Have you ever wondered what the fuck music reviewers are talking about when they discuss music genres in k-pop? When is a piece of music one genre and not another? Are these writers and journalists just pulling these music terms out of their ass or what? It seems that many of you in fact wonder a lot about different music genres because I get questions all the time about it. Of course, you could look the answers up on Wikipedia if you wanted, but what Wikipedia won’t give you is the k-pop connection and k-pop music examples. That’s where Kpopalypse comes in! If you’ve ever wondered about how to tell your pop from your rock, your ska from your reggae and your hip from your hop, then this is the post for you!
Before we get into all those funny music genre terms, let’s cover some super-basic music theory bits and pieces. I’m not writing a whole technical-ass thesis here on this part, this is just the basic points that you need to know to make sense of what comes later. I’ll do my best to write this in non-technical-up-the-ass language that should be easily understood by any drooling Hani-fancam-watching k-pop fapper.
Modern popular music (or “pop” music, in short) generally comprises four basic elements:
- Melody – usually what’s being sung by the lead singer, the bit that goes over the top of everything else and sticks in your head. Or maybe it goes under everything else, if the singer is a male with a sexy low voice like Barry White or T.O.P. In pop music the singer carries the melody most of the time, except during a solo or lead break where another instrument may carry the melody temporarily. Melodies are built out of scales, the most common types of scales are major (happy-sounding) and minor (sad-sounding), but there are also others. Scales are like roadmaps that give you the correct notes to play or sing to get certain types of melodies with certain moods and feelings.
- Harmony – the other notes that fill the background behind what the lead singer does. Whenever more than one note is played at one time, this is called a chord. Three-note chords form the basis of most pop song harmony. Chords are also built out of the same scales as melodies, and therefore can also be major (happy-sounding) or minor (sad-sounding), or something else. Chords can be played by any instrument capable of playing more than one note simultaneously, or alternatively by groups of instruments or singers playing all the different notes together at once, which is called harmonising or a harmony part. A choir is an example of harmony singing. In this post, major chords will be represented by capital Roman numerals, and minor chords by lower case Roman numerals.
- Rhythm – the part that you tap your foot to, also known as the beat. Most modern pop music has four beats to each bar (the bar is the regular divide which is marked off when the rhythmic pattern repeats) and the beat can be fast or slow. Beat speed is measured in BPM – beats per minute. A typical uptempo dance-oriented k-pop song is usually about 130 BPM, but downtempo styles can have the beats going much slower than this! The purpose of drums and drum machines in pop songs is to give emphasis to the beat, but other instruments and even vocals can also emphasise (or de-emphasise) the beat depending on how they’re used. It is possible to play a rhythm on the beat, and also to play off-beat (between the beats), or even syncopated rhythm (a mixture of on-beat and off-beat).
- Texture – the tonal characteristics of the sound of whatever voice or instrument is being used to play the piece. Every instrument and voice has its own texture or tonal quality, and pieces of music sound very different on one instrument versus another. Texture also changes not just by virtue of the voice or instrument itself, but also depending on how an instrument is recorded.
With a few exceptions, most genre differences are a matter of differences in texture and rhythm.
The following is not a complete list of every music genre, just the ones that k-pop borrows from the most. Which is a lot of them, as k-pop is a copyist form that borrows from whatever it can! Some of the integrations of various styles are very subtle, others are very overt and obvious. Not all of them are self-conscious! The year designations and some of the descriptions of things are also fairly approximate so try not to fag about them, thank you. In fact large portions of this post could even be complete bullshit so maybe don’t use this post as a reference for your music thesis or whatever. Just saying.
Medieval – the “classical” music style from about 400 AD to 1400 AD. The first music notation of melody and rhythm appeared during this period.
EXO – Mama – the main hook of this song borrows (loosely) from Gregorian chant, a medieval vocal style which was either monophonic or moved in fixed rigid intervals.
Renaissance – the “classical” music style from about 1400 to 1600. During this time the first practice of melodic counterpoint came into being – two melodies juxtaposed with sympathetic intervals, some dissonant (“bad sounding”) and some consonant (“good sounding”). In this style “bad” intervals were permissible as long as they were “resolved” to good intervals. This practice of building tension with a bad interval before resolving it to a nicer sounding one was called a “suspension”. Later this practice evolved into chords, hence the “suspended chord”.
F-ve Dolls – Can You Love Me? – suspensions and resolutions in melodic counterpoint style can be heard in several moments during the song, most noticeably in the chorus where the main vocal melody harmonises against a violin melody underneath it, but also in other sections.
Baroque – the “classical” music style from about 1600 to 1750. The first norms of western harmony were standardised around this time, so music from this era tends to be exceptionally melodic and harmonious, in other words, there is little “dissonance” or harshness to the sound. Also the first bust-enhancing garments happened at around this time.
Romantic – the “classical” music style from about 1830 to 1910. During this period orchestras became bigger, and improvements in instrument technology allowed for greater volume and deeper bass. This style is characterised by extreme dynamic contrast between loud and soft sections.
IU – Cruel Fairy Tale – the heavily orchestrated sound and wide dynamics in use here are fairly obviously influenced by Romantic period orchestral music.
Flamenco – a acoustic guitar-driven music style originating from Spain, featuring fast fingerpicking, subtle vibrato and strong rhythmic flourishes.
The Seeya – The Song Of Love – flamenco guitar style adapted to k-pop.
Blues – a folk music form which evolved from the chants of slaves in the southern states of the USA, along with other styles such as gospel and jazz. Blues is characterised by the use of a scale that is neither strictly major nor minor, boredom, and harmonic rules which blur the line between major and minor tonality. Almost all blues songs have the same chord progression (I-IV-I-V-IV-I over 12 bars, the “12-bar blues”), with only slight variations.
Lee Hi – It’s Over – although a far cry from the original blues in terms of k-pop’s typical hi-production gloss, “It’s Over” conforms to all the stylistic elements of blues in terms of melody and harmony, and the song follows the traditional 12-bar blues chord progression exactly.
Gypsy Jazz/Hot Club Jazz – a European jazz style from the 1930s, characterised by complex chords, light rhythms and fast guitar playing. “Jazz” sounds a bit like “jizz” and this is not coincidental as most jazz is basically just people jerking off in other people’s faces.
IU – Love Of B – this song is completely 100% in the Gypsy Jazz style, a deliberate soundalike complete with guitar solos reminiscent of Gypsy Jazz pioneer Django Rinehardt.
Swing – jazz played with a “big band” featuring a strong rhythm and large brass and woodwind sections. Popular from the 1930s to the 1950s. “Swing”, like “jazz”, is also a euphemism because swing bands had a lot of members and they would swap partners and fuck each other randomly a lot (remember AIDS wasn’t a thing back then), hence the term “swinger” for someone with multiple sexual partners. I’m probably not making this up.
IU – The Red Shoes – IU again! Rest assured this isn’t the last time k-pop’s biggest genre chameleon will appear in this list.
Bebop – a jazz style characterised by faster tempos, complex chords and improvisation. Unlike previous jazz styles, bebop was designed to be listened to rather than danced to, hence the rhythms and tempos are often highly-syncopated, fast and not “dance-friendly” or even “listener-friendly”.
TVXQ – Something – from 3:28 this song has a “bebop breakdown”. Better than dubstep I guess.
Bossanova – a style of jazz music originating from Brazil which combines smooth jazz chords and melodies with the Brazilian Samba rhythm.
IU – Obliviate – hello IU, genre-shopping again I see. I wonder if IU’s formidable bedroom antics are accompanied by this sort of music.
R&B – stands for “Rhythm and Blues”. A dog-whistle genre term if ever there was one: R&B songs were originally called “race records” and the term really just meant “pop music sung by black people instead of white people”. If you’re thinking “gosh now that seems a bit racist”, you’d be correct! After World War II racism gradually fell out of favour in the West so the term “race records” wasn’t considered appropriate and was replaced with the friendlier-sounding “R&B” which gradually took on a stylistic character of its own. Contemporary R&B (Beyonce, Whitney Houston) sounds quite different to the R&B of the mid-20th century, and R&B doesn’t have to be specifically performed by black people anymore, but what R&B of all types shares is blues/gospel-influenced vocal style and melodies.
Spica – You Don’t Love Me – a conscious attempt to rework the R&B style of the 1960s.
Ailee – U&I – an example of a more contemporary R&B sound.
Doo-wop – a popular music style of the 1950s featuring groups of vocalists who would harmonise chords closely, the earliest form of “boy group/girl group pop”. Almost all doo-wop songs use the same chord progression (I-vi-IV-V).
Secret – Shy Boy – this song borrows much of the sonics of the doo-wop style (as well as the fashions of the period in the music video), although the chord progression used is actually the contemporary pop “four chords” progression of I-V-vi-IV.
LaBoum – Sugar Sugar – this song uses the traditional doo-wop I-vi-IV-V progression (with an extra I at the end of each chord rotation) and is sonically a little closer to the doo-wop style as a result, but the rhythms are however closer to 1960s usage.
Rock – although originating in the 1950s as a louder, faster version of the blues with artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, rock music (originally called “Rock & Roll”, another euphemism, this time a reference to “rocking and rolling” beneath the sheets) became a true genre unto itself in the 1960s with the advent of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and countless similar groups who pushed rock further and further away from its 12-bar blues roots.
Jaurim – Deviation – I think we all know what rock sounds like, this is just a heads-up that Jaurim exists, and this song has a bit of a 60s rock flavour.
Yery Band – Snow Love – Did you know that this song exists? Now you do.
Ska – a popular music form originating in Jamaica, with heavy emphasis on fast off-beat rhythms.
Sunny Hill – Midnight Circus – a soundalike not of the original Jamaican ska but of the English pop-ska group Madness.
Kingston Rudieska & Dr. Ring Ring – Discovery Of Life – a Korean group imitating the original ska sound much more closely.
Soul – similar to “R&B”, “Soul” as a genre term is highly ambiguous, and the two genre terms are often used interchangeably.
Wonder Girls – Nobody – a copy of the 1960s “Motown sound” (complete with visual styling to match), a soul sub-genre popularised most famously by The Supremes.
Funk – a fast, danceable hybrid of rock and R&B/soul music that originated in the late 1960s, with instruments played in syncopated 16-beat patterns (each of the four beats in the bar divided into four smaller beats, creating 16 subdivisions of a bar). The word “funk” comes from a way to describe odours, a “funky” smell is one you might have if you haven’t washed your ass correct after a round of ass-fucking in the sexually liberated late 1960s.
Primary ft. Lena Park – Hello – all the elements of funk are present in this song with the exception of syncopated drums.
Apink – Nonono – funk guitar style is used here in the intro but vanishes once the song proper kicks in.
CNBlue – Hey You – funk guitar again in the verses, but not the choruses.
Reggae – Jamaican Ska eventually evolved into Rocksteady, and then later into Reggae, with the beats getting more languid each step of the way. Reggae is Ska’s laid-back dope-smoking granddaughter, with Ska’s traditional off-beat rhythms usually slowed down to approximately half-speed.
2NE1 – Falling In Love – this electronic pop-reggae hybrid still has the most important element of reggae intact – slower offbeat rhythms.
Skull – Because I Was Selfish – a more traditional reggae sound.
Metal – certain exponents of rock music became loud and intense enough to qualify as a completely different genre by about 1970. Metal also borrowed some of the forms of classical music – high dynamic contrast, virtuoso playing, and pedal-point harmony (where one harmonic element remains constant while others revolve around it). Metal shares a few elements in common with jazz, most notably the heavy emphasis on playing technique, and the huge proliferation of subgenres.
KARA – Wanna – pedal-point harmony and metal riffing is scattered all over this pure pop song.
Crash – Crashday – actual Korean metal in a more pure form, for contrast.
Disco – disco style took funk’s fast rhythms but played down the syncopation and played up the four-on-the-floor dance grooves, first using guitars and acoustic drums and later with the help of drum machines and synthesised bass frequencies.
T-ara – Roly Poly – heavily inspired by Saturday Night Fever and The Bee Gees’ disco period, “Roly Poly” probably will never be topped as the ultimate k-pop disco statement, musically or aesthetically.
Punk – ideologically it may have been a statement against 1970s progressive rock, but musically Punk ultimately emerged as the bastard child of pop and metal, favouring the same overdriven sound but major-key instead of minor-key tonality, catchy singable choruses and simpler guitar work. The word “punk” is a prison term that comes from someone in jail who was used by other prisoners for anal sex, and correspondingly a lot of the early punk singers sounded like they were getting anally reamed while singing.
Girls’ Generation – Way To Go – about as sugary as pop-punk gets, with layers of keyboard and vocals softening the sound.
The Geeks – Defining Moments – an example of contemporary Korean punk with few pop concessions, for contrast.
Dub Reggae – Jamaican Reggae DJs remixed the original reggae tracks, adding tape loops, echo effects, filters and equalisation, creating a whole new style in the process, one of the first truly electronic music genres.
Primary ft. Choa, Iron – Don’t Be Shy – a very faithful recreation of the dub reggae sound.
Electronica – completely electronically-generated music without any acoustic instruments existed in the art-music realm since the Musique Concrete movement of the 1940s, but it was German group Kraftwerk who gave computer-driven noises their first true pop-cultural relevancy over 30 years later by combining machine sound with danceable rhythms and a curious pop aesthetic.
After School – Shh – the off-kilter syncopation and filtered keyboard textures used here are highly reminiscent of the early electronica sound.
Industrial – one of the first post-punk styles, Industrial music incorporated drums, tape loops, machines and whatever the hell else it wanted to create a no-rules genre that was rebellious and harsh in all the ways that punk wasn’t.
T-ara – Yayaya – whenever k-pop veers towards an industrial sound it’s probably always by accident. I’m pretty sure E-Tribe weren’t trying to turn T-ara into the next SPK or Psychic TV but this random venture into chaotic noise got closer than anyone else in k-pop regardless.
B-Free, Playstar, Sway D – Kawasaki – this is trying to be trap of course, but these guys will probably never know how close they got sonically to Throbbing Gristle’s seminal burns-victim anthem “Hamburger Lady“.
New Wave – as the first punk explosion swiftly petered out, punk rock sterilised its own safety pins and integrated its strong melodic sensibilites and occasional snark into pop music, creating a synthesiser-driven pop style full of melody and attitude.
UV with JYP – Itaewon Freedom – very consciously emulating the early 80s New Wave pop sound.
Rap – conceived in Jamaica but born in Brooklyn, rap music’s vast influence on k-pop would take too long to cover here and is worthy of an entire post all its own. Here’s one that I prepared earlier.
Epik High – Born Hater – you all know what rap sounds like but here’s an example anyway, just because.
T-ara – For You – just a reminder that no k-pop song is too sweet, soft or sensitive that it can’t have a rap section included.
Hi-NRG – conceived in the late 70s but popularised in the 80s most notably by English production team Stock, Aitken and Waterman, Hi-NRG is an upbeat pop style influenced by New Wave as well as disco and funk, featuring ostinato (wide melodic interval) synthesised basslines and drum machines plus often heavily processed vocals, making it one of the most direct harbingers of the modern k-pop style.
Orange Caramel – Shanghai Romance – in fact that’s just about all Orange Caramel ever do, at least on their feature tracks.
Crayon Pop – Saturday Night – many elements of the 80’s Hi-NRG sound are also present here.
Glam rock – starting in the 70s but hitting market traction in the 80s, glam rock was the most pop-influenced end of metal, a huge commercial phenomenon and stars of the genre captured the hearts of fangirls as much as any k-pop idol.
H.A.M – TT Dance – glam rock in the verses, pure pop in the choruses.
New Jack Swing – a pop style that emerged in the late 8os and combined smooth harmony vocals with energetic, highly syncopated beats.
BTOB – WOW – a very faithful interpretation of the new jack swing style.
Girls’ Generation – The Boys – Teddy Riley produced this track and was also the main producer in the US that spearheaded the New Jack Swing style. Traces of the style’s sonic choices can be heard in this song, even though the actual rhythm is not normally one used in New Jack Swing.
Dance-pop – the “idol pop” of the west that also emerged in the 80s, less syncopated than New Jack Swing and more organic sounding than Hi-NRG, but influenced by both. Highly influential on k-pop, most k-pop groups have at least one song that fits this category.
Apink – LUV – a direct iteration of the late 80s/early 90s female dance-pop sound.
P-funk – stands for “Parliament/Funkadelic”, a funk group who played a style with squared-off drums, electronically-modified bass and high-pitched synthesiser melodies carrying the hook. The style became popular in rap music in the early 90s as an easily-created alternative to sampling other people’s beats before gradually transitioning into other popular western music.
Nu-Metal – a metal subgenre which attempted to combine rap vocal style and beats with metal riffing and sonics.
B.A.P – Power – a fairly accurate recreation of the nu-metal style.
Electro – a deliberately retro pop style that revisited many 80s sounds, most notably gated drum machines and heavy synthesisers, but now combined with modern production and songwriting sensibilities.
Ennio Morricone style – a well-known film composer, most famously responsible for the iconic music from the “Dollars” trilogy of Spaghetti Western films, which combined 50s style surf and tremolo guitar, heavy orchestration, dramatic melodies and electronic elements. Although the music had a naturalistic sound, much of it was machine-generated. Morricone also dabbled in pop music among other experimental styles.
Gangkiz – Mama – a near-perfect adaptation of Morricone’s peculiar aesthetic into a pop song.
T-ara – Day By Day – and again.
Brown Eyed Girls – Kill Bill – close but no Italian cigar – “Kill Bill” incorporates the textures of Morricone, but not the melodic choices, instead inserting them into a more plain, generic k-pop format. No accident in this case as Quentin Tarantino, director of Kill Bill, is a big Ennio Morricone fan and uses his work and other soundalikes in many of his films.
ABBA style – Swedish pop group ABBA’s mid-tempo pop songs were huge hits especially in Australia, and their unique style of pop music production included anthemic vocal melodies enhanced with heavily layered overdubs and aural excitation.
T-ara – Wae Ireoni (Why Are You Being Like This) – the closest k-pop has gotten to the iconic ABBA style, “Wae Iroeni” isn’t copying any particular ABBA song but is certainly made up of similar building blocks to most of the better ones.
Marching band style – any music with rhythms almost exclusively carried by rapid snare drum on every beat.
HISTORY ft. IU – Dreamer – a good example.
Oh My Girl – Cupid – another example, slightly more rhythmically erratic.
Roly Poly style – the ultimate feature track in k-pop is T-ara’s “Roly Poly” and naturally everyone wants their own version to scrape some cream off the top of the pie of awesome. Roly Poly uses an inverse of the “four chords” I-V-vi-IV progression by starting on the vi, since harmony is relative to the root this makes the progression i-VI-III-VII. Roly Poly style combines this minor-key variant with upbeat disco sensibilities and hot girls who you would fap to.
Girl’s Day – Oh My God – a devastatingly cheesy salvo of Roly Poly cloneage.
Crayon Pop – FM – Crayon Pop pretty much are T-ara 2.0, so why not go all the way?
Mid-tempo ballad style – songs which generate the emotional feel of a slow sentimental song, using similar soaring melodies but without the slow dirgy pace that makes you want to kill your family and then kill yourself.
SoReal – My Heart Says – male success.
T-ara – I Know The Feeling – female success.
Dubstep – a briefly fashionable electronic dance style featuring midrange heavy analog synth riffs and languid beats.
Younique Unit – Maxstep – a rare example of k-pop incorporating dubstep sonics into 100% of a song as opposed to just during a breakdown.
Trap/Crunk – an aptly-named modern rap music form that started in the early 1990s but took almost two decades to gain market acceptance in pop music, characterised by funeral-slow synthesised beats and rhymes, often overlaid with sound effects and rapid, often varying hi-hat subdivisions.
CL – The Baddest Female – a reasonably faithful high-production incorporation of the trap sound into k-pop.
G-Dragon – Coup D’etat – and another one.
GAPP – z’ill – although in k-pop high production versions are common, one of the reasons for trap’s popularity is that the style is very bare-bones so it’s easy to create the music with cheap equipment and a low budget.
Slow ballad style – further down the boredomsphere is the typical slow k-pop ballad, usually buried on albums as filler material rather than actually released into the wild. Occasionally labels get a bit bold and crazy and think somebody wants to hear this crap.
Girl’s Day – I Miss You – your typical dime-a-dozen k-pop ballad. There are literally thousands of these made every year.
2NE1 – Missing You – only kicks into slow ballad gear in the chorus, with the rest of the song sounding like it’s going somewhere interesting (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
Korea is a boring country full of boring people ballad style – even something like 2NE1’s ballads might be too edgy for Koreans who seem to like their music as bland as possible.
Busker Busker – Cherry Blossom Ending – a massive hit in Korea. Can’t you just tell?
Akdong Musician – Melted – no. Just no.
SM The Ballad – Breath – there’s time to listen to music like this when you’re dead.
Hopefully this has been a totally education trip for you into various genres! And if not, hopefully you were entertained! Kpopalypse will return with more postings of trufax! Also, this post now has a sequel so if your favourite genre wasn’t here, click here for part 2!