Traits of Kpop: those high pitches

If you listen to Korean pop music often, you may find something interesting: So many boy groups sing songs in keys that are usually high for guys, and there are some times when the pitch flies all the way to a range where some girls even find it hard to reach. Here are some examples:

0330 by U-KISS 

Hello by SHINee 

이것만은 알고 가(Before U Go)  by TVXQ 

Mona Lisa by MBLAQ  

And the recent release of Infinite’s new song Paradise is a perfect example:

Seems like there’s no place for basses and baritones in idol music world – basses and baritones all become rappers instead of main singers – take TOP from BigBang as an example: he’s good-looking, he sings well, but he just can’t be the main singer because he has a deep voice with relatively low voice range. So what’s with all those high keys and extremely high pitches? Do Asian boys just naturally have a higher range of voice? According to my observation on all kinds of Korean songs and other Asian country’s songs, that’s not the case – the reason is more commercial.

Let’s look at the market that boy group idols are aiming at. These idols try their best to maintain perfect hair, perfect smile, perfect skin, perfect body – in general, perfect appearance. These boy idols are aiming at pre-teenage, teenage and young adult girls! They try to appear as close to perfection as possible, behaving carefully to keep the “prince” image the industry labelled them. So when it comes music, of course these idols need to do something so that the fan girls can act in response when the fan girls are listening to them and therefore build up a “closer relationship” with them: Make the girls sing along with the song! Listening to a beautiful song keeps the song in a distant state of “art”, but singing with the song really brings the song alive to the listeners. To do this first they need a catchy melody, secondly easy lyrics, thirdly a steady tempo. But this is not enough – What if the girls feel like the key is too low? What if the key becomes awkward in such a way that singing neither original octave nor a octave above the original feels comfortable for the girls? Now you probably see my point. By building the whole song in a key range that’s comfortable for most of the girls, producers enable the song to be interactive. However, not every boy singer can sing in such a pitch – that’s why only those who can sing high become main vocals, and those who can’t, or don’t sound as good when singing high, have to step backwards and become second singers, rappers and else.

This step may sound very easy, but it is exactly this little simple, or even seemingly 
photo175959unimportant, “trick” that pushes the Korean boy groups higher and higher: fans sing loudly with the boys at live, girls do covers of songs using original instrumentals without much trouble, and even those who originally don’t adore the boy idols can slowly get converted by the easy-to-sing songs in addition to these idols’ perfect image. As a result more and more albums, posters, photo albums are sold, and more and more people buy tickets to go to the idols’ concerts. In some way, the high keys and pitches attribute largely to the prosperity of Korean boy idol industry.

Of course, basses and baritones still make great artists by singing songs in low keys. These songs are not necessarily maturer, or less idolistic, but usually these songs don’t come in as “group songs”, instead they are promoted as work of individual singers, or solo songs by a certain member in the group.

The choice on pitches can’t be judged as “better” than one another, but certainly these high pitches characterize the Korean boy idol industry.

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This entry was published on October 28, 2011 at 6:08 pm. It’s filed under K-pop, The Traits and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

8 thoughts on “Traits of Kpop: those high pitches

  1. Being an Asian male vocalist whose range is in baritone like Ian Curtis or Paul Banks this trend honestly gets me feel awkward. Not only Korean pop but also Asian male in general tend to sing in a high pitch these days so I was wondering why hence my comment being left here. Interesting article indeed.

  2. theblackcat1236 on said:

    I feel like rather than trying to have a princely image, that’s just how images roll in Korea. In Korea the standards of an attractive boy are the same standards held for an attractive girl: perfect hair, v-line face, and milky skin. They’re not trying to be princely necessarily, they’re just trying to be attractive. As for the higher pitches, impressing fangirls seems to also play a role. Everyone went batshit crazy when they found out IU could go three octaves up–they decided that meant she was the most amazing singer ever. I mean SuHoon and JiSoo from Dae Guk Nam Ah and Dalmatian, two males, can also go three octaves. As a matter of fact, SuHoon when three octaves in his audition video. Fans just like to assume everyone with a good range is the most amazing singer ever, so guys sing higher to show off their range. I do mostly agree with everything though.

    • So true. Yes when the pitches fly all the way to a range where girls may not even be able to sing, fangirls just burst into extreme excitement and fascination. Definitely the goal to impress the fans is there. Thanks for you opinion~ 🙂

  3. > language also impacts one’s natural voice

    Yeeees totally agree on that. Sooo many Japanese boys and Korean boys’ voices turn A LOT higher and lighter when they try to speak Chinese… It feels so weird.. And it is pretty true that Asian boys have higher range of voice compared to non-Asian boys. But even within Asian guys, these boy idols sing in such an incredibly high key – if we leave out non-Asian guys… Sometimes it’s even high for girls and that definitely creates a great impression: “wow that dude can seriously ‘scream’ !”

  4. i’ve never thought of it that way before!! ilistic effect to make things more impressive/infectious? it’s also a safer range for a melody that allows it to project better.
    i think that the best pop music boasts a wide range: digging around in lower notes, and then eclimbing up to a higher range. It’s most expressive, and the different levels of notes can tell a story better than one single octave
    the only thing is, so much of Korean music (Nu Abo, Lucifer, Sorry Sorry…. ) is so un-singable. i think pop music is going away from the goal of being ‘sing-able’ but rather ‘dance-able’. they’re both successful goals!!

    • True. I think those “one pitch” songs are highly singable. Both “Sing-able” and “dance-able” songs have two sides.
      The good side is that they really make ppl do dancing gestures and mumble their melody randomly after listening to them because the melody lacks a variety – it’s extremely easy to sing! no need to deepen voice or scream high. Now this is another tactic that Kpop producers use to get more sells.

      But the downside of this tactic is that these songs lack true values of music. They become too commercial. Sometimes I don’t see any art in a song even when it’s very popular – I can’t see spirit, I can’t see the feeling, I can’t see the point. That’s kind of sad.

  5. > Do Asian boys just naturally have a higher range of voice?

    I guess that depends on what you are comparing them to. Compared to Asian women, no. But compared to non-Asian boys, then in generally they probably do. It has been known for a couple of years now that genes (and specifically which ones) affect the development of the larynx. There is a natural disposition for males to grow a longer larynx as they get older, producing a deeper voice than women. At the same time, there is evidence that language also impacts one’s natural voice (there is a nice paper on this that I can’t find at the moment…). People’s ears and throats become accustomed to only hearing/making the sounds of their native language, even though they can learn to hear and make all of those sounds *most* of the time; for instance, most English speakers cannot hear the difference between two types of ‘th’ sound in Arabic because in English the distinction between those sounds never matters. Similarly, languages like Chinese which have a higher emphasis on tonality than other languages tends to cause people to develop a wider, or in this case higher, vocal range.

    I believe Asians in general have higher natural voices than non-Asians, but I also believe that general percentage is likely to be quite small in the grand scheme of things.

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