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[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!)


Gaksital, “Gaksital”

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.

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I would like to add SaltnPaper's Satellite in Chicago Typewriter. Every cliffhanger, every big moment was incomplete without it.

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Oh, but what about SG Wannabe's song? That made me cry every time I heard it!

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Yes that too. Dramas with good soundtracks usually have more than one dramatic moment osts. Like in W, I felt Inkii's song added a lot more depth to cliffhangers or dramatic moments alongside "Where are you" as mentioned by JB.

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Oh God, you're right, that song was the absolute best part of the OST.

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Really that whole OST had a life of its own. I had trouble picking which songs to include on my everyday playlist and ended up including those two as well as Baek Yerin and Kevin Oh's tracks for the longest time.

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@wapzy: Satellite Love in Chicago Typewriter was one of the most effective kdrama OSTs I've ever heard. It just made every 1930s scene more emotionally impactful...

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Yesss. Moreover its surprising how much the it was used in the drama but it never felt repititive. Plus its a song that fitted any emotion, happy, sad, suspence etc. I haven't heard an ost complimenting every moment od a drama more accurately.

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So true! It also fitted both the modern and 1930s time period. It was a surprise since the song was soft rock - which I associated more with the west, and the genre also wasn't even invented yet in the 1930s. Loved the song!

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Satellite Love is pure masterpiece! ? I love how the line: If our hands didn’t get to hold foreshadows the scene in front of the bar when they almost-bare their hearts but their hands just brushed against each other ?

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Satellite love kills me! Oh my! Kills me... how beautiful it is

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That CT track is beautiful. Just beautiful.

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CT is perfect example that you don't need a full album to establish dramatic musical cues. The show had a total of 5 OSTs wc perfectly encapsulates the nostalgia, the longing, hope, patriotism.. ?

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If you in aw with how they handle the music in CT. you can visit my beautiful Bride. Another collabration work between Pd Kim Chul Kyu and Nam Hye Sung. the music is art in that drama and without it, the drama will be less memorable. the music is so amazing and support the narrative and the mood

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I've definitely heard that last track somewhere else, and now I'm torturing myself trying to think of where.

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Do you mean the Mishil theme? I think that it played in Fated to Love You, in a scene where Lee Gun (Jang Hyuk) imagined a snail creeping down his shoulder. It's been a while though, so I may be wrong.

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Ah, maybe, I'll check that out.

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Mishil's theme was used in Arang and the Magistrate.

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Do you watch Running Man or other variety shows?

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I watch Weekly Idol, but it's unlikely that I'll have seen it there.

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Mishil's theme has been used quite a lot in other drama and varieties especially in some creepy scenes lol. It makes sense for you to hear it somewhere.

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my fav drama is usually fill with good choice of background music.a drama with good background music really can enrich drama's quality though not the main aspect drama quality in general. I hate it though when good background music get overplay and loud so the music overtaken a series.

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Having the music so loud that it competes with or is louder than dialogue happening at the same time is maddening to me. Or music that doesn't have dialogue going on at the same time, but is startling because it's far louder than the rest of the sound that comes before and after makes me upset.

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Loud music? You mean Almost Paradiiiiise and Love is Mooooment. ?

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i hope someone will write topic about cringy soundtrack lol

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I'm sure there will be more than one will write about it!

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You gave me idea! Hahaha

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I agree that Mishil's theme is one of the most recognizable soundtrack used in the dramaland especially when we are just talking about sageuks. Its popularity reminds me of Secret Garden's Scar opening notes. P.S. I also love Mishil's crystal glasses theme. It just creeps in your skin along with her eyes and smile.

And kudos to The Princess's Man for using Italian (or French) lyrics? For a sageuk, it does not really sound weird (at least for an English speaker).

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Lol, the Secret Garden ost is gold. I love it whenever the sad notes of Scar are used in another drama. Makes me feel like part of an inside joke.

Destino is in Italian. I agree it was a great song, but it distracted me from what was going on until I was able to figure out the language and understand the lyrics: "Sacrificio del destino, traditore dell'amore" . Vola was also in Italian. Talk about a Romeo and Juliet allusion!

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Secret Garden's soundtrack was something I heard before I even knew the drama existed. I listened to it and the OST caused me to watch the show!

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I had decided that I didn't like the drama all that much even though I was obsessed with it for most of the run. Then last year, it was on tv and that damn Kim Bum Soo song ("Appear") lured me into rewatching an episode.

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I actually met the soprano that recorded that theme. She gets no royalties and up until very recently, she wasn't even credited for it. Too bad, she would have made a killing if she got something every time it was played.

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Such a great article JB. Even though I've read through so many of your recaps and articles I never realised you loved music quite as much as you describe here! It's nice to gain some more insight ?. Also I'm so glad you mentioned My Princess! There's a few soundtracks that just stick in my mind and for some reason My Princess' is one of them. I really think the tracks did a lot to elevate the drama by being upbeat and somehow emotional at the same time. I get such a nostalgic feeling when I hear any tunes from that OST. I remember looking for the instrumental versions of the songs for ages but no luck. King 2 hearts was similar for me. I just never get sick of listening to it either. ❤️ ❤️

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"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."

I love this piece @javabeans because it I relate to this so much it hurts. I'm that person with music on 24/7, and who has a soundtrack to every part of her life. Music is so powerful; it heals and it transports, and more than anything it allows us to feel less alone in powerful emotions, regardless of whether it's in real life or while watching a drama.

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The dramatic musical cue for me will always be Junggigo's "Music in My Heart" in Seven Day Queen.

When I hear the intro beats, I know I'm in for a lovely scene/moment between Chae-kyung and Yeok.

Always gets me. Every. Single. Time.

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That humming intro in 7DQ haunts me to this day. ? I read somewhere that ppl appreciate and even enjoy sad music bec pain experience thru art rather than first-hand is handled differently in the brain.

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The humming intro you mentioned is also very moving, especially when they used it in the end scene between Chae-kyung and Yeok.

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I just wan to say that as a professional musician who has recorded for soundtracks, this post cannot make me happier! Thank you Javabeans and Dramabeans for this Theme of the Month and I look forward to reading all the posts.

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Great musical cues can really enhance a drama regardless of whether you're aware of them. The instant I saw the Gaksital clip up there I wanted remembered that show's wonderful cues. I also have a soft spot for the Joseon Gunman theme, and more recently "Student X" from School 2017. (C'mon, who of y'all didn't start tapping along to the beat when it started up?)

It's funny that the W's "Where Are You" was mentioned, because I recently added that to my everyday playlist, despite having watched the drama when it aired, and it brings back so many feels I had from the show. Another song that is always really evocative for me is "Coffee Is" from my first drama, Coffee Prince. That track always seemed to punctuate the show at the exact right moment. I remember being obsessed with the song and doing whatever I could I find it. I love the melancholy yet somehow upbeat vibe of that song -- exactly how I feel pre-coffee.

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Yeah, the music that plays in School 2017 whenever something is about to happen just sends a shiver down my spine.

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Agreed - the background scores are a great part of what makes Kdrama so epic! My husband always wonders why I have the sound on when I cant understand the language & rely on reading subtitles... but hello! The music makes soo much of a difference in the watching experience!

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True words! Even if I can't understand much Hangul, having the music, the tone, delivery, stress, pitch of the words and music cues make a whole lotta difference

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@javabeans I didn't know you liked music so much! Thank you for a wonderful post that speaks to me on so many levels. I'm now off to re-listen to my favourite soundtracks and maybe find inspiration to write a post myself. :)

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First song that comes to mind that I'd like to add is Fox Rain from My Girlfriend is a Gumiho! It gives me so many feels

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Fox rain +10000 It builds and breaks your heart at the same time

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it's such a romantic, dreamy, and magical piece of music. I love how we got the version with the Lee Sun hee's singing and an instrumental version.

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couldn't agree with you more on everything you've said
OSTs give life to dramas than we can ever imagine
Especially the good ones. Im glad to see many agree to satellite love. The drama wouldn't have been the same without it and for that reason alone I really wanted the drama to do so well because that song and blooming memories made every single emotion more pronounced,emphatic and real

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I. love. this. Music speaks to your soul as it does mine, only you've managed to communicate it on a way that I never would be able to emulate. Thank you.

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I loved it when Mishil played the glasses. (It could have been a very ridiculous scene with a lesser actress. But I remember it and loved when I watched that drama.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7sewZTGIS8

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Also, the song that came on whenever the HILARIOUS gangster boss from Strong Woman Do Bong Soon came on xD

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For me, Goblin was full of great music cues. But I thought it was tied to the song Round and Round the strongest, probably because it was the main theme... But still, whenever I think Goblin, that song accompanies my thoughts and pulls me right back into the mood that show had me living in when I binged it.

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Chanyeol & Punch on the Goblin OST is I think my favorite for that show.

Satellite Love from Chicago Typewriter OST is another more recent favorite.

Of course I have so many more, but can't think of any now. Dang.

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Love Round and Round (cue ShinxReaper F/W Fashion Walk haha) but my fave out of all Goblin OST is Who Are You by Sam Kim. It's very emotional and fitting for Kim Shin.

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My goodness, Who Are You never failed to get me in my feels every time!! It's my favorite song from Goblin.

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I still play the Goblin OST every single day. The first song that struck me was Hush.. Until I read the meaning of Ailee's song I will go to you like the first snow. Effin' perfect. Even includes the title in the first and second verse: Rough trans.
쓸쓸하고 찬란하 (Lonely and Shining)
찬란한 것을 (Before I held you, I didn't know the world was this shining)
쓸쓸한 것을 (Before I let you go, I didn't know the world was this lonely)

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And I tried to upvote you twice @kayedrama. First Snow and I will go to you like the first snow are my favorites--and I actually hate snow.

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AHHH, and how fitting that i'm listening to the Goblin soundtrack now. Of the 3 million or so views on this particular Youtube channel, I probably have around 10,000 of them. I wrote about this for the theme this month. If my writing is strong enough, maybe you'll be able to read it. If not, I'll just put it on my fan wall next month! Goblin was a force of nature. Everything about that drama from the music, to the directing, to the acting, to the cinematography, to, just everything, was perfection.

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Hahaha. I just got to Round and Round on the soundtrack, the very last song, and now I remember all the threads on both Youtube and on Dramabeans about when this song was coming out. We didn't even know what it was called at the time, and we were all obsessed about "Never Far Away." A musical cue that brought back memories not even directly related to the drama itself, but instead the collective desire by hundreds or thousands of people for more of this song. This is the power of music.

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Awww... I often feel like I missed a part of enjoying Goblin by watching after it all aired because I wasn't involved in the comment threads. I definitely would have taken part in the obsession over Round and Round, it felt like it circled in the back of my head when I wasn't watching the show, and instead doing other things.

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And one of the most iconic scenes from all dramas.. when you hear Round and Round, the first thing will ever come to mind is the Goblin and the Grim Reaper walking slowly and cool

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Round and Round is my ringtone! I love that song so much. Goblin was definitely an experience for me.

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Let's not forget variety! So much of what added life and hilarity to the Grandpas over Flowers and 3 Meals a Day franchises was the music. I was constantly amazed at the breadth of the music styles and artists they incorporated into each episode. And each choice was perfect for giving life and mood to what otherwise could have been bland footage.

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oh man... Destino is haunting -- it was soooo effective in conveying the tension/angst/trauma/drama of The Princess' Man... loved it, still do!

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the other OSTs that still slay me are the ones from Chuno.... brings chills back to me.....

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yess destino my most fav soundtrack in tpm

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"Mishil's Theme" is definitely one of my favourites. The track embodies everything about Mishil. But then QSD has one of the best OST ever. Another one of my favourite is "Come Children of God".

As for The Princess Man, I prefer "To You Whom I Will Love Again".

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Mishil's theme has been ear-worming me all day. I shouldn't have played any of those darn clips :)

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Thanks, Javabeans - great article! Simply love Kdrama OSTs.

"Incurable Love" by Nabi - whenever I hear it, it simply reminds me oft "Secret/Secret Love" and how awesome it was watching it online while it aired in South Korea.

"Even A Little While" by Hwang Chi Yeul - So happy that a bit of it was played at the end of many episodes of "Ruler - Master of the Mask", and in the previews. HCY told his fans that while recording the OST, he felt during the chorus like he was about to pull out a sword and fight :)

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Here's video by Bryan Reacts reacting to "Even A Little While" :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcXbMHQieZQ&t=198s

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I actually really liked Jordan Klassen's On Your Collarbone from Age of Youth. So wistful! I have the song attached to the moment at the house party where Kang Unni saw the Ajhussi cry while doing Shadow puppets - very memorable for me for some reason!

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Totally agreed! I adore the entire soundtrack, both the upbeat and lighthearted ones as well as the more somber downtempo ones. My favorite of the AoY soundtrack is 사랑의 한가운데 because I know to prepare my heart for a particularly melancholic moment ㅠㅠ and I associate that soundtrack particularly to Yoon sunbae ㅠㅠㅠㅠㅠ

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I'm glad that Just Like a Dream of Anither Oh Hae Youg was mentioned by JB. That's one of my favorites. Thanks dB for these them of the month. Am a musiclover too. Actually I have a playlist in spotify of all the OST of all the dramas I have watched. And I did not expect that it will have almost 2k follows too. Looking forward to other entries! ??

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So many great OST music mentions! Taeyeon's "If" gives me flashbacks to the scene of Yi Nok realizing Gil Dong left her to face certain death by himself- her crying out for him and him falling off The Cliff of not-Doom. Then my eyes start welling up.

I also want to throw in 2 songs from the Sassy Girl ChunHyang OST. The one by As One was perfectly fitted the young OTP, their sweetness, and how they were blindly trying to muddle through their feelings for each other. There was also the song by Lim Hyung Joo, especially the instrumental version, which just made the romance feel epic.

Also the song from 49 Days, "tears are falling" - the anthem of Yi Soo and Yi Kyung's love. And the lonely and wistful "Fantasy" from Arang and the Magistrate.

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I love Destino!! Some of my favorite instrumental OSTs are from Goong and I hear Your Voice. I have to admit i've only started paying attention to the drama OSTs recently, so i'm slowly starting a collection of my favorites.

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Goong OST would definitely make it into my Top 5!

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Gaksital, I wrote about it too. For me, the heroic swashbuckling tune when he fights and jumps through flags is as distinctly recognizable and original and memorable as MacGyver tune or Zorro or Superman. I love these kinds of themes. I feel all geared up at them lika a ninja. Some others are 38 Police Unit tunes and KillHeal.

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Rebel: The Thief Who Stole the People had great music. I especially liked that they even had a cameo by Ahn Ye Eun. I love this song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVwfxrJH5D4&list=PLj8ddzJElcppCnIGJFU5YQlHSSHpoCgA3&index=2

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https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOxVFHEpzyA and this one too. Oh, the feels!

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i definitely relate to this article since i ended up enjoying all the soundtracks after the drama aired. I'm more on epic side, so yay for Princess Man and Gaksital! ??? every single track on Gaksital is worth of listening! it truly evokes the feelings inside and Goosebumps follows!

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Signal was the first time I went and looked up the songs from the soundtrack - actually, maybe Answer Me 1988 was, but Signal had great music.

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Oh, I am delighted Chicago Typewriter is mentioned here. That is one OST that moved me more than any other from a Korean drama... especially Satellite. I even ordered the original CD of the OST from Korea and am SO impressed with it. Beautiful...the whole sound track... words just can't really express. I love this article, javabeans. You said it all beautifully. I am certain my love of Chicago Typewriter was enhanced by the music.
Another OST that moved me quite a bit was from Shopping King Louis. Though very different in the power to elicit emotion and mood, it was quite effective in smoothing the way for the characters to interact with each other and their audience.
Great topic. :-) Thanks.

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One of the greatest musical cues I've come to know is goodbye my love from fated to love you. It always came on at the right time and i remember the first introduction of it when dr octopus told him to choose to either save his wife or the baby and before he slumped into his seat the line 'goodbye my love' played.
I held my breath there.... it gave that scene soo much meaning

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Oooooh! I remember raping the replay button to AS ONE's White Love Story (Coffee Prince). Although I didn't understand a word the singer sings- but Every note seeps in every fibre of my being. The scene when GY hugged YEH when it dawned on him that he like her when he thought she was a he... then bammmmm here goes the song. Twa's sooo intense!

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Gosh I remember loving that song so much I made it into my ringtone...the song that played on the beach was also a favorite that stuck with me for a while!

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Music is the best, doesnt matter if is a score or song
Satellite is perfect in Chicago Typewriter.. is hunting and mesmerizing
Then you got Goblin with one of the best OST ever, every song is perfect..
Round and Round = Goblin and Grim Reaper walking slowly and cool
Beautiful.. when Goblin realice he loves her..
I will go to you like the first snow... WOW AILEE WOW.
Cinderella and Four Knights have a fun and light OST and im obsessed with For You

But then we have the score, School 2017 Student X theme is really great,.

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I loved how You Came From The Stars used Hyolyn's "Hello Goodbye" in the 15 Second Fairy kiss scene. And when they removed the musical accompaniment to Book Joo's song in weightlifting fairy kim bok joo during her confession in the snow.

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The artist who sang the Goblin OST you mentioned also sang "Come on Through" from the Soulmate OST which I was SO obsessed with. I wonder if they have a music director in common?

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Agree with all your choices! Was also hoping to see a Coffee Prince track somewhere there - the drama was so anchored in its soundtrack, the soundtrack of summer 2007 :)

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