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What I Musically Love about Japanese Music

I may be able to extract a post for Texihabara on this subject from this, but I kind of want to be a little freer here.

There is something about Japanese music that fascinates me.  Well, several things, really.

Babymetal has a song, “Da da dance”.  It’s an extraordinarily high energy song with lots of flaily dancing and mostly meaningless words.  Basically somewhere in the techno genre – I’m sure nerds out there will have a better name for it.  EDM?  But there’s this part in there that really fascinates me and it always catches my attention.  It’s in the beginning:

Dancing, dancing わかってない
Show me, show me ホントのココロ
Get up! Get up! Get up!
レボリューション ワタシ in da house

It’s the “honto no kokoro” (ホントのココロ) that gets me, because of the way they use the nasal mora ん.  (which is in katakana, so it’s the ン.  It’s a separate mora, and they use it as such.

In English, “n” is not a separate syllable.  It’s only ever a part of a syllable.

So the rhythm goes something like “dan-cing dan-cing wa ka-tte na-i show me show me ho-n-to no ko ko ro”.

There’s something about how they balance it with the backing track/musicians, they actually use it as a point of harmonic change.  You can’t really do that in English.  Another thing you can’t really do in English is get away with writing lyrics without rhyming, but they almost never rhyme.  I’ve never seen a Japanese song rhyme.

Even when it’s trying to be, Japanese music is not western music.

The thing about that, though, is that they can get away with things we can’t, because the form is subtly different.  While they’re emulating a western form of music, they’re not trying to emulate the western syllabic patterns.  They’re making it their own.  So they can take the nasal sound “n” and make it a part of a harmonic change in a way I’m not sure has ever even been attempted in western music, and it works.

In western music, I generally think songs are ruined by the lyrics, because the lyrics are often bolted on for their meaning.  By which I mean, you can take a song, replace its words with a melodic line, and it’s perfectly pleasant but loses an important quality.  I’m sure some Japanese music is like that, but some Japanese music uses the mora themselves as a part of the harmonic structure, and that, I think is somewhat unique to Japanese music.

We kinda do that with “baby” and “oh yeah” but…  it’s not quite the same (honestly, I hate those effectations, but it’s what the people like, so…).

So another example of that is Babymetal’s Karate, which starts out with the nonsense words “se-i-ya se se se se-i-ya”. Complete nonsense, but because Japanese is a metered language, you can get away with using mora as an instrument, and it ends up taking on a quality that is difficult to accomplish in English.  You can, don’t get me wrong, the song “I’m blue” does that, and scat singers make a living out of it, but again, it’s not quite the same.  It feels forced in English, like it’s a layer on top of the music.  It’s just a part of the linguistic structure in Japanese.  It’s rhythmic and the sounds are regular enough to be musical.

So I think this is what I like about J-pop and J-metal.  Well, one thing.  While the mora have meaning, they’re also an instrument, or at least can be.  You really can’t separate the music from the words and have it sound proper.  And, this is the amazing part, even if you don’t know what the words mean!  I can’t really think of any song in English that does quite that, except for maybe prisencolinensinainciusol, and that is Italian…

Anyway, that’s something I really like about Japanese music, and it took me a while to figure out what they were doing.  It probably comes second nature to them, because while their accent generally is flat, their language is musical in a way ours isn’t (and ours is musical in a way theirs isn’t, let’s be fair).

Make of it what you will…

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