My love letter to the Korean noraebang

My first noraebang experience was at the end of a Seoul day out that turned into a Seoul night out. I had met a group of fellow English teachers for an afternoon of sightseeing followed by dinner and drinks. As the time passed and one by one members of the group dropped away, it reached the early hours of the morning and there was only four left: me, my boyfriend Paul, and two American guys, Tom and Dave. By this point, a fair amount of alcohol had been consumed so when Tom suggested we go to a noraebang I didn’t have the coherence or wherewithal to suggest this wasn’t something I would enjoy.

Noraebang Korea


If you had told me before I moved to Korea that I would regularly choose to spend my evenings singing in a karaoke room, I would never have believed you. If you’d told me Paul would regularly choose to spend his evenings singing in a karaoke room, I would have believed you even less. When we moved to Korea, we quickly became familiar with their ubiquitous presence, the Korean alphabet spelling “No-rae-bang” (directly translating as “singing room”) and the outline of a microphone nestled among all the neon. We never assumed we would ever be in one; as two fairly low key people, standing in front of a room to sing felt as unlikely as inviting a giraffe into our one room apartment as a pet.

On that first night in a Noraebang, Paul and I took a seat as Tom confidently took the microphone, carrying out a competent rendition of Lithium by Nirvana. Dave then took to the floor to tackle The Village People’s In The Navy. Our minds foggy with alcohol, watching their lack of inhibition and self importance led to us getting up and joining in. And “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey became the first ever song Paul and I sang in a noraebang.

Once the first song was done, our inhibitions were out of the window. We spent hours singing our hearts out before stumbling to a motel. That was the night we had a realisation; there is no more joyous way to spend an evening than singing in a noraebang.

It is important to define what a noraebang actually is. The Korean noraebang is completely different to what most British associate with karaoke; i.e. getting up in front of a pub full of people to sing on your own. A noraebang is a small room that can probably fit around 20 people at most. It is dark, with most of the light coming from the TV screen and a disco ball. Other features of a noraebang are several tambourines, a battered songbook and a bowl of cheap, chewy crisps that taste like plastic.

When the door closes to the dark room, your face lit by the disco ball, the outside world ceases to exist. Hours pass and tracking time is lost. Korean noraebangs constantly add free time on to your session; we’ve spent spells of five hours in noraebangs, stumbling out onto the street at four in the morning.

When I lived in Korea and grew to love the noraebang experience, I often wondered; why hasn’t the rest of the world cottoned on to how much fun this is? It doesn’t seem fair that Korea and Japan get to keep the fun for themselves. We’ve introduced many dubious friends to noraebangs over the years and even the most cynical have loved it.

What makes a noraebang so different from traditional British karaoke is that it’s a communal experience, not an individual one; there are several microphones and the expectation is to sing together. You might have the vocal range of Whitney Houston but showing it off is not what it’s about (the echoey microphone ensures you’ll never sound that great anyway). It is about picking songs everyone in the room can sing along to and enjoy. I’m regularly surprised by songs that have gone down really well; often, it’s forgotten classics rather than the biggest hits by the most famous bands. Here’s the go to list of the songs Paul and I always sing in a noraebang:

Where The Streets Have No Name, U2

A euphoric anthem, the long intro to Where The Streets Have No Name builds up the momentum. “We’re still building and buuurnning down love. Buuurning down love,” is a line designed to be belted out.

Common People, Pulp

Common People is a song every Brit associates with the halcyon days of the 90s. The witty lyrics are fun to sing, as is the song’s crescendo: “You’ll never live like common people!”

Africa, Toto

You don’t realise how famous the song “Africa” is until you sing it with friends in a noraebang. Everyone knows it. Bonus points for correctly singing the syllabically challenging line “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

Zombie, The Cranberries

Basically this entire song is a chant. “What’s in your heeeadd. In your heeeadd.” Good for chanting in a group.

Killing In The Name, Rage Against The Machine

Our friends Neil and Eliska first sang this in a noraebang and Paul and I took to it right away. Every line is delivered with venom, leading to the song’s climax: “F*ck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”

Piano Man, Billy Joel

This was Paul and his friend Willem’s noraebang song. The lyrics tell a story – of the piano man who’s as lost and lonely as the patrons he entertains.

Have you ever sang in a noraebang? What’s your go to karaoke song?

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