Jung Jaeil on composing for Squid Game & Parasite: “You have to compose thoughtlessly”

When South Korean composer Jung Jaeil was handed the script for Squid Game, he had no idea it would go on to become Netflix's most-watched series of all time – and he probably wouldn’t have played the recorder on its main theme…

Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game landed on Netflix in September 2021 and immediately captivated audiences in their millions…and millions. Battle Royale-meets Hunger Games for a binge-watching generation, the director’s nine episode format and brutal concept struck streaming gold. To put its success into perspective, it was the top-viewed show in 94 countries and was watched by more than 142 million households in its first four weeks alone. Word of mouth did the rest, and Squid Game quickly became the must-see show of 2021.

Even the hype leading up to the latest seasons of Stranger Things and Bridgerton, and the controversy and/or morbid curiosity surrounding Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story hasn’t shaken the South Korean hit from its top spot to this day – glueing audiences to screens for well over a billion hours combined, who gleefully watched as 456 desperate players were massacred while playing an escalating series of deadly children's games for the chance to win millions in prize money. 

Jaeil, who composed the score for the series, admits he feels far removed from the streaming phenomenon.

“Nobody expected this,” he says humbly from his studio in South Korea. 

“To be honest, I'm a person who works backstage, so it’s a little surreal for me. I call it a phenomenon I don't understand. But I guess it has drama. It's very cruel, bizarre story. But it has humanity.”

I call Squid Game a phenomenon I don't understand.

Jaeil feels the same about four-time Oscar winning South Korean film, Parasite (also the first non-English language film to take home the golden statue for Best Picture) – which he also lent his composing talents to.

“It’s like, did this really happen in the world?” He laughs modestly. “I’m just doing my own business and working in my studio alone.”

Born in Seoul in 1982, Jung began playing piano at three and guitar at nine. By the age of 13 he was obsessed with Liverpudlian metal combo Carcass, and even though today he is known for his classical, emotive pieces of music, his heart still very much lies with rock and death metal.

“I can still play Carcass’ songs on drums and guitars,” he enthuses, eyes lighting up. “I really love their sound. I started piano when I was young, but it was my mom's idea – I really wanted to play guitar! 

"When I was 10 I fell in love with Metallica – I practised Metallica for 15 hours a day! Metal music and heavy sound is very important for me. Even now, when I'm composing very classical scores or piano music, you can hear the influence of heavy chords.”

I'm a self taught musician, so I tried to imitate baroque music. I call it pseudo-baroque!

Fast forward to 2019 and Jaeil met with Dong-hyuk, who shared an intriguing script with him. Within its pages, characters were cruelly picked off en-masse or one by one in life or death versions of Red Light, Green Light, Ppopgi (which involves perfectly cutting out a shape marked out in honeycomb), tug of war, and a (seemingly straightforward) marble-collecting game.

“It was a really interesting story. But at the same time, I was so afraid of making the score for a nine-hour film,” he admits. “I read the script, and it was very brutal, but very interesting. It has speed. It’s very logical, brutal and dynamic. But the most important thing was humanity. We can say humanity wins…but I'm not sure who is the winner and who is the loser. It's a little bit confusing, but we have to have humanity. That's the most important part of this story.”

Jaeil also identified the importance of the show’s dynamic – dark, violent and dystopian, but also hopeful and defiant – as important sonic cues. “I had to keep one texture throughout the whole episode, but at the same time I needed to use various genres to make it not boring,” he notes.

It's very cruel and bizarre story. But it has humanity.

A lot of the music heard in the score is performed on children’s instruments, including recorders and castanets, as well as being accompanied by traditional Korean instruments. Rather than this being a choice informed by the show’s sinister take on children’s games, Jaeil reveals that using a recorder was just a passing idea.

“At first, there were no children's instruments – it was just a plan B; something unique and bizarre,” he admits. “It was all very serious sounds like pianos, rock guitars and electronic synthesisers, but one day the children's instruments idea came into my mind because children are not good at playing – they're out of pitch and out of rhythm. 

"But I liked the idea of letting viewers know that something was a little bit scary in a bizarre way, but I wasn't sure if the director would like it. I expected him to go, ‘What the fuck is this?’ – but he really liked it!

There's a pitch which is out of tune. It's not intended – I'm not a good recorder player...

“However at first he didn't like it and said to me, ‘Let's keep this as a plan B because it makes this sound a little bit like a B-class, underground film.’ But as time went by, he thought that this unique, bizarre sound could be the best fit for this show, and he decided to use it instead of the serious music.”

Jaeil’s uncertain recorder-playing can be heard in Squid Game’s black and white opening scene on the show’s main theme, Way Back Then, showing children immersed in the South Korean playground game, Squid, which the series takes loose inspiration from. 

The rhythm of the song is based on a 3-3-7 clapping rhythm (commonly used in South Korea to cheer someone on during sports day). One of the notes played on the recorder is unmistakably sharp.

“This tune was very simple, and it starts like all children’s games, which are very simple – anybody could learn it in a minute. In Korean elementary schools, they have a day off for sports games where everybody in the school gathers, as well as their parents. 

"They have a 3-3-7 cheering rhythm to help encourage their team to win,” he explains, clapping out the rhythm in quick succession: one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven.

“Everybody in Korea knows that rhythm, and I just grabbed hold of the idea and improvised on the recorder by myself and the melody just came out. To be honest, there's a pitch which is out of tune. It's not intended – I wanted to play D, but I'm not a good recorder player, so it became D sharp. 

"I tried to fix it after, but when I heard it with a D note, it sounded a little bit awkward because everybody had got used to D sharp, so we just decided to keep it that way,” he laughs.

We can say humanity wins…but I'm not sure who is the winner and who is the loser.

Jaeil had already made his mark on the big screen prior to his Squid Game success, crafting the scores for Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 film Okja, and pairing up with the director again for 2019’s Parasite. (He also reveals that he’s currently working on the music for the director’s next film, the Robert Pattinson, Toni Collette and Mark Ruffalo-starring Mickey 17).

“In Okja, [the director] didn't mention genre or style at all. But in Parasite, he emphasised baroque music,” he shares. “While he was writing the scripts, he listened to baroque composers like Handel and Vivaldi. In one scene, he put the note, 'Vivaldi Four Seasons winter' – that was the reference. So baroque was the key for that film.”

I woke up with a hangover, but I sat in front of the piano and improvised without any thoughts.

Joon-ho had a specific vision when it came to Parasite’s music, in that it should subtly reinforce the narrative of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family, infiltrating their household by posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.

He suggested that I find a very concentrated sound to serve as the core sound for Parasite from top to bottom…I didn’t know what that would be, but I had to find it! In the end we decided on string instruments, because strings are very dynamic – sometimes they can be very warm, sometimes cold and disturbing, and sometimes beautiful. 

"He suggested baroque music, which feels quite noble and beautiful – but sometimes can be funny – to accompany the poor family acting like they are rich people, but which they are not. I'm a self taught musician, so I tried to imitate baroque music. I call it pseudo-baroque! It’s something bizarre that just came out and it fitted perfectly for the poor family.”

When it came to the film’s main theme, The Belt of Faith, which was to be used over a key scene whereby the low-income Kim family put their plan into action to infiltrate the wealthy Park household, Jaeil hit a wall, presenting six different versions to the director – each of which was rejected. The secret to the seventh, over seven-minute version? A hangover.

“It was quite difficult,” Jaeil discloses thoughtfully. “The film goes to another level at this point. It's an eight-minute sequence which means I had to compose a song that was eight minutes long, and if the director didn't like it, I had to make another eight minute song. That took a lot of time. 

"By version six I thought, ‘This is the final one; I can't compose a better version than this.’ [The director] listened and he didn't like that version either, so I just drank tons of wine that night. The next morning I woke up with a hangover, but I sat in front of the piano and improvised something without any thoughts. 

"I felt vulnerable and powerless, but I thought, ‘Well, I can let him listen to this too,’ – without any thoughts, without any dreams. I let him listen, and he liked it! That's how it came about. You have to compose thoughtlessly sometimes; it's necessary,” he shrugs.

I had to compose a song that was eight minutes long, and if the director didn't like it, I had to make another eight minute song.

More recently, Jaeil turned his attention to his own project in the form of Listen, an intimate piano-based album featuring warm cinematic strings that takes inspiration from nature, humanity and the need to listen to the planet and one another. For Jaeil, it’s long overdue.

I've been composing for almost 25 years and I released my last solo album in 2004,” he points out. “After that, I failed to be a singer-songwriter and I became a music director who makes music for films, dance performances and pop singers. 

"I was a little bit afraid because I hadn’t done my own project for such a long time, but I knew it was time to do my own thing. I started thinking about it right after Parasite won the Oscar. When the pandemic happened, I couldn't go anywhere for more than two years. I felt vulnerable and powerless. I thought about how we didn't listen to one another. 

"We didn't love each other and we didn't listen to the voice of this beautiful planet. I hoped that everyone would stop and listen to one another more. I wanted to listen to all the voices of everything that surrounds us; I hope that people feel alive when they listen.”

This album sounds like my intimate feelings – more than language, more than words.

Recorded at Rainbow Studio in Norway and performed by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra, Listen deftly showcases Jaeil's talent for crafting evocative and poignant compositions.

“This album sounds like my intimate feelings – more than language, more than words. That's why I chose piano and orchestra as the main instruments for this album. I went deep inside of my heart to ask, ‘What do I have to do as an artist?’ 

"Sometimes I feel art is powerless – it cannot change the world. But I truly believe art can soothe one's soul; art can feed or can put a seed in one's soul. A soul touched by art could change the world – I believe that,” he adds sincerely. “I hope this can be a tiny seed so that we can listen to each other, feel each other's souls and do something good for this world.”

His success with improv on Parasite led him to use that tactic again as a starting point on Listen – albeit minus the hangover.

“All pieces are based on improvisation,” he nods. “I felt I needed a place to be locked away in, so I used this beautiful studio in Oslo. For me, the Scandinavian Peninsula is very innocent – I love cold weather as well, so I decided to work at Rainbow Studio. Thankfully the studio engineer let me use the studio for four weeks in a row. 

"I got an idea about getting the chords down, not the melody. On The River, I had the idea of water flowing, so I started improvising and it just came out after 10 or 20 minutes, and then I just kept the fragments and the ideas…” he trails off, suddenly pensive. 

“My first language is musical instruments,” he smiles by way of explanation. “I'm very comfortable in front of the piano, more than when I speak.”

Image credits:

Jung Jaeil: Young Chul Kim
Squid Game: Noh Juhan | Netflix