Music isn’t something new in South Korean dramas.
Well-known artists take part in K-drama OST’s and the songs can become just as popular as the dramas themselves.
So, it’s not a surprise that Netflix is continuing this tradition and releasing soundtrack albums to some of its K-drama hits like Sweet Home, D.P., Extracurricular, My Name – and, of course, Squid Game.
Today, let’s take a look at details behind the music and the OST album of Squid Game, which is the first score-based album from a Netflix Korea show and the first Korean show to win at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards.
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Music director Jung Jae-il
The music director for Squid Game is Jung Jae-il, a Korean composer, musician and director among other things. He is perhaps most recognized for his role as the music director for films ‘Okja’ and ‘Parasite’ but his work is more wide-ranging than people might think.
Outside of film, he’s been actively participating in a variety of artistic productions such as musicals and theatre, working on songs with well-known Korean singers such as Park Hyo-shin, and revitalizing traditional Korean music.
Jung Jae-il is an all-rounded musician and artist as exemplified in the Squid Game soundtrack – he is credited for playing the guitar, piano and recorder, and for programming, orchestration, and composition.
Take a bit more time to learn more about Jung Jae-il and his wide-ranging work in our in-depth profile below.
‘23’ and Park Min-joo
Squid Game was the first series that Jung Jae-il took on as music director and working on the music for a 9-hour show was something he says he couldn’t do alone. He enlisted the help of two other collaborators for the Squid Game soundtrack and their role cannot be glossed over here.
Kim Sung-soo (김성수), who goes by the pseudonym ‘23’ as a composer, is credited for four tracks in the soundtrack album: ‘Pink Soldiers,’ ‘Hostage Crisis,’ ‘Delivery,’ and ‘Dead End.’
Kim studied at the Musicians Institute in LA and returned to Korea in the late 90’s, working as a producer for indie musicians. Since then, he’s become a particularly sought-after music director in local musical productions, including sold-out shows like the Korean version of the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ In 2022, in fact, he will be celebrating 20 years since his musical debut.
The theme song for the masked guards in Squid Game titled ‘Pink Soldiers’ was composed by Kim under the pseudonym ‘23’ and it is perhaps the most creepy and iconic – even though it’s the shortest track in the album at only 38 seconds.
In a Newsis interview (link in Korean), composer ‘23’ said that ‘Pink Soldiers’ was actually a track he had already made and had wanted to use in a musical he was working on. He said it was a rejected song but music director Jung took a chance on it.
This context seems incredulous given how well the track fits in with scenes in the series and how popular it has gotten. It’s hard to imagine what could have been the alternative to the background music for the nameless and faceless guards facilitating the games.
There’s also Park Min-joo (박민주), who is credited with 3 tracks in the Squid Game album.
Park has produced songs for a range of Kpop artists such as K. Will, Davichi, and Han Dong-geun as well as string arrangements for songs and musicals.
Jung Jae-il said that he worked with Park for the first time through the Netflix series through an introduction by the composer ‘23’.
‘Way Back Then’
Track 1 in the Squid Game soundtrack album is none other than ‘Way Back Then,’ which is the background music played at the start of episode one itself when the concept of Squid Game is being explained.
In a Naver Now interview, music director Jung Jae-il said that he bought and experimented with a set of children’s instruments – sounds of which would make Korean audiences reminisce about their childhood.
He ended up choosing the recorder, castanets and a traditional percussion instrument called ‘sogo’ (소고).
He said that the squeaky sound of the recorder wasn’t intentional but a mistake he had made playing the instrument himself.
It was hard work that paid off for Jung Jae-il. He mentioned in the Naver Now interview that he had created seven different versions of the opening theme, which reminds us of what he had to do for the seven-minute classical piece in the Oscar-winning film ‘Parasite.’
Familiar classical music
Like many of the things appearing on Squid Game, there’s a cultural context behind the use of the classical music that a particular generation of Koreans would be familiar with.
In the show, a piece of classical music plays to wake the players up before the games begin. This is the third movement of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto which was the intro music to a game show called ‘Scholarship Quiz’ (장학퀴즈).
In the show, which started way back in 1973, high school students answered questions and were awarded college scholarships as prizes. According to a culture piece about ‘Scholarship Quiz’ on Hankyoreh (link in Korean), the show became a kind of cultural phenomenon in the backdrop of the 1970’s and 80’s when Korea was going through an era of economic development. Families would tune in every Sunday with the sound of Haydn’s Concerto marking the start of the show.
Excluding a brief hiatus, the show is still running since 1973 as of 2021, although the format has changed from the original version. In 2017, it was officially recognized as the longest-running TV show in Korea by the Korean Record Institute.
‘Fly Me to the Moon’
Like the classical music that was used in the Netflix show, this song was another familiar number that was added to it.
The cover of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ used in Squid Game is sung by singer Shin Joo-won (신주원) and arranged by music director Jung Jae-il.
It’s not officially part of the Squid Game soundtrack due to copyright issues but a variation can be found by the same singer on her YouTube channel. Check out this POPSUGAR interview with Shin for more details of how she got involved.