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The Character of Theme Music

Weekly Writing Challenge: Moved by Music

We blog for a million different reasons, but in the end, we’re all storytellers. Creative Writing Challenges are here to help you push your writing boundaries and explore new ideas, subjects, and writing styles. Check out the challenge this week here.

It doesn’t matter what era you’re from if you were alive in the last 80 years then you’ve always associated music with television. The upbeat jingle used to sell us the newest cereal, the staccato beat urging us to buy their modern genius of a car or even the catchy tunes used in the title sequence of our favorite television shows. Advertising aside, these catchy tunes lure us in with their emotional threads. Collectively they’re called theme music, whether adapted from an existing tune or composed specifically for the show. Either way theme music serves a dual purpose: #1 to excite the audience that the show is starting and #2 to establish a distinctive emotional quality that embodies the story.

For example, I love the title sequence for Mad Men. The visuals clue you in on the faceless man’s view of his journey in the world while the music, an adaption of A Beautiful Mine, feeds you the emotions roiling inside him. It’s full of ambivalence and uncertainty yet it speaks to you, makes you sit up and pay attention. Much like Don Draper the man. And that’s the beauty of music paired with a visual world: we can’t read of a character’s inner turmoil but we can sure feel it through the art of sound.

Over the last few months I’ve been falling in love with a new kind of television show, called Korean dramas. The fascinating thing about these k-dramas are that the main cast many times aren’t just actors but are musicians as well. While other songs are used in the course of the drama, the theme song (or OST in official music language) sets the theme for all the music used and is often performed by the lead actors. Of course these songs aren’t performed in English but in Korean. (Though they do have a rare word or phrase here and there in English.)

With most American television the music during the course of an episode acts more as a sound break so I can focus on the show rather than adding anything to the characters. Yes, it sets the mood and is identifiable. But does it really say anything about the character, their relationships with the others around them or the nature of life?

I’d say everyone has an opinion that is as unique as we are from one another. I found though with k-dramas that the music spoke to me. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have words interfering with the emotions. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t use such an extreme range of music as American shows. Whatever the reason I sat up and took note. I found specific moments from a character’s arc adding themselves to my music memories every time I heard the theme song in the course of an episode. A running movie if you will that embodied not only the general theme of the show, not only the character’s personality or struggle but a journey of character that included all the changes, heartaches and triumphs that were experienced along the way.

Park Shin Hye singing as Go Mi Nyu/Nam

Jang Geun Suk singing as Hwang Tae Kyung

You’re Beautiful is a campy comedy where a selfish musician falls for his very selfless new band-mate who happens to be a girl is disguise. Both leads sang a version of the theme song, Without Words. Each are equally beautiful. I loved how each version characterized their personal journey even though they sang the exact same words! His is moody and full of regret as he tries to call her back. Jang Geun Suk pumps it full of the sorrow Hwang Tae Kyung feels knowing Go Mi Nyu loves him despite him pushing her away due to the heartache caused by his mother. Hers is heart-rending and full of yearning, Park Shin Hye embodies Go Mi Nyu’s helplessness at falling for such a star, yet the hope she has knowing he’s out there shining on. It reflects not only Go Mi Nyu’s love for Hwang Tae Kyung but also weaves in her relationships with Jeremy and Kang Shin Woo, the other two band mates who also fell for “Go Mi Nam.” Compare the two versions and you’ll feel the subtle differences in their journeys and how the character of the OST changes with their personal experiences.

Secret Garden was a mega hit about an arrogant CEO who despite his seeming perfection fell in love with the most decidedly wrong sort of woman. Hyun Bin is not a musician but he contributed a track for the show. I loved this song, That Man, where he sings of the love Kim Joo Won has for this woman and you feel how he must stay by her side even though there are so many obstacles to doing so. At a 1:47, if you’ll patiently watch for that long, you’ll see my favorite scenes where Kim Joo Won walks by the side of THE woman, Gil Ra Im. That’s not the “real” Gil Ra Im though but a version of her he’s imagined into life. She doesn’t talk, stays two feet apart, and walks in whatever he last saw her in. It’s such a visual way to show how he feels for her, but it would lack impact without the music to speak to his conflicting responsibilities but how he always comes back to his surety about how he feels. It’s the character of his love bleeding through the art of sound.

Protect the Boss is a legitimate love triangle between Noh Eun Seol and her incredibly immature boss who needs her love and the hardworking and mature executive who got her the job. I’ll Protect You is by Kim Jaejoong, a major secondary character of the drama (he’s the hardworking one!). If you look up the lyrics they do a good job expressing how Cha Mu Won and some of the others felt knowing Noh Eun Seol but if you’ll only listen to the song in Korean you get a sense of how each and every person she met was affected by Noh Eun Seol touching a part of their lives. Of course though, Cha Ji Heon,  Cha Mu Won and Seo Na Yoon were the ultimate winners, they found love. The character of the drama is one of humor, you won’t laugh more during any other series, but I’ll Protect You adds the depth of punk Noh Eun Seol’s heart.

This includes the moments Yoon Eun Hye and Kang Ji Hwan karaoke together over the original singers.

Lie to Me‘s premise sounded ridiculous the first time I heard about it! A woman lies about being married to a wealthy hotel heir, why would I care about a woman like that? Listen to Lovin’ Ice Cream by EZ Life and As One and watch Gong Ah Jung and Hyun Ki Joon Karaoke the song in front of her friends in episode six (watch a summary with the karaoke scene here) and you’ll know too! The actors, Yoon Eun Hye and Kang Ji Hwan, didn’t actually cover this song but used in the course of their story it makes Lovin’ Ice Cream even better. This song is the embodiment of all that is lovely in their relationship. It’s their pure love distilled from amongst all the lies and fakery that made their relationship possible. The OST characterizes all the fun and cute events that led them to fall in love.

I only gave you the barest details about the plot of the four stories because I want you to imagine the events hidden in the music. The videos are there to fill in some of the blanks for you, but if you close your eyes and let the songs fill your very being experiences will start to come fast and furious. Your heart will sing and your mind will give in to flights of fancy. Soon you’ll be running after love in the gym, positivity will sift out any grouchy attitude and the sure power of hope will sprout you wings all from listening to these songs. Such is the character of theme music in Korean dramas.

How do you feel about the music used in American television? Have you ever tried watching a foreign drama? Do subtitles bother you? Can you feel the emotion without the words? Do you have foreign music in your playlists?

10 thoughts on “The Character of Theme Music”

  1. Korean drama soundtracks are always so wonderful and memorable for the reasons you described. When you listen to the soundtrack, its as if you are watching the drama all over again. The characters and scenes come to mind crisply and clearly.

    (Coffee Prince has one of the best soundtracks and is one of the best dramas, and if you haven’t yet be sure to watch it. One of those classic Korean dramas that you just can’t miss!)

    I like the stories that are told in Korean dramas, and I haven’t watched American television in years. Even so, I can’t think of any songs that were in any American TV shows OR American movies. It’s all just background noise…

    Oh! The old Batman, Seal’s “I’ve Been Kissed by a Rose.”

    … Anyway, I love Korean dramas and Japanese anime, and its wonderful to see BOTH of them use music to add a substantial layer of depth to the overall picture as one form of art meets another.

    (Yu Yu Hakusho’s theme songs ALWAYS make me feel so good inside.)

    P.S.: Love this blog, and good luck with your book:)

    1. Yes! The scenes come crisply and cleanly to mind. I love that. My favorite soundtrack so far is Master’s Sun actually. I do plan to watch Coffee Prince, it’s on my list and I’ll be sure to check out the soundtrack too.

      I haven’t done an anime post yet but I’m planning too. I’ve recently fallen for their soundtracks too. Zakuro’s opening title is amazing to me.

      Thanks for stopping by! Have super fun on your trip.

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