A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Jung Kook’s “Standing Next To You”

Photo Courtesy of BIGHIT MUSIC

A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Jung Kook’s “Standing Next To You”

Photo Courtesy of BIGHIT MUSIC

We’ve all heard “K-pop” used as a catch-all term for boy/girl “idol” music emerging from South Korea. Colloquially, K-pop invokes the notion of an entire cultural ecosystem built around carefully manufactured star performers working in a hybrid mélange of music, dance, and fashion. As we’ve witnessed in recent years, the global audience for K-pop has exploded, with acts like BTS, Blackpink, EXO, Twice, and NewJeans attracting massive, obsessive fanbases outside of Korea, and even topping US pop charts. Is there something special about K-pop music that distinguishes it from, say, Western pop? What makes K-pop sound like K-pop?

Given the glossy sonic sheen and flashy visual spectacles that accompany K-pop, it would be easy to dismiss the genre as little more than inorganic, corporate-manufactured content that cynically exploits fandom culture. But if we were to indulge glibly in this assumption, we would risk missing the principal characteristic that gives much of K-pop its central musical identity: truly creative, thoughtfully crafted melodies and chord progressions. Indeed, it’s not Korean-language lyrics that defines K-pop, nor is it the artists’ geographic origin or any curated visual aesthetic. What makes K-pop distinctive is its unusual approach to musical choices involving harmony and production — an approach we rarely hear these days in mainstream Western pop music. The melodic and harmonic choices delineate a sophisticated kind of “musical grammar” and an esprit de corps that embodies K-pop genre.

The Stereotypes is one of many behind-the-scenes music production/songwriting teams operating in both mainstream Western pop and K-pop spheres. They once explained that when they’re working in K-pop, they’re “allowed” to explore a richer, broader spectrum of harmonic and melodic expression than when they’re working in Western pop. The Stereotypes didn’t specify who, exactly, is granting or denying them permission to be musically adventurous — and that’s a fascinating topic we’ll get to later in this article. I hesitate to issue broad generalizations about any genre, as there will always be plenty of exceptions and counter examples. But there exists, among songwriters and producers, a prevailing notion that K-pop music routinely features more thoughtful harmony and song structure than what we commonly find in today’s mainstream Western pop tunes. Curiously, few people seem to be talking about how and why this is so.

Last month, BTS’ outstanding tenor, Jung Kook, released the third single off his debut album, Golden, and it immediately topped Billboard’s Global Music chart. The song, “Standing Next To You,” was written by Andrew Watt, Henry Walter, Ali Tamposi, and Jon Bellion. The composition provides a clarifying window into the kinds of musical choices emblematic of modern K-pop — which in turn helps explain its appeal. Let’s check it out.

Harmonic Lineage

The first thing you might notice about “Standing Next To You” is that — as with a lot of other K-pop — much of its musical lineage traces back to previous generations of Western pop music: specifically, 1980s American R&B and 1990s neo soul. It uses harmonic vocabulary reminiscent of songwriters like Rod Temperton (Michael Jackson), David Foster (Earth, Wind & Fire), and Jan Kincaid (The Brand New Heavies). The chords move in a manner that builds a narrative arc and creates a coherent sense of “story development.” This contrasts starkly with the loop-based 4-chord structure we commonly hear today in mainstream Western pop. “Standing Next To You” is in D minor and it is mainly diatonic (meaning most of its chords and melody live in the song’s key center). Figure 1, below, describes the song’s main harmonic framework.

Figure 1: Notes Comprising the "D Natural Minor," "D Harmonic Minor," and "D Dorian" Scales, Along with Chords Built on Each Scale Degree

Nigel Tufnel famously described D minor as the saddest of all keys, but “Standing Next To You” doesn’t suffer the same forlorn fate as “Lick My Love Pump.” The chords used in the majority of Jung Kook’s ebullient song come from three different flavors of D minor, as shown above: D natural minor (Aeolian mode), D harmonic minor (Aeolian #7 mode), and D Dorian mode. We can derive the corresponding chords by harmonizing each scale degree — a process that involves stacking intervals of 3rds starting on each root note to generate 4-note chords (“tertian harmony”).

The song’s verses and pre-choruses strictly adhere to the i and ♭VI chords — Dmin7 and B♭Maj7, respectively — while the remaining chords from Figure 1 spring into action during the choruses (more on that later). The melody Jung Kook sings throughout the song comprises notes drawn exclusively from D natural minor. See Figure 2, below.

Figure 2: First Part of the Verse of "Standing Next To You"

Jung Kook’s vocal melody emphasizes the note E, which is the 9th scale degree in D minor. Over the Dmin7 chord, the E produces a savory tension with the note F (a semitone above it) before resolving to the chord’s root. On the B♭Maj7 chord, Jung Kook sings the same melodic line, but here the E note acts as a raised 4th — fleetingly producing a “Lydian” sound, just in that moment. The raised 4th feels intrinsically unstable as it desperately seeks resolution up a semitone to the perfect 5th interval. Lecturing at Oxford University in 2016, film composer Thomas Newman aptly described the sound of a raised 4th as creating a sense of hopefulness and “rising.” This description seems fitting when you consider that the raised-4th Lydian sounds significantly shapes John Williams’ “Flying” theme from E.T., Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story, and the piano hook in Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.” In “Standing Next To You,” the raised 4th that Jung Kook sings coincides with the words “miracles” and “we control” — so the convergence of melody and harmony here effectively bolsters the meaning of the lyrics.

More ’90s R&B Inspiration

Listen to the song’s pre-chorus and tell me: do its first and third bars remind you of anything? For me, the chords and melody conjure memories of “Regulate” by Warren G featuring Nate Dogg (which itself was based on Michael McDonald’s superb jam “I Keep Forgettin’“). See Figure 3, below.

Figure 3: Pre-chorus Excerpt from "Standing Next To You"

The “all night long we rock/flock to this” phrases form an alluring hook over the i-♭VI chord progression — just like in the Warren G tune. But in “Standing Next To You,” the phrases combine to produce lovely call-and-response figures with Jung Kook’s interspersed high tenor lines. (The perfect-5th intervallic jump on “testify” really showcases the smoothness and agility with which he’s able to transition from head voice to falsetto.)

A Surprise Twist

Thus far, we’ve explored how the song’s harmonic language draws from older Western pop traditions. But the most thrilling part of “Standing Next To You” — the song’s boldest move — is when it takes a daring turn almost unheard of in pop music. At the peak of excitement in the song’s chorus, we experience a harmonic shift unrelated to the chords or melody in the rest of the song. Indeed, what happens in this section may be the most unlikely harmonic plot twist imaginable: immediately after the progression resolves comfortably to the D-minor home chord, an A♭ Major chord appears for two bars — a tritone interval away. I cannot emphasize enough how weird — and how awesome — this compositional direction change is. See Figure 4, below.

Figure 4: Chorus of "Standing Next To You"

Referring back to Figure 1, we can view the range of chord possibilities relating to our key center — incorporating “modal interchange” between D natural minor, D harmonic minor, and D Dorian. Do you find an A♭ anywhere? Neither do I. When we hear the A♭ Major “intruder” (voiced as an A♭Maj7♭5), it comes as a surprise because it’s the most distant chord possible and it arrives without warning. The note A♭ is not only the farthest away (chromatically) from the note D, but a chord built on A♭ is also at the opposite end of the circle of fifths relative to D. The two chords are completely foreign to each other. [If you’re unfamiliar the circle of fifths: it’s a way musicians can organize the 12 chromatic pitches used in Western tonal music — kind of like how scientists use the periodic table to organize elements. The farther away one key center is from another, the less they have in common.] See Figure 5 below.

Figure 5: Circle of Fifths Relationship Between D and A♭

The first four bars of the chorus follow customary harmonic logic, with the descending bass line underpinning diatonic chords from the aforementioned minor modes (including chord inversions), allowing for smooth voice leading before climbing back up to the D-minor. It’s a departure from the i-♭VI back-and-forth action we’ve heard thus far, and it represents a coherent progression of the song’s harmonic development. This all relates to the concept of “functional harmony” — a tonal framework in which every chord has a predefined job to perform. But when the A♭Maj7♭5 chord arrives, what function does that chord serve? Does it even have a function?

In general, a chord built upon the interval a tritone away from the tonic (home) chord can act as passing chord — which you can think of as a harmonic lubricant that allows the tonic chord to glide through it with ease toward the IV chord. In 20th-Century jazz (especially swing and bebop) and in the Tin Pan Alley days of American popular music, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find a DMaj7 (I) chord sliding into a GMaj7 (IV) via a passing A♭min7♭5 — or even an A♭Maj7♭5. Passing chords are ephemeral by design. You might hear them for one or two beats at most. In “Standing Next To You,” the A♭Maj7♭5 makes too big a statement — and for too long in duration — to behave as a passing chord or merely as some kind of harmonic decoration. Clearly, it’s not a jazz-influenced “tritone substitution.” And I don’t think it’s an example of “prolongation” either (a concept from Schenkerian Analysis, which is a complex and fraught topic, perhaps suitable for us to tackle another time).

When the A♭Maj7♭5 arrives, it displaces the song’s entire center of gravity in a sudden, impressive manner. So maybe that’s its function. The seismic shift brought on by this chord emphasizes the lyrics describing the figurative depth of Jung Kook’s commitment when he’s “Standing Next To You.” The rhythmic phrasing in the melody then goes to make the section feel even more off-balance because the pattern is asymmetrical. (Again, see Figure 4, above.) Jung Kook is singing highly syncopated phrases that group notes together in clusters of three beats, over 4/4 time. This results in a polyrhythmic 4:3 “over-the-barline” feel. Coupled with the already-surprising harmony, it makes the whole unexpected passage sound really hip.

It’s amusing to observe where the A♭Maj7♭5 chord we’ve been referencing comes from. It’s a type of chord popularized by post-bop tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. You can hear different Maj7♭5 chords threaded all through his classic tune “Inner Urge.” Check it out:

In “Standing Next To You,” the A♭Maj7♭5 eventually melts into a G Major chord following the line, “when it’s deep like DNA,” gently dissipating all the dramatic tension built up in the previous two bars. Finally, the G Major moves to an implied G minor, resolving in iv-i cadence, bringing us back home to D minor. I find the musical architecture quite inventive.

Have You Heard This Elsewhere?

Can you think of another piece of music that moves from the minor tonic to a Major chord a tritone away, and then sits on that chord for two whole bars before resolving to the IV? One similar example that comes to mind is from the Jack Wagner ballad “All I Need.” In that song’s chorus section, the bass line moves from the tonic A to D#, a tritone away. But the chord atop the D# is a B Major, so it’s effectively a 1st-inversion II chord in an A Lydian progression. Not exactly what’s going on in the Jung Kook song — but compelling, nonetheless.

In Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” we hear movement from B minor to F Major (a tritone away), but those chords are the iii and ♭VII, respectively — i.e., not based around the tonic as in the Jung Kook song. Again, similar — but not the same.

The only example I can think of that employs a tonic-tritone-IV progression in a manner that resembles what’s going on in the chorus of “Standing Next To You” is in the song “Would” by Alice In Chains. Listen to the coda, after the second chorus, when Layne Staley sings “Am I wrong?”. We hear a DMaj to G#Maj (that’s the tonic-to-tritone move), which then resolves down to GMaj (the IV), followed by an E7 (a secondary dominant). The G# chord is enharmonic to A♭ (meaning same pitches, different note names), and the tonic chord is a DMaj rather than Dmin. So the Alice in Chains and Jung Kook passages aren’t identical, but they’re harmonically comparable. Check it out:

Have you noticed anything else significant about the A♭Maj7♭5 chord in “Standing Next To You”? The melody Jung Kook is singing over that chord includes an A♮, which becomes a ♭9 altered chord extension. (Figure 4, above.) This makes the whole affair even more riveting, more intriguing. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Standing Next To You” turns out to be the only single in the history of the Billboard charts to have used an A♭Maj7♭5♭9.

Harmony vs. Sound Design

As a reminder, I didn’t single out this Jung Kook song to analyze because I think the composition is unusual within the context of K-pop music. To the contrary, we’re examining this song precisely because it embodies the kinds of bold harmonic choices we commonly find in K-pop — and which are conspicuously scarce in Western pop these days. Listen to the rich harmony in “Superhuman” by NCT 127 and witness all the unexpected twists and turns. Check out “snowy night” by Billlie, for some tasty and nourishing chord changes. Behold “One (Monster & Infinity)” by SuperM and “Pink Venom” by Blackpink for sinuous modal mixtures (e.g., Phrygian Dominant to Aeolian to Mixolydian.). And on and on, the list continues.

If it’s true that K-pop sphere values thoughtful harmony and melody as a genre-defining characteristic, why doesn’t mainstream Western pop emphasize this value in the same way? Why was harmony stressed more in Western pop in previous generations than it is now? More to the point: why do songwriters today, as a matter of course, deliberately employ more sophisticated chords and melody when working in K-pop than when they’re working in mainstream Western pop? I haven’t found satisfying answers to these questions — and maybe there are none. But at the risk of grasping at straws, perhaps we can approach something resembling a cogent explanation by looking at broader musical trends in the West.

Over the years, music in the West has become more sound-design driven than harmony driven. Certainly, we can hear this in film scoring — and the music of Hans Zimmer may be the most obvious exemplar of this tendency. Tools for sampling and synthesis (subtractive, wavetable, FM, granular, spectral, physical modeling) have evolved and grown in abundance, as have tools for post-processing (modulation, time-based, dynamics, filters). And the proliferation of digital-audio workstations (DAWs) has made these tools orders-of-magnitude cheaper than they were decades ago. In Western pop music, writer/producers have drifted towards using sound design as a means of building excitement, evoking pathos, and sparking listeners’ imaginations — whereas, previously, these tasks fell more into the domain of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Indeed, as we explored in a previous In Theory article, on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” to modern ears, chromatic lines and chords featuring upper extensions (and altered extensions) moving through moments of tension and release via circle-of-fifths-type relationships can sound nostalgic or old-fashioned — and to jaded listeners, perhaps corny. Even in 21st-Century contemporary classical music, you’re likely to find that the most celebrated works assiduously avoid established harmonic techniques. If composers like Kaija Saariaho, Nico Muhly, or Max Richter were to employ traditional musical grammar — or even 20th-Century atonal constructs — as a central feature of their music, listeners would invariably find it sounding dated.

We can further understand the situation using an analogy from the field of telecommunications: the “message” signal is the information you want to transmit, and the “carrier” signal is the means of transmission. Traditionally, if you were to hear an A Major chord played on a piano, the “message” would be the notes that combine to create the A Major chord, and the “carrier” would be the sound of the piano. Both signals are necessary for the music to reach your ears, and they each play a distinct role in transmitting the information. In modern Western music, increasingly, the roles of “message” and “signal” have become reversed. Today, the sound of the instrument (sound design) has assumed the primary role of “message,” whereas the A Major chord (the harmony) has become the means of transmitting the sound-designed instrument. For better or worse (no judgment here), this role reversal has become an essential ingredient to making music sound modern.

Earlier, I posed a rhetorical question about who’s gatekeeping the boundaries of K-pop and mainstream Western pop with respect to harmony and production. I’m not aware of any mustache-twirling aristocrat or cat-stroking James Bond villain dictating these things from record-company headquarters. On the contrary: I think the songwriters/producers themselves have simply internalized the notion that when working in Western pop, it’s imperative that the sound design and production grab the listener first and foremost, with harmony assuming a secondary role. And if the chords and melody are “saying too much,” the music risks sounding outmoded — or even treacly. It’s just something producers/songwriters instinctively know, and perhaps many of them have never questioned the underlying musical/cultural assumptions. As the thinking goes, if you want a hit, just use rudimentary harmony and make the song interesting through creative sound design, performance, and production.

The music of Silk Sonic (examined in a previous In Theory article) can serve as an edifying case. I suspect Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars wanted to indulge in a stew of rich harmony, and they recognized the only way they could get away with it in today’s pop milieu was by inventing an overtly retro façade in which to wrap it. If you pair sophisticated harmonic language with kitschy 1970s leisure suits, maybe modern audiences will accept it. Indeed, their collaboration represents almost a different subgenre of mainstream modern pop. And what about K-pop? I wonder if writers/producers working in K-pop may be doing something similar: smuggling stimulating harmony into a modern pop presentation that they understand Western audiences will accept on the basis of its Korean “otherness.”

Paging Edward Said

OK, here’s where we get to the awkward part of the article. It’s always perilous to make broad pronouncements about different music genres, and perhaps I’ve already waded in too far with sweeping generalizations about K-pop versus Western pop. (After all, we can easily find exceptions to the genre distinctions I outlined above.) But I am curious about the extent to which Western audiences are eager to embrace the complex harmony found in so much K-pop due to an unacknowledged “Orientalist” distinction. (I’m referencing the Edward Said concept of Orientalism here.)

This also raises questions about what is preventing K-pop from escaping its otherness so that it simply becomes part of “pop” in mainstream music. Is the “K” marker holding back the genre? And would K-pop risk losing its most compelling characteristics in the process of flattening itself into mainstream Western pop? I don’t have good answers here, and maybe the premises on which I’m basing these questions are flawed themselves. What do you think?

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