If you’re visiting or living in Korea, it’s inevitable that you, at some point, will find yourself at a noraebang, or Korean-style karaoke room. Hugely popular among Koreans of all ages, these private singing rooms are essentially a part of Korean life. However, they can be slightly intimidating for the unknowing novice. Follow our guide to properly enjoy your night out at the noraebang, without making any rookie mistakes.
Finding a noraebang
Noraebang are ubiquitous in South Korea and can literally be found on just about every block in the bigger cities. While some are less reputable than others, the best way to find a suitable spot is by selecting one with a nice, modern, lit-up sign marked “노래방” in a nightlife district such as Hongdae, Sinchon, or Konkuk University in Seoul, or Pusan National University Station in Busan.
Paying for a room
Most noraebang will rent a room by the hour, and reservations are usually not required.
You will be asked to pay for the number of hours you want to use the room upon your arrival. The fee is around 6,000-30,000 won (US$5-25) an hour depending on how fancy the establishment is. Some are borderline crummy while others are extravagant and luxurious, with amenities such as complimentary ice cream and lavish décor. The price can also be affected by the time of day; fees are usually cheaper in the afternoon and pricier late at night, when they are most frequently visited.
When paying, you also have the option of ordering snacks and beverages, though it should be noted that some noraebang prohibit the sale of alcohol to discourage underage drinking.
Entering the room
After you’ve paid, you’ll be designated a room number. Upon entering, you may be required to remove your shoes, a fairly common custom in Korea.
Typically, rooms are overly flashy, while some are even themed or offer a selection of costumes that visitors can use. The sound-proof rooms are also fully equipped for singing, boasting microphones, a large video screen, couches, and mood décor such as disco lights and tambourines. Disposable microphone covers are also provided at more upscale businesses.
The song list
While noraebang can differ greatly in décor, they all have one thing in common: a song list. This book features the titles of available songs and their numerical codes. While much of the selection is Korean (K-pop, in particular), there are plenty of English songs, too. Expect to see plenty of pop and rock, especially from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s.
Selecting a song
If it’s your turn to sing, punch in the corresponding number on the giant remote-like device and hit the “Start” key. Depending on the device, there may also be a “Queue” button to add it to the playlist. Follow your host’s lead or try hitting any of the green buttons when in doubt. (Click here for a complete list of noraebang machine functions translations, click here.) Grab the mic and get ready!
Sing your heart out
Background melodies are usually very simple, but feature a countdown indicating where you should begin singing and letters that change color as you sing. The background music is usually accompanied by a visual – sometimes random clips of K-dramas from the ’90s, while other times you can expect the music video to the original song, or a completely unrelated one. It’s always a surprise!
While most accompaniments will be in the song’s original key, some places have a feature that enables you to change it to the key of your preference. There may also be a dial for the echo effect; if so, turn it down.
After singing, you’ll hear an applause effect (for an ego boost) and the monitor will display a numerical rating. Although this number is meant to show your accuracy, it will quickly become obvious that there is no criteria for scoring. You can scream random words into the microphone and score a 99, or land a 60 if you hit the notes better than Adele. Don’t take it personally. Once your score has been announced, the machine will advance to the next song in the queue.
Extra time (“service”)
A small number on the monitor will indicate how many minutes you have remaining. When your time is almost up, you may notice that you suddenly have 20 or so extra minutes. This is what Koreans refer to as seo-bi-suh (taken from the English term “service”), which is essentially a product or service provided to a customer free of charge. You will not be billed for this extra time. In fact, if you don’t automatically see the extra time added toward the end of your session, it’s completely fine to ask for it, so long as there’s not a line of people waiting to use your room.
Don’t hog the mic. Even if you’ve got a voice that would make Beyoncé jealous, it’s considered bad form to sing multiple songs consecutively without giving others a chance first.
Don’t be afraid to let loose! Noraebang offers the perfect opportunity to have a great time with friends without worrying about embarrassing yourself in public. Even if you can’t sing well, get up and dance or shake the tambourines to get into the spirit.
While most noraebang are completely reputable, a smaller subset of Korean singing rooms involve dowoomi, or “helpers” – usually scantily dressed women who hang out and drink with patrons. When you are going out for karaoke, double check to make sure you are not walking into the wrong type.