-tempo numbers.
An alternative to brass is the synthesizer, a customizable machine that allows musicians to create their own sounds. Synth first came into existence in the 1700s, would you believe it? This is a modern replica of an 18th-century synth that was supposed to mimic sound of the human voice.
But synthesisers only really entered the music fray in the early 1970s when German musicians began integrating these devices with computer hardware and keyboards.
Possibly the most iconic early 70s synth was the Moog, first unveiled in the late 1960s. Early devices were gigantic machines that looked like this.
Modern producers, however, are more likely to use virtual synths, which are now available as computer software. You can even play around with a simple browser-based synth here.
But back in the 70s, the synth’s true champions were the songmakers at Musicland Studios, headed by now-legendary producer and sometime Daft Punk collaborator Giorgio Moroder.
In 1977, Giorgio Moroder teamed up with disco diva Donna Summer to record “I Feel Love,” the first truly noteworthy use of synth-made melodies in a dance song. A new genre was born almost overnight – synthpop.
K-Pop artists who have used a traditional 70s-80s-style synth sound include G-Dragon:
and the IU–Seo Taiji collaboration last year.
However, although K-Pop synth sound producers are still influenced by early Musicland works, most now deviate a lot from that original sound. Using a computer-based Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and a selection of digital synthesizers, as well as effects plugins, allows producers to make just about any sound they like.
You can also use sampling software to do all sorts of fun stuff with the synth sounds you create.
This is synth pioneer Herbie Hancock on “Sesame Street” explaining how the whole deal works in 1983, the year when synthpop really started to get going.
In K-Pop, synths are just about everywhere, especially in the works of super-producers like Shinsadong Tiger and Sweetune.
There are a whole host of synth sounds at work in songs like this:
You can get extremely creative with a synth/sampler combo. You can even make melodic sounds that almost sound like a human voice, and use them to create a choir effect. Here, let Rainbow show you how that works…
…(and also satisfy my burning desire to drop a circa-2010 Rainbow reference into this article).
But when you are talking about melody, there is one thing far simpler, more familiar and – for almost every music fan alive – better than all the brass and synthesizers in the world. Namely, the human voice.
K-Pop is, after all is said and done, a singer’s game.
Whether you like the crystal-clean tones of K-Pop crooners (like VIXX’s Leo, Super Junior’s Kyuhyun, or MBLAQ’s G.O)…
..the rough-edged, exciting sounds of BIGBANG boys G-Dragon, T.O.P, or Block B’s Zico…
…the dulcet tones of IU, After School member Raina, or f(x) star Luna…
…or the super-powered diva vocals of Ailee, ALi, and Hyorin…
…K-Pop has the whole set.
Instruments are all very good, but as sophisticated as synths, DAWs get, as fun as brass, guitars, and pianos may be, they will never ever eclipse the emotive power…
…the incredible variety…
…and the sheer beauty of the human voice – the cornerstone of every truly great K-Pop song there ever was, is or will be.
Well, you’ve read our take, Soompiers, now it’s over to you! What makes a perfect K-Pop melody for you? What songs have great melodies, in your opinion? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-Pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.