South Korea for Music Lovers : the Essential Guide to South Korea's Music Scene

The West could not have predicted it, but when PSY released the record-breaking Gangnam Style back in 2012, those 1 billion+ views would create a ripple effect. A decade on, the Hallyu Korean Wave shows no signs of stopping. From sold-out stadiums and Billboard chart domination, to headlining Coachella and Grammy nominations, the achievements of some K-Pop groups in the past 5 years alone is immense. But the sound of South Korea goes beyond benchmarks. It is multi-faceted, musing, and magnetic.

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The famous ‘BTS Bus Stop’ in Gangneung which appeared on the cover of BTS’ album, ‘You Never Walk Alone’ (2017).

K-Pop: a short(ish) summary

As a general rule within K-Pop, the entertainment market is dominated by 4 companies: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and HYBE Corporation. This is not exactly set in stone — as HYBE was built from the ground-up with the meteoric rise of BTS. But the advantage is undeniable. Well-connected both domestically and internationally, a music group who has ‘Big 4 Privilege’ has a significantly higher chance of making their mark.

Yet as we all know, TikTok has well and truly changed the music industry — giving way to independent and unknown artists to go viral. A most recent example of this would be Fifty Fifty, whose catchy hit ‘Cupid’ just may be the song (and meme) of the year. Now, these 4 ladies are set to feature on the soundtrack of the much anticipated Barbie movie coming out in July this year.

And whilst BTS are currently on hiatus due to military conscription, June marks the 10 year anniversary for this boyband sensation. Throughout the years, BTS’ discography has hit  all kinds of notes — from impassioned rap and pop rock power ballads about social inequality, to quintessential K-Pop hits that make you want to get up and dance like dynamite (whoa-oh-oh).

To the surprise of some, K-Pop draws heavy inspiration from traditionally more western genres like Hip-Hop and R&B. And in almost all K-Pop songs —  even the ones that are as bubble-gum as they come —  you will find a rap section. Artists like G-Dragon and T.O.P from BIGBANG as well as CL (2NE1) are considered to be some of the greatest in the industry when it comes to this skillset.

But the choreography is just as important as the music itself these days. In the past few years, the dance routines have only become more impressive — and slightly baffling. Despite having 9 and 10 members respectively, Twice and NCT 127 seem to always be in-sync to their complex choreography. Soloists like SHINEE’s Taemin and Blackpink's Lisa are also adored for their star quality.

Stay up to date with the latest in K-Pop by checking out this Spotify playlist.

Statue of Gangnam Style located in the Gangnam district. PSY’s 2012 hit song was inspired by this district’s reputation for extravagant displays of new money wealth.

The nation’s favourite: ballads

K-Pop may be what made South Korea the talk of the town, but it is the ballads that appeal to all ages. Invoking stories of love, loss, and longing through powerful vocals, these tender tunes are guaranteed to tug on the heart strings. The sadder songs are not just down-beat; they are devastating. Aside from tale as old as time romance, nostalgia is a common theme within these songs: yearning for times that have since passed, or may never have existed.

Whilst many consider the ‘King and Queen of Ballads’ to be Shin Heung Sun and Baek Ji-young, there are plenty of other artists who have made a name for themselves within this emotive genre — including some K-Pop idols. EXO’s members Baekhyun, Chen and D.O. in particular are famous for their beautiful voices and lyrics.

They have even been featured on the original soundtracks (OSTs) of a few K-Dramas. If you have watched a K-Drama before, you are probably familiar with those 10 second still shots of the two leads gazing at each other with love in their eyes. To really set off the slow-burn, these scenes are followed by a melancholic melody in which the vocalist sings with longing and passion. It packs a punch.

Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul. This historical location has been featured in several K-dramas.

A journey into the past

Despite their forward-thinking, technology-driven mindset, South Korea is deeply patriotic and connected to its history. In less than a lifetime, this fascinating place has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the wealthiest.

When you read between the lines, this rags to riches tale is painstakingly clear. As is the complicated relationship with North Korea. Nowhere is this more clear than in the form of Arirang. Estimated to be over 600 years old, there is over 60 different versions of this song alone. There is a devastating sense of irony to this melody, as its central theme is about holding hands and working together for peace and rest. To hear it for yourself, we recommend So Hyang’s chilling cover.

Other traditional types of music include the operatic Pansori, as well as farmers’ music Pungmul: where all the performers are constantly moving in a circular motion.

Two women dressed in Hanbok, traditional Korean clothing. In the background is Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. BTS performed in Hanbok at this stunning location during the pandemic as part of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Seoul’s best live music venues

Whilst your best chance of seeing a K-Pop act is at Olympic Hall, Seoul’s best music venues often focus on a different genre of music. Rock out to independent bands at A.O.R in the Hongdae district, where the stage is open to both seasoned performers and newbies. Club FF is another exciting pick as South Korea’s best modern rock groups love to perform here. Once the live music leaves the stage at 11pm, a DJ takes over for a night to remember.

Far more popular than Seoul’s Rock & Roll scene though is Jazz. From the laidback La Clé to the sophisticated and well-established All That Jazz, these bars are a great opportunity to either catch a classic or see who may be the next big thing. Do not forget about Jazz Story; you could spend hours in this cosy café and not get tired of the romantic acoustic melodies. All kinds of genres gets played in Jazz Story —  including song requests.

Seoul skyline at night. This city’s best nightlife districts are considered to be Gangnam, Hongdae and Itaewon.

Music festivals

Whilst streaming services still manage to wow, nothing compares to the feeling of seeing your favourite musician live. Getting tickets to the Dream Concert is a dream come true for most K-Pop fans. Held in May each year, this one-day-only extravaganza highlights some of K-Pop’s hottest acts and rising stars. Between the intricate dance moves, catchy songs, and enthusiastic crowd, this music festival embodies everything to love about K-Pop.

Equally exciting is the Incheon Rock Festival, which will take place this year from the 4th to the 6th of August. The stage is open to both Korean and international artists, with this year’s headlining act being The Strokes. As 1 of the 100 K-Culture tourism attractions, South Korea’s favourite rock festival is a chance for fans from all over the world to connect over their love of music.

If you want to try a little bit of everything, why not book tickets to the Waterbomb Festival? Held in multiple cities in South Korea (and even in neighbouring countries like Japan and Thailand), this huge water fight keeps you cool under the sun. Mixing together K-Pop with EDM and Rap, this festival attracts legendary names within the industry — with most recent examples being BamBam and HyunA. You can find the full list of dates and tickets here.

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Feel the rhythm with our Music Lovers Guides series.

South Korea — Facts before you go


🇰🇷 Korean (Official); some English is understood in Seoul’s touristy neighbourhoods.


💸South Korean won (₩)


👎Not customary.

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Hannah Douch
August 30, 2023
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