[Music and Dramas] The joy (and efficiency) of dramatic musical cues

I’m particularly eager to read the entries that come in this month, because music is something that is a constant presence in all dramas while having wildly disparate effects on different people. Some people engage with music to an all-encompassing extent, some enjoy and forget, and others barely register it at all—but in any case, music (and more specifically, music that becomes part of a drama’s identity) is a fixture of dramas and, often, one of its most recognizable traits.

On the most surface level, there is the obvious issue of whether a particular drama’s musical work is any good, and that’s probably the most important aspect. But there are other layers in play, too, such as musical elements that have narrative purpose, and how musical choices can stir responses in us that heighten what the story is doing. Everybody’s personal relationship with music is so individual and wide-ranging that I expect there to be a number of differing, possibly conflicting, experiences, which I find fascinating.

As for me: Music is my life. It’s the most powerful language I know—one that transcends words and speech, one that seems to understand just how I feel when expressions or thoughts are insufficient. For me, music is a direct line from emotion to self, a shortcut that bypasses interpretation, one that does not pause to be processed by brain or context or logic. It’s the closest thing to pure feeling that I’ve experienced.

You know how you watch a scene in a movie or a TV show of any sort, say it’s an evocative and mood-stirring moment, and you think that you’ve lived these scenes in your life but they seem so much more romantic and meaningful in these cinematic excerpts? And how our own experiences would seem that much more exciting if we’d had a soundtrack to our own lives? Well, that’s how it works for me—when a piece of music engages me, suddenly my world feels more alive. Everything seems just a little more vibrant, present, heightened. It’s not that music is a magic pill of emotion, but rather that a piece of music I connect to enhances how I’m feeling, making a happy mood feel exuberant, or a somber one extra-contemplative.

I suspect this is not the case for everyone, but you can see how this perspective can make music in dramas a particularly effective mood-conveyance vehicle. Not all music is emotional, necessarily, but it does become an emotional shortcut. One of my favorite things about it is the way it combines a lot of elements into one short burst: mood, energy, feeling, action, narrative direction, storytelling clues. That makes music narratively efficient.

There are a ton of aspects of music in dramas that I’d love to tackle, such as dramas that make their music textual (dramas about music, like Dream High or Monstar), or when dramas use song lyrics to punctuate character emotions and story beats (like Liar and His Lover), dramas where music becomes mood, which in turn becomes character (Shut Up: Flower Boy Band still has my heart on this), or dramas where the music is just plain awesome (all of the fusion sageuks!). But given limited space (mine) and patience (yours), I’m limiting myself to the narrative efficiency aspect today—that is to say, the ubiquitous Dramatic Musical Cue.

I really, really love the dramatic musical cue. I’ll admit that, when looking retroactively at these instances in old dramas, they can seem a bit corny in a way that wasn’t intended originally—but I’ll argue that it’s only hammy now because we’ve gained distance from the material and have the benefit of omniscience. Knowing what’s going to happen down the line to these characters saps the current moment of its suspense or gravitas.

But in the moment, when we’re living the story for the first time, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a great needle-drop: A song kicks in and suddenly, you just have this feeling and you know. Not what will happen, exactly, but that whatever does, it’s going to be big, and it’s going to be good.