Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Kpopalypse explains common song structures in k-pop

I'll post full results of the latest Kpopalypse survey later, but one of the big requests that is emerging is that people really want me to write a post about song structures in k-pop.  So, here it is!


Pop music is called pop music because it's designed to be popular, it's there to capture the hearts, minds and genitals of listeners who hopefully throw their money, time and adulation at the people involved.  Whether a given piece of pop music succeeds in the practical application of this design or fails is another matter, but regardless of the outcome it's the desire of every person writing pop music to write something that at least has the potential to be as popular as possible.  Thousands of pieces of popular music have been written over the last few hundreds of years, and in the interests of commercial and sexual success the better songs that struck a chord with the populace were duplicated with minor variations while the shittier songs were consigned to history's dustbin.  Through this evolutionary process of trial and error, certain pop songwriting conventions emerged, which can be summed up as follows:
  • For a piece of music to be popular it must have a catchy bit that sticks in your head, this should probably be repeated a fair bit so it has ample opportunity to lodge itself in there
  • There should be at least one other main section with a different kind of bit so listeners don't get too bored of hearing the same shit over and over
  • The longer the piece is, the more extra sections are needed to maintain interest
Since most people who write songs want more people to listen to them rather than less people, these conventions are quite common across many genres. Classical music even had special funky names for them:

Binary form - A-B
Where A is the main theme, and B is an alternate theme.

Ternary form - A-B-A
Where A is the main theme, and B is an alternate theme, but then it goes back to A at the end.  Most nursery rhymes follow either binary or ternary form, or a similar variation A-A-B-A.

Rondo form - A-B-A-C-A
Where A is the main theme and the other letters are alternate sections.  Each time after an alternate section finishes, the song returns to the main theme of A.  There can be any amount of extra sections, so A-B-A-C-A-D-A is a possibility, repetition of alternate sections is okay too so you can have A-B-A-C-A-B-A etc.  A popular form for waltz dancing, where A was usually the catchy upbeat section with the big melody and rhythm that you'd dance to the most vigorously and the other sections were usually a bit lighter in tone so you could have a break and not wear yourself out.

Sonata form - A-A'-A
Where A is the "exposition" where the theme is established, A' is the "development" where the theme is altered heavily, often with the use of modulation (key change) and the final A is the "recapitulation" where the original theme returns, sometimes beefed up a bit with extra instruments or whatever but essentially sounding much like it did at the start of the piece.  A popular long-form classical-period structure.  Think of it as "jumbo ternary form" and each section within it would often also be subdivided into A-B-A ternary forms or similar.  So the final result might be something like A-B-A-A'-B'-A'-A-B-A (an oversimplification, but you get the idea).

Theme and variations - A-A'-A"-A"'-A"" etc
Like the sonata except the theme never returns in its original form, instead it just keeps getting changed in different ways throughout the duration of the piece.

All of the above structures have one thing in common, they all have a "catchy section" (A) and the other stuff that isn't the catchy section (A', B, etc) is there to progress the song in different ways, essentially telling a musical story of sorts (whether actual lyrics are present or not).


Pop music uses similar ideas, but differently:

Chorus - the catchy bit, roughly analogous to A in the above classical examples.  The bit with the big melody that you remember, that gets played a lot during the piece.  If the pop song is a good one, this is the bit that gets stuck in your head later.  This "stuck in your head" bit is also known as the "hook", because it's the part that hooks you into the piece.

Verse - the other main section, that in a pop song tends to have different lyrics each time.  If in a song with lyrics, the verse is used to "tell the story" of the song, while the chorus drives home the "main point".

Pre-chorus - sometimes the chorus has a little section that builds anticipation before it starts.  Essentially the pre-chorus is the second part of the verse, it's not catchy like a chorus but it lets you know that something catchy is on the way.

Intro - a short section to introduce the piece before anything else happens.  Usually not repeated.

Outro - a section tacked onto the end that has nothing much to do with the rest of the piece.  Sometimes the intro reappears as the outro.

Bridge - an extra section, usually quite different to everything else.  Sometimes includes a rap, an instrumental solo, etc.  Tends to only happen once per song.

Breakdown - same as the bridge, the term "breakdown" is commonly used when the bridge also has a tempo or rhythm change (a drop to half-speed is common).

Refrain - some songs don't have choruses but just repeat the verse a lot.  The refrain is the final part of each verse, which essentially has a chorus-like function because it provides each verse's "punchline".  This is common in blues songs where the final four bars of each group of twelve bars in a twelve bar blues pattern becomes the refrain, but k-pop doesn't tend to bother with this even when the songs are blues-based - instead they'll just go through the whole 12 bars again with a different melody and call it a chorus.

Riff - a mainly instrumental section that breaks up other sections, basically a bookend to a verse or chorus to space things out so it's not just fucking vocals vocals vocals all the time with no gap.  Singers need a rest sometimes, as do your ears.

Chorus+, Riff+, etc - there's no official name for it but this refers to a part where an important element has been changed to push it to a climactic level, yet the passage is still identifiable as the chorus or the riff or whatever it is.  This usually happens right at the end of the piece.  A key shift, a change in the vocal part or a slightly altering to the instrumentation are common ways of achieving this effect.

Let's now look at some k-pop songs and examine some of the most common structures, so we can see how multiple songs treat the same structural ideas.

STRUCTURE 1: V-C-V-C-B-C (standard three chorus)

Intro - 0:12
Riff - 0:28
Verse 1 - 0:42
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:57
Chorus - 1:12
Riff - 1:27
Verse 2 - 1:43
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:57
Chorus - 2:13
Riff - 2:28
Bridge/breakdown (rhythm change, rap) - 2:42
Chorus - 2:57
Chorus+ (melodic change) - 3:12
Riff - 3:28

T-ara's "Roly Poly" has a common structure with most of the elements that you would see in any k-pop song.  You can summarise this structure as verse-chorus-verse-chorus-something else-chorus, and this is by far the most common type of structure in k-pop.  Let's look at a few more examples.

Intro - 0:14
Verse 1 - 0:32
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:49
Chorus - 1:06
Riff - 1:23
Verse 2 - 1:32
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:49
Chorus - 2:06
Riff - 2:23
Breakdown (new section, rhythm/tempo changes) - 2:49
Bridge (guitar solo) - 3:06
Chorus - 3:15
Chorus+ (another rhythm/tempo change but this time over the chorus melody) - 3:32
Riff - 3:49
Outro (video version only) - 4:03

GFriend's "Rough" is a newer song but as you can see the structure is very similar to "Roly Poly" - two verses, three choruses and some different stuff after the second chorus.  Most k-pop songs follow this structure or something very close to it.

Intro - 0:03
Verse 1 - 0:11
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:26
Chorus - 0:42
Riff - 1:11
Verse 2 - 1:19
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:33
Chorus - 1:49
Breakdown (rhythm change, rap) - 2:18
Riff - 2:33
Bridge (new melody) - 2:40
Chorus - 2:57
Outro (video version only) - 3:31

Fiestar's "Apple Pie" also doesn't break the rules to any large degree.  It's a song very sonically similar to mid-period Girls' Generation and the structure takes no chances.

Intro - 0:03
Verse 1 - 0:21
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:36
Chorus - 0:54
Verse 2 - 1:27
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:42
Chorus - 2:00
Breakdown (rhythm change, new melody) - 2:31
Chorus+ - (key change and semi-"acapella" section) - 2:57
Outro - 2:58

Lovelyz' "Ah-Choo" also plays by the book with the same strict structure.  As you may be noticing, if anything different happens at all, it's between the second and third chorus.

STRUCTURE 2: V-C-V-C (two chorus)

Riff/intro - 0:07
Verse 1 - 0:30
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:49
Chorus - 1:08
Verse 2 - 1:27
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:47
Chorus - 2:06
Riff/outro - 2:26

EvoL's "Get Up" has a cut-down two-chorus structure, the third chorus (and thus the need for a bridge/breakdown to connect them to everything else) are absent.  This is a structure commonly seen in k-pop where brevity is important - verse-chorus-verse-chorus.

Intro - 0:00
Verse 1 - 0:15
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:44
Chorus - 1:08
Verse 2 - 1:38
Pre-chorus 2 - 2:07
Chorus - 2:46

Badkiz' "Ear Attack" has an identical structure.  Note that the second verse is longer than the first verse, this is common in "two verse two chorus" songs.  As there's no third chorus at all, the second verse is elongated, and sometimes the second chorus is elongated as well.

Intro - 0:24
Verse 1 - 0:39
Pre-chorus 1 - 1:08
Chorus - 1:30
Verse 2 - 2:00
Breakdown - 2:30
Pre-chorus 2 - 2:46
Chorus - 3:08

Pocket Girls' "Bbang Bbang" is similar although the songwriter here made the choice to stick a breakdown in the middle of the second verse to extend it out rather than just repeat the same material for longer.

STRUCTURE 3: C-stuff-C (bookend chorus)

Chorus (intro) - 0:24
Verse 1 - 0:43
Chorus - 1:01
Verse 2 - 1:29
Chorus - 1:47
Breakdown (acapella) - 2:13
Chorus - 2:43
Bridge (rap) - 3:02
Chorus (outro) - 3:26

Oh My Girl's "Closer" has a shortened form of the chorus functioning also as the intro and outro.  This was a popular convention of pop music in the 1960s, however it's noticeably rarer in pop these days, however k-pop's ongoing fascination with all things retro means that it still gets used quite a bit.  Also in k-pop the chorus is really important and the "bookend chorus" structure highlights the chorus by leading with it, so it's seen in a lot of the really sugary end of popular k-pop idol songs.

Chorus (instrumental) - 0:19
Verse 1 - 0:33
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:48
Chorus - 1:01
Chorus (instrumental) - 1:30
Verse 2 - 1:44
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:58
Chorus - 2:12
Bridge - 2:41 (new section)
Chorus+ (acapella section) - 2:54
Chorus+ (key change) - 3:08

Orange Caramel's "Magic Girl" has the backing instruments playing the chorus melody right at the start of the song, establishing exactly what the chorus is before the singers even get to sing it.  This was a common technique that was employed by 80s songwriters Stock Aitken and Waterman, so it's fitting that it also winds up in Orange Caramel's SAW tribute.

Intro - 0:18
Chorus - 0:33
Verse 1 - 0:48
Pre-chorus 1 - 1:18
Bridge (rap) - 1:48
Verse 2 - 2:03
Pre-chorus 2 - 2:19
Breakdown - 2:49
Chorus - 3:05

Sistar's "How Dare You" is an exceptionally unusual song for k-pop and in fact all pop music in general because it showcases the chorus at the start and end of the song - and nowhere else.

Riff (intro) - 0:00
Chorus - 0:14
Verse 1 - 0:29
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:44
Chorus - 0:59
Riff - 1:14
Verse 2 - 1:29
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:44
Chorus - 1:58
Riff - 2:13
Breakdown - 2:28
Verse 3 - 2:43
Pre-chorus 3 - 2:57
Chorus - 3:12
Riff (outro) - 3:27

In Super Junior's "Sorry Sorry" the riff is as iconic and catchy as the actual chorus, and both are established before anything else happens.  Note that "Sorry Sorry" also has three full verses, this is common in western pop but less common in k-pop where songwriters usually try to keep song length down.

Riff - 0:07
Verse 1 - 0:24
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:39
Chorus - 0:54
Riff - 1:09
Verse 2 - 1:23
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:38
Chorus - 1:53
Riff - 2:08
Breakdown/bridge - 2:23
Chorus+ (slightly changed melody) - 2:43
Riff - 2:57
Riff+ (extra sound layer) - 3:12

Another riff-oriented song, in Orange Caramel's "My Copycat" the saxophone riff effectively is the chorus, it's far more catchy and interesting than the song's actual chorus vocals.  Therefore, the riff is established before anything else and is used more often, giving this song the feel of a "bookend chorus" structure even though it technically isn't.


Okay, so that's the basics.  Let's tackle some more eclectic choices and see how they fit into typical song structure conventions (or not).

Drum riff (verse 1) - 0:00
Drum and sitar riff (pre-chorus 1) - 0:14
Chorus - 0:36
Sitar riff - 1:03
Sitar riff+ (added effects) - 1:17
Drum riff (verse 2) - 1:31
Drum and sitar riff (pre-chorus 2) - 1:45
Chorus - 2:07
Chorus and sitar riff combined (chorus+) - 2:34

What happens when a song is instrumental, or quasi-instrumental, i.e driven by vocal samples and effects?  Instrumental songs still have structure, and they often still have a chorus too.  Hitchhiker's "$10" doesn't sound like typical pop fare but still has identifiable verse and chorus sections.  This is essentially a "two chorus" structure, and it might sound weird but the building blocks of the song aren't any different to anything else in this post.

Intro - 0:00
Riff - 0:13
Verse 1 - 0:48
Pre-chorus 1 - 1:05
Riff - 1:23
Verse 2 - 1:56
Pre-chorus 2 - 2:13
Chorus+riff - 2:31
Riff+ (extra melodic elements) - 3:05

The "deferred chorus" structure teases the chorus by either going straight to verse 2 after verse 1, or making the first chorus a "mini-chorus" or a chorus that's missing something significant.  In the ultra-glossy end of k-pop the chorus is everything, so a deferred chorus is very rare for idol groups because they want you to hear that hook as soon as possible.  Delaying the chorus is more common in slightly less commercial genres where the chorus has less importance and/or the audience has more patience to wait before hearing a chorus.  Sugardonut's "Imagine, Close Your Eyes" has a big anthemic keyboard riff but adds the chorus melody to it only once in the entire song, after we've already heard two full verses.

Intro - 0:36
Verse A - 0:51
Pre-chorus - 1:07
Bridge A (rap) - 1:27
Chorus - 1:41
Verse B 1 (same harmony, completely different melody to Verse A) - 1:57
Pre-chorus - 2:27
Riff - 2:48
Chorus - 3:02
Verse B 2 - 3:17
Breakdown (tempo change, new melody/harmony) - 3:33
Bridge B ("why you hating") - 3:51
Chorus - 4:05

Delaying the chorus payoff in a more commercial idol song is rarely done mainly because it doesn't always work quite so well.  T-ara N4's "Countryside Diary" has its moments but overall sounds extremely awkward to my ear and it's probably because the pre-chours never leads directly to the chorus but always builds up to something else instead.

Intro - 0:32
Chorus A - 0:54
Verse A - 1:13
Chorus A - 1:43
Riff - 2:05
Chorus B - 2:11 (new chorus, "I Got A Boy")
Verse B (new melody, different from verse A) - 2:25
Chorus A+ (faster version of Chorus A at 0:54) - 2:53
Verse C (new melody, different from verse A and B) - 3:07
Chorus A+ - 3:20
Breakdown (new section, tempo change) - 3:35
Chorus B - 4:04
Bridge (new melody/harmony) - 4:19
Chorus B - 4:32
Chorus B+ (Chorus A+ and Chorus B together) - 4:46

Girls' Generation's "I Got A Boy" is certainly a different structure for k-pop as well (and a fucking irritating listen overall, if you're me) but it's not the completely random beast that it appears to be, either.  The sections at the start of the song and the sections right at the end all have a specific musical relationship to each other, which is proven at the last chorus where the first chorus is overlaid onto the second "I Got A Boy" chorus and it fits perfectly.  This type of twin chorus doesn't really have much of a precedent in k-pop.

Intro - 0:10
Chorus B - 0:12
Verse 1 - 0:27
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:39
Chorus A - 0:53
Chorus B - 1:12
Verse 2 - 1:26
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:39
Chorus A - 1:53
Chorus B - 2:13
Bridge - 2:26
Chorus A+ (first part only)- 2:30
Chorus B+ (last part only) - 2:43
Chorus A+ - 2:50
Outro - 3:10

However believe it or not, Girls' Generation have done it before.  Who would have thought there was a connection between "I Got A Boy" and "Oh"?  The structural connection is the use of two different choruses that are established separately and then come together as the piece progresses.  In the song's climax, the catchiest part of Chorus A is tacked onto the finale of Chorus B.

Intro - 0:00
Verse 1 - 0:09
Pre-chorus 1 - 0:25
Chorus - 0:42
Riff - 0:58
Verse 2 - 1:09
Pre-chorus 2 - 1:25
Chorus - 1:42
Breakdown - 1:58
Chorus B - 2:26
Chorus A+ - 2:42

Stellar's "Vibrato" follows a fairly standard structure at first, until it lets the cat out of the vagina-bag with a completely different second chorus after the breakdown.  Then the first chorus returns, but adding elements from the second chorus.

Chorus A - 0:18
Verse 1 - 0:33
Pre-chorus - 1:00
Chorus A - 1:14
Chorus B - 1:29
Verse 2 - 1:41
Pre-chorus - 2:08
Chorus A - 2:22
Chorus B - 2:36
Bridge (new instrumentation and vocals) - 2:49
Bridge+ (new vocal elements) - 3:17
Bridge++ (more new vocal elements) - 3:30

CL's "The Baddest Female" also brings in completely different elements after the initial run through two verses and two choruses, but apart from the use of the word "Unnie" never makes any musical link between where the song starts and where it ends.

These are only some examples among many, there's lots of other examples I could find and pull apart, but the important thing to remember is this...


Just because a song has a certain structure, doesn't inherently make it a good or bad song.  Whether simple or more complicated structures are "better" is really just a matter of subjective opinion and what you as a listener prefer to listen to, plus song structure may not be the full story of why you like or hate a song anyway.  Songwriters try to make all song structures "work" with the material but whether they succeed depends largely on the individual who is listening.  Please don't use this post to be an insufferable cuntface on forums and websites, it is not supposed to be a "proof that your faves are best" post, it's merely a tool to enable those not-so-musically-trained to be conscious of structural elements as they listen to their favourite (or not-so-favourite) songs, which might then help them to understand why they personally like or dislike something, or what kind of musical preferences they have.  Although I have my own well-documented opinions on all of the songs in this post, yours may vary for whatever reason and this is fine.  Enjoy listening to k-pop and not being a stupid bitch.  Kpopalypse will return with more posts soon!


  1. I wish kpop do alot more key raise on the last chorus (chorus+ as u call it) because I love that shit.

    What do you call the surprise rap break on secret's I'm in love, the one after the first chorus? Is it a breakdown or like another bridge? Dont think that's another verse but I might be wrong

    1. In fiestar's I dont know they did a chorus+ with linzys last chorus aftrr hyemi's bridge. Loving it

  2. That final minute of Vibrato is gold.

  3. I'm still gonna be a lazy cao ni ma when writing my reviews and not incorporate any of this new (to me) knowledge!

  4. i had a feeling the "fail" example would be "lifted" before it even loaded, lmao

  5. I'm still confused by Windy Day. Which part is the actual chorus?

  6. I can tell which part of a song is the chorus. I'm musically genius.

  7. Surprised I didn't see Black Swan here, since everyone complained about its structure.