What Makes a Great K-Pop Song?

What Makes A Great K-Pop SongIt’s been a pretty dire week for K-pop releases, and I’m getting a little tired of griping about things I don’t like when it comes to songwriting and execution. So, I want to flip the script and focus on the things that appeal to me in a pop song. I thought about making this the focus of tomorrow’s open discussion post, but it felt like a bigger question than that.

So, what makes a great K-pop song? The answer is, of course, entirely subjective. But, here are the aspects that tend to make me fall head-over-heels for a track. Unfortunately, few of them are in vogue at the moment.

Big vocal melody

I’ve always enjoyed singing along with pop music. I mean, who doesn’t? K-pop likes to sprinkle big power notes here and there throughout a song, but I prefer when those impressive vocal moments make up the actual melody. Give me a huge, sung chorus – not a chant or a random volley of forgettable sing-talk. This is one of the reasons I loved Golden Child’s Burn It so much last year. It’s also why GFriend’s early discography was so strong and memorable.

Funky, syncopated rhythm

Personal taste is built upon past experience, and I happened to grow up in the golden age of the Jacksons. I love a funky rhythm, and an intricate groove that just doesn’t stop. Please don’t kill that groove with a dull pre-chorus or tempo-shifting drop. Trust in the strength of your rhythm and let it grow to fuel the entire track. Add a ton of syncopation to really bring life to that beat.

Propulsion and payoff

You all know I love songs that build and build and keep chugging along. This doesn’t mean every track needs to be brisk and up-tempo, but my favorite songs have a well-designed sense of build and payoff. They don’t just lurch here and there like warring fragments slammed together. Every element is a part of the whole, contributing to a satisfying through-line that takes you on a musical journey. In the end, a great song just needs to feel like it’s moving toward a destination, wherever that may be.

A sense of fullness

Plenty of listeners prefer a more subdued, minimalist approach to songwriting. That’s certainly been the preferred style for much of pop music in the late 2010’s. But, I’ve always enjoyed a more robust sound. That’s why I love Sweetune’s work. Their arrangements are so smooth and multi-layered, filling the entire sonic spectrum with sounds and textures. Vocal layering and harmony also add this sense of fullness, vaulting even a so-so song to another level.

Catchy melodies with a unique twist

When it comes down to it, just give us melodies we can remember. This is easier said than done, especially with decades of pop music covering pretty much every melodic structure imaginable. But, my ears will always be attuned to flourishes and refrains that surprise in delightful ways. Take The Kid Laroi’s big 2021 hit Stay, for example. It chugs along nicely until we hit that surprising key change in the chorus. Speaking of key changes… we need more of them! It’s an easy way to give a song that extra oomph and element of surprise.

These are some of my musical preferences. What about you? What makes a great K-pop song for you?


30 thoughts on “What Makes a Great K-Pop Song?

  1. Well, if you ask someone that is not automatically drawn to it, then K-Pop is either: A. Effeminate, makeup wearing Backstreet Boy wannabes, or B: Infantilized helium-pitched kewpie dolls in short skorts.

    Rather than make multi-paragraph 1,000 word essay, I’ll present my answer in the most reductive truism possible.

    “What Makes a Great K-Pop Song?”

    Answer: It has to be emotive. Meaning: it imprints on me, or it doesn’t. …and what imprints on me varies too much for a simple encapsulation. Some people can taste colors. Some people can see sound. For me, a great K-Pop song is something I can feel down to my core. When I hear it, I know it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Want three examples of my definition of K-Pop perfection? I have a playlist named “K-Top”. It has 47 songs on it, which is way more than it should have but it’s a constant battle trying to winnow it down because there’s little to no chaff. I hit shuffle play and these are 3 of the first four * songs that played.

      1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG0jlKdB1s0
      2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTVfJ1j7o-A
      3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzEEwAeNr0Y

      So there you have it. Three songs across a stretch of time from wildly different groups that bear no relation to one another, yet each is a harbinger for this genre.

      * Note: Note the songs I listed were the 1st, 3rd, and 4th songs in the shuffled queue. I chose not to list the 2nd song for personal reasons.


  2. No 2nd verse slow beat drop. Honestly the worst trend in the past 10 years.

    A song that has a complete “vibe” running all the way through. I don’t really care about vocals (unless they are processed to fuck) and prefer them to actually suit the song instead of unnecessary high notes or rapping. Angel by OnlyOneOf is my fave song of all time, is it vocally excellent? No. But is it a well put together song that doesnt stray from its task? Absolutely.

    Actual experimentation. Kpop companies these days think that experimental means as loud beat drops as possible. Catallena by Orange Caramel is my fave gg song of all time, it is also imo one of the best examples of being experimental but also still fun and catchy. Hell I also adore Side Effects by Stray Kids, which could be considered loud and noisy but it utilises underused genres in kpop so to me that is interesting and what makes it work well.

    Fun. Wheres my fun? I. Am. Bored. Of. Your. Posturing.

    (I haven’t commented much recently since I’m actually on holiday so I haven’t heard any new releases, sounds like I’m not missing out on much tho lmao. I’ll hopefully be bumping Wonho at the beach next week tho)

    Liked by 3 people

  3. for me, it’s all about loooong song structure. too many pop songs nowadays seem preoccupied with getting from one section to the next as quickly as they can, leaving no time for any melody or momentum to develop. to me, the perfect pop song has 3 key points:

    1. pre-chorus – a section that BUILDS energy & intensity leading into the chorus, not just slowing things down before the drop

    2. 2-part chorus – an extended chorus with two contrasting sections, usually one with a big vocal melody and one with a catchy hook or refrain (some songs repeat the same chorus twice with different lyrics, which can work if the second one has more energy)

    3. bridge – this should be the peak in emotional intensity, when the arc of the song really comes together before coming to the final chorus

    bonus: intro & outro – these are the cherry on top and just bookend the song for the audience

    a lot of the best-written kpop songs (in my opinion) follow this structure – almost anything written by black eyed pilseung (rollercoaster, i’m so sick, fancy…), a large chunk of sunmi’s discography (24h, tail, pporappippam), some great b-sides by yooa (diver, abracadabra), and many many more. songs can get away with just having two elements (decalcomanie, icy, oh my!) but i rarely like songs with just one. they just never feel full or complete enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll always admire how you clearly highlight certain aspects you admire in music and the way you relate it back to your own listening experiences growing up! Wish I could do the same but I never really developed a taste I could call my own until my late teens and even looking at my rotating playlist now, it’s just a hodgepodge of sounds that happened to grab me in the moment with barely any connective tissue between them. Like you have gentle synth-pop and abrasive, off-the-rails electropop chilling in one corner while the emotional mid-tempos and slinky dance tracks are hanging out in another. Kinda went on a strange tangent there (lol) but to put it simply, it’s pretty hard for me to pinpoint what exactly makes a song connect with me most of the time.

    I guess if there’s one criteria a song has to meet to land a spot on my playlists, it’s that it has to be “fully realised”. I know that sounds extremely vague and hard to qualify, but basically: the song has to have a couple to a handful of redeeming qualities (whatever they may be) and build itself around them while also not including elements that would greatly detract from those strengths (like a half-time second verse breakdown for example lmao).

    This is probably why Wonho’s Eye On You is my personal Kpop song of the year so far. It hinges on a few strong elements, namely the gritty, yet addictive synth textures and its insistent trance-like energy, and pieces them together to create something that feels complete and thoroughly planned out.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I agree with everything that Nick has written here. However, if I combine all the things, the only thing that would make new k-pop releases great is to GET RID OF THIS FUCKING NOISE MUSIC WHICH WE ARE BEING ENDLESSLY TORTURED BY and try to tackle something new instead.
    The best concepts, in my opinion, would be:

    1. 2000’s R&B
    2. Pop punk/alternative rock
    3. Jazz
    4. Something goofy like Norazo

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hmm, structurally thinking :

    1) Chorus : A very grand epicy amazing chorus which should be filled with vocals, Ok 80% vocal to 20% rap there is alright, but fundamentally a very amazing chorus.
    Eg of some “recent-ish” songs where the chorus is amazing and even though the rest of the song may not be as awesome, that chorus scores everything and pulls up the rest as well: Ghost9 Seoul, TBZ Kingdom Come, Cravity Veni Vedi Vici

    2) Rap : I like faster raps so that’s a personal preference. I actually like raps being mixed very closely along with the vocal parts instead of always being in a standalone section. Eg : BTOB Insane. A recent example would be BTS Yet to Come which I surprisingly really enjoyed and I would say the rap line made it work for me.

    3) Bridge : An epic asf bridge 😂 I don’t like the dance break ones much. The vocal ones are my jam, especially if it’s powerful. My fave bridge of this year so far is an example : Blitzers Bobbin.

    Another important thing : Instrumental

    This is a make or break deal for me sometimes. Their are certain sounds I really dislike (eg – the YG ones with the twanging and drops like the one in HYLT which are present in lots of other songs as well). And then there are certain ones I absolutely love – lots of guitar, any piano or violin, certain synths, lots of bass and good beat drops (eg:- JustB Damage and Aespa Black Mamba)…

    In fact Billie Ring x Ring managed to work its way up on my list mostly because of the instrumental!

    But honestly taking out all this, what makes a kpop song great to me is the vibe it gives 😂 Actually I’m one of those rare people who enjoy dark concepts and stuff. I like epic dark mysterious dramatic stuff! The kind that gives me goosebumps and this intense feeling when I first hear them and in certain cases even on repeated hearings.

    And in most cases the song that I find great are the ones where the song just starts from a high right from the start! Best example I can think of is Golcha Breathe!


  7. I’m not good at articulating why I like a song, but I will try to say what I think makes a good song. In ny opinion, all the sections of a song should contribute to the bigger picture, rather than try to do something ‘cool’ by itself which is what’s wrong with most K-Pop songs in the past few years. A random trap breakdown in the second verse might be cool for fans to hear and see in a performance but it doesn’t add anything to the overall song. Everything in a song should be there for good reason and not just because. Here’s a song that I think is great for these reasons, all of it comes together to make something incredible.


    • Just adding something else, I like to come away from a song remembering a great full product,rather than have one section rattling around my brain and nothing else of the song.


    • Well, this is probably the last place I expected Dil Se’s (admittedly amazing) soundtrack get mentioned. Since it came up, I feel obligated to mention Berklee’s excellent Jiya Jale cover:

      (Mangeshkar’s original is also great, ‘https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-2nlaOQQSQ )

      Oh, and the title single, such a classic:

      Probably my third favorite AR Rahman album after Lagaan and the one and only Pudhiya Mugam.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh my goodness, that cover is absolutely magical! Thanks for sharing it with me.

        The Dil Se sohndtrack is just beyond amazing, AR Rehman is a genius.


  8. I grew up a giant band nerd and as result payed far more attention to things like movies scores and anything resembling classical music, than I did to pop music. Most of the songs that I listened to with words in them were songs I picked out of movies I liked. I never really listened to the radio either. So when I listened to pop music I only got so far as to say I liked a song or I didn’t. I didn’t consider if the song was good or not, or if there was anything more I wanted from it. Getting into kpop and this blog (which I love by the way) changed how I have looked at pop music over the last few years and I’ve learned a lot from it.
    In general though I have noticed considerable crossover between my favorite kpop songs and the instrumental music I grew up on.
    My favorites always have a reliable sense of drama, their theatrical in nature, and often feel larger than life. Its one of my favorite things about the best kpop. It often thrives on a larger than life sense of spectacle, songs so massive the mere idea of performing them seems like some superhuman feat. Think A.C.E’s Undercover, TVXQ’s Catch Me, Mirae’s Killa, Shinee’s Sherlock, Everglow’s La Di Da, Dreamcatcher’s Scream. Songs like these pack a euphoric punch I haven’t found anywhere else. Now obviously not every song has to be that big/hype, I have many kpop favorites that are no where near that bombastic and not every song should be. Yet when I think about what makes Kpop stand out I think of songs like these.

    Apart from this recently I have also been thinking about how much I love that fact that kpop groups are well, groups. Kpop as an industry is centered around forming groups as opposed to the more soloist orientated western market. This allows for talents and unique voices that on their own perhaps would not traditionally be a soloist to shine because they are part of a group.
    I have been absolutely addicted to the Shinee song Seasons off their last Japanese mini recently. Of course they are my favorite group anyway but the song itself isn’t necessarily miraculous, what is miraculous is the four part harmony of Shinee singing the chorus in unison. Besides the fact that we don’t get enough real sung choruses, we don’t get choruses sung in unison. I want more groups to take advantage of the fact they are groups and sing together. Two members, three members, all the members, whatever it is I really believe it would add to the “fullness” of a song. Granted when talking about Shinee your talking about god tier level vocalists with some of the best if not the best harmonizing in the industry. However, I still think any group could capitalize on the inherent strengths of singing together if given the proper opportunity/song to do so.

    Ok so that was both a really vague and needlessly long addition to the discussion, but I’m just gonna role with it. Hopefully we get some better choruses soon… you know maybe.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I agree with everything Nick said about the melodious and “fullness” aspects but there is one more aspect that attracted me to Kpop and it’s vocal combination. Though I love listening to power vocals individually, Taeyeon and Baekhyun high notes feels extremely right when they elevate the song towards the end (Genie, Eldorado…). The way different vocals are combined often gives a kpop group its musical colors and a song proper drive. I feel SM songwriters do it exceptionnally well, but JYPE also seems to be paying a lot of attention to that aspect. Also, when I stan a group and they make a comeback, the way vocals are combined (did they try something new? are the combinations satisfying? when does my bias sing…?) always end up weighing more than anything else in my enjoyment of the song.
    (Writing that made me miss the amazing vocal combinations of Day6 and Red Velvet a lot…)


  10. The overarching goal of any song (pop or otherwise) should be to maintain and build interest. How do you do that in kpop?

    Agree on the soaring melodies a la Navillera. Also agree on final propulsion/payoff, although I would add that an additional element is needed for this to occur. Something like Taeyeon’s chorus countermelody in Genie, tasteful Into the New World adlibs, or even the introduction of a new synth riff a la Rocket Punch’s Chiquita.

    I actually like some push/pull in the tempo, although some songs do this much better than others. Sistar’s I Like That is probably my favorite use of normal, double, and half-time. Twice’s Heartshaker uses half-time in the pre-chorus better than most, as well.

    Weird, little things for my music nerd brain: crash cymbal on beat 2 on the chorus (I absolutely LOVE this!), “borrowed” chords, etc.


  11. For this post “What makes a great K-Pop Song” *to me* would be:
    Big anthemic songs. Big melodies. Since I wasn’t around during the early times of K-Pop, I’ve gotten around to listening to some good bangers (thanks to this blog). I like some SNSD songs, some Infinite songs, a few BigBang and a lot of GFriend. I think especially Gfriend’s voice, I will miss.
    As a note of optimism: I just like to remind myself that trends ebb and flow. And even things at the peak of popularity aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. For instance, while I liked some Big Bang songs, I absolutely don’t get the hype around Fantastic Baby or Bang Bang Bang. The former’s chorus is comical and the latter reminds me of the brash output that today’s Boy bands deliver. So hopefully, the disappointments from some comebacks will be forgotten in the next comeback and maybe these disappointments are someone’s “Bang Bang Bang” and who am I to rid them off this joy!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. There has to be a synergy of song, production, and performer. There doesn’t have to be bombast or drama for me to like a song, just some personality and a few twists that make it a little different. Also silliness or camp can score points with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I just want my songs to be funky.
    And have layered vocals… a great melody…I love shout-along chants, too.. an energetic rap verse..I guess I could go on.


    • Ah yes: something unique I found in kpop was the ability to very seriously craft a song that is absolutely ridiculous (Psy and Fantastic Baby got me into kpop). Now and then a gem like that still comes along (BooSeokSoon, Sorry for My English, the Pentagon song about being a funky boi).


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