[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.
The Princess’s Man, “Destino”
One of my favorite examples ever is in The Princess’s Man, which had this one epic track called “Destino,” which felt fittingly grand for the truly extreme stakes at hand: lovers torn apart by fate (that is to say, enemy fathers), a bloody coup, a revenge mission, the literal throne. I suppose if you were to marathon the drama these days the track could quickly get repetitive, but I swear at the time of airing, the drama was careful in holding back so as not to overdose. And that meant that any time “Destino” did come on, I sat up and took notice, because it meant somebody was about to get his mind blown, or his heart torn out, or her chance to be a badass despite the odds.
(Here’s a classic example in context, after the hero’s family is massacred and he’s about to attack his enemy, only to discover that his sweetheart is that man’s daughter. Aie!)
There’s also this winner from Gaksital, titled, appropriately enough, “Gaksital,” which punctuated many of the hero’s rescue missions and exploits. That drama actually has other, more epic tracks that were equally distinctive (the grander “Day of Judgment,” for instance), but I especially love this one because it offered a ray of light in an otherwise heavy and often quite dark drama. Sort of like the character of Gakistal himself, whose mere existence offered hope to his oppressed countrymen.
The drama as a whole tells a painful story, but this song punctuated the satisfying payoffs that dotted the larger tapestry of tyranny and rebellion—when it started to play, I knew Gaksital was about to kick some ass, and it was a constant source of gratification. (The response becomes almost Pavlovian, I swear.) (Side note: I had this song as my ringtone for a while, but eventually had to change it because it got me pumped up and made me want to fight things.)
But dramatic musical cues don’t always have to be epic or part of life-threatening cliffhangers, and W’s “Where Are You” is another favorite example of a song making a moment. Er, moments, repeatedly, often at pivotal points involving the reality-to-comic-book boundary.
W, “Where Are You”
Personally, I liked this song so much that I thought it made up a huge chunk of the drama’s appeal all on its own—every so often a drama is blessed with a fantastic song that also becomes distinctive to its identity. Or perhaps it’s the strength of the song that helps make that identity distinctive. (Chicken or egg?)
Speaking of which: Without diminishing the merits of the drama itself, I really do think there are cases where a show owes a tremendous debt to a particular track or score. Not only do they elevate dramatic beats or bring out its best emotional highlights, they become synonymous with the drama itself. Goblin had “Hush,” Kill Me, Heal Me had “Hallucination,” Oh Hae-young Again had “Like a Dream,” Bad Guy had “Thorn Flower,” Hong Gil Dong had “If,” Stairway to Heaven had “I Miss You”….
Sometimes the track that burns an impression into your mind isn’t even the one most associated with the drama; I’ve been suckered into a ton of dramas by the power of a single song before, even when the rest of the show wasn’t as good as that one track. And even when the drama is that good, a tangential bit of music might still hook me most for the way it stirs up a complex mood that’s pivotal to the drama. For instance, despite a number of more well-known songs in the soundtrack, Shut Up: Flower Boy Band will forever be to me “Dear Friend”—all dead best friends and burning guitars—for how it captures the spirit of the show, gritty and a bit bleak, in a way that eludes the more upbeat “Jaywalking” or “Wake Up.”
Queen Seon-deok, “Mishil’s Theme”
And then, of course, there’s also the character-themed track to offer up another form of storytelling shortcut, my favorite cheesy example of all being Mishil’s trademark theme in Queen Seon-deok. It’s not like we necessarily need a piece of music telling us which character is onscreen (we have eyes!), but building the connection does have a way of cutting to the chase, as happened with deliciously villainous Mishil, who positively relished every crafty and calculating move she made. (Although I’m pretty sure a lot of that was also actress Go Hyun-jung relishing playing the mastermind villain after a career of more wholesome types.)
So effective was this track at signifying the presence of an evil villain that I think by now it’s has transcended the drama to symbolize evil villains in any drama. (Remember when Kim Tae-hee got drunk in My Princess, started ordering Song Seung-heon around in sageuk-speak, and invoked Mishil?) Now, that’s a way to leave a lasting impression.