“Oh. That’s weird.”
is the reaction I get from most people when I tell them 90% of the music I listen to is not from America. The response seems even more bizarre when you take into the account that the people who tell me this lately are students at a music college that is not located in the United States.
American pop music is so ubiquitous throughout the Western World (and apparently Israel too) to the point where, from my observations, most people just think the way we do music is “the right way” and everyone else tries to write and perform just like it.
It is not that I have anything against popular American music in itself – some terrific, unforgettable tracks home come out of my homeland – but there are certainly some areas where I think it is generally outdone by other parts of the world. Today I’m going to go over the music of one of my favorite countries, Japan, and what I have learned that they do differently when writing, performing, and producing their music.
1. Melody Comes First
I am a firm believer that in most forms of music, melody should always come first. In most cases, it is the most memorable and emotional connection we have to a song, and thus, it needs to have special attention taken to it when composing.
Simply put, a lot of popular Western songwriters as getting sloppy with their melodies nowadays. It is not that Western melodies are inherently worse when compared with Japanese melodies, but there is certainly a higher level of consistency among Japanese music. Here are a couple examples of well crafted Japanese melodies taken from a couple different genres.:
“Hitohira No Hanabira” by Stereopony:
“Sakura Color” by GReeeeN:
“Rusty Nail” by X Japan:
I’m not just selecting the best ones either – the catchy melodies really are saturated throughout most of their music. For proof, here is a track I randomly selected from the Japanese iTunes top 10 today, without ever hearing of the song or the artist before.
2. They Leave the Songwriting to the Songwriters
In the Western World, especially in America, there seems to be a big preference towards singer-songwriter culture lately among performers and listeners alike. I have met lots of people – musically inclined and not, who will dislike carefully produced pop music because it doesn’t feel “authentic”, and go further as to criticize artists who do not write and perform their own music as “talentless”.
We seem to like the cliché story of a heartbroken girl picking up a guitar and singing along with her feelings, and writing every part of the song herself. A lot of Americans feel like if the composition and lyricism is not authentic and directly created by the one artist that performs it, it isn’t real. We have all heard hoards of people criticize Justin Bieber for being talentless because he has no part in writing most of his songs. While I am certainly not a fan of Justin Bieber music myself, there is nothing wrong with pop music being produced by the people behind the scenes rather than the main artist.
The singer-songwriter idea isn’t bad in itself, but the practical application of it leads to a slew of sloppy, underwritten songs that lack a killer hook. Everyone has their role in creating music, and a lot of the time, the singer’s role should not be the songwriter’s role. Quite frankly, most phenomenal singers are not good songwriters unless they have put in the countless hours of practice to both areas.
Remember how in economics specialization of labor leads to increased productivity? It is the same way in the music business. Everyone has their role, some people are much better at certain things than they are at others. This, of course, doesn’t mean a person can’t be talented in more than one area – rather, just that we must practice each individual skill we would like to specialize in. My main point is just that we cannot compensate for poor songwriting with phenomenal singing skill.
But, I digress. In Japanese pop music, and almost all East / South East Asian pop music for that matter, things are the opposite. It is quite common in pop for a couple producers to get together and create a new group before the band members are even decided. They will then hire various composers, lyricists, and performers who fit their respective vision and they will all work together to create one well-produced project. Most of the time, the performers won’t even touch the songwriting phase.
The result is we get songs with great melodic and harmonic depth. It is something different from what you usually hear. It’s nothing too complex or anything, but it certainly isn’t your typical I-IV-V pop song. This is because they are created by people who specialize in songwriting, and who have many times devoted their life to the craft. Check out an example of a very popular J-Pop band completely created by the producer, Yasushi Akimoto.
“Sayonara Crawl” by AKB48:
Now let us imagine this song in a different context. I’m sure if this song was written and produced by the young girls performing it, it would lack depth, production quality, and proper composition.
Likewise, I’m sure if Mr. Akimoto got in the studio and started belting out the high C in the song’s vocals himself we would run into a similar problem – the song would lack great performance.
Usually the best songs will be created by the people who are best at creating songs – and the Japanese music industry knows this.
3. Positive and Generally Happier Message Conveyed
This point is best explained by example. I have attached an image of the top 10 songs in the United States on the day I’m writing this post, and then taken some lyrical excerpts from these songs and posted them below. I haven’t heard most of these songs before.
I thought that I’d been hurt before
But no one’s ever left me quite this sore
Your words cut deeper than a knife
Now I need someone to breathe me back to life
They say that time’s supposed to heal ya
But I ain’t done much healing
Hello, can you hear me
I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be
When we were younger and free
I’ve forgotten how it felt before the world fell at our feet
I don’t believe, I don’t believe it
You left in peace, left me in pieces
Too hard to breathe, I’m on my knees
Right now, ‘ow
Get the idea? Keep in mind that these are the most popular songs in the country! Apparently Americans are giving the music industry the message that sorrow, heartbreak, and regretting decisions is the only thing we can relate to.
It’s not even like they are creative about expressing it. After doing further analysis, you will notice that out of these ten songs, the same cliche phrase “break/broke my heart”, and other forms of it, appears eight times across four songs. More so, the #1 and #2 songs, Hello and Sorry, are both very sad songs with an almost identical message – living in regret over a previous decision. Sounds like a great time.
If this were an accurate sample of all music in the United States, 80% of our songs would be about breakups (on either side). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we should spend 80% of our lives worrying about this.
On the contrary, Japanese pop songs have a healthy mix of many different emotions we have in life. Sure you will find a few sad songs, but they are not overdone and are tastefully crafted rather than echoing the same phrase over and over again.
Here is one of the first songs that introduced me to J-pop. While I didn’t understand it when I first listened to it, I didn’t need to. It is a carefree song about the summer and enjoying life with friends and family.
“Ponytail to Shushu” by AKB48:
4. More Depth and Layers
There is something to be said for a song that can be a strong, memorable song without being difficult to play or sing. However, I believe in the Western World we take this idea of simplicity in our music a bit too far. Yes, it is true that simplistic melodies based on several short motifs will often have good results. But this shouldn’t give us an excuse to restrict our musical creativity to the point where we start cutting necessary layers from the song.
I think we generally stick to fewer layers in our music here in the U.S. and Europe for a couple different reasons. First of all, we (for the most part, correctly), identify that our audience enjoys a simple, easy to follow recording. Secondly, it’s just easier and less time consuming. The flaw I see with this reasoning is that while making our melodies and rhythms easy to follow in popular music, which makes sense, I don’t think we should cut out on the layers. Nobody likes a thin, empty sound in a recording they paid money for. Simply put, if I can count the number of audible layers on one hand there is probably room for more.
Through experience, I know that being able to expand and make a few, simple parts sound fuller is a hard job that deserves respect. However, on the other hand, I know that being able to blend a large amount of layers together and making them all sound clear and audible is an even more difficult job, and one whose end goal applies more to listeners of all types, the casual and the super-fan.
I’ve attached an example of a popular Japanese dance tune below. Note that the melody and chords alone are both very simple and catchy. However, among closer listening (preferably with headphones), you begin to hear the different countermelodies and backing synths playing at different levels and L/R balances; a whole new world of the song was opened up. If you listen to most of the other Japanese songs displayed this article you’ll notice that they all have a certain depth that is just a bit more than your average Western song.
“Polyrhythm” by Perfume:
The only place in the world I have seen pop music as heavily layered as Japan is their neighbors, South Korea. The only genre in the west that even comes close is EDM. Simply put, the amount of effort that goes into even your average everyday Japanese pop song is astounding in comparison.
5. More Rock Influence Throughout Every Genre
Although it is slowly falling out of use in most popular American music, the electric guitar is still prominent and used frequently in Japanese pop music. Although there are less heavy metal bands in Japan, the use of an electric guitar lead line still finds its way into your typical pop song.
“Mouretsu Space Symphony in Seventh Movements ”Infinite Love” (Emperor Style) [feat. Yngwie Malmsteen]” by Momoiro Clover Z:
Here is a less extreme example;
“Kimi no Koto ga Suki Dakara” by AKB48:
Now, I know that just because something has an electric guitar doesn’t mean it’s rock. But there are traces left indicating a rock influence besides just the guitar. If you look at the drum beats in Japanese popular music, you’ll usually find a full drum line playing, complete with snare, kick, rides, hi-hats, and fills. In a lot of more recent American music, we have taken the liberty of over-simplifying everything and stripping it down to just the snare and the kick, or in some cases, just getting rid of the drums altogether. Who needs ’em anyway?
You will find most modern Japanese music to sound a bit thicker and fuller when compared to most Western music.
In the Anglosphere, you essentially have three choices if you’re looking for a chart-topping tune:
- The vocals driven, singer-songwriter thing that is usually backed by just an acoustic guitar (occasionally a piano) and sometimes minimal percussion with loads of reverb dumped on the vocals. (i.e. Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Adele)
- The modern hip-hop / rap scene. This genre can usually be played by one person. All you need to do is hit a kick and a snare, and usually play a simple, repetitive keyboard line. (including Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and really too many others I can think of to list)
- The dance-oriented stuff. This is the only option out of the three I can say I sometimes enjoy, although sadly it is being infected too much by options #1 and #2 as of late.
As you can see, #1 and #2 are very thin and musically plain by definition. Dance music really seems to be the last holdout in this day that still contains real instrumental depth in popular music, but even that is slowly heading downhill. Even the once great Skrillex is becoming less consistent with his recent releases, which is sad to see in someone who has once musically influenced me.
On the contrary, guitars, piano, bass, a full drum kit, and sometimes even strings and various other keyboards make an appearance in most Japanese pop songs. Of course there are some songs that are purposely supposed to sound like there is less going on, but even if you want a toned-down piano ballad you still have to fill this space with something, or else it will sound plain and lack that constantly building quality that makes a song so magical.
“Sakura no Ki ni Narou” by AKB48:
Although there are less hard rock bands per capita, and certainly less extreme metal bands coming out of Japan, the rock influence is still prevalent in many other genres. In a nutshell, the Japanese tend to avoid putting their music in a box. Just because it is a pop song doesn’t mean it can’t have an electric guitar solo, and just because it is a hip hop song doesn’t mean it can’t have a bunch of other instruments backing the vocalist.
Babymetal is an excellent example of pop crossing metal. You have death metal, dance-pop, and even some hip hop in there! Even if you have disagreed with everything I’ve said thus far, I know everyone here can agree that you would never find this topping the Billboard 200 in America.
“line!” by BABYMETAL:
6. They Respect Traditional Music
This is a rather brief point, but something I noticed about Japan is that acts releasing world music, classical music, or fusions of it, can actually maintain popularity. While this isn’t something exclusive to Japan, (Celtic influence in music is certainly quite popular as well) it shows that the Japanese do care about preserving their culture through music.
The Japanese have, in my opinion, one of the most unique and memorable cultures on Earth. Along with this comes with some very pleasant traditional instruments and scales that have been in use for hundreds of years.
The best example of this would be a new group by the name of 和楽器バンド (Wagakki Band), who fuses rock music with traditional Japanese music.
“華火” by Wagakki Band:
“Ashita e no Sanka” by Alan Dawa Dolma:
“Megitsune” by BABYMETAL:
If folk is not your thing, classical influence can also be found peppered throughout every genre. (examples coming soon)
7. More Instrumental Dynamics
I already talked a bit on this topic before, but in Japanese music you don’t just have the same two or three instruments going straight through the whole song without any new additions. The build of a song is very important in modern Japanese music, and it is not uncommon to have over ten easily audible instruments heard at different points in a pop song.
A great example of a band who has mastered this aspect is GReeeeN, particulary in their song “Aiuta”. If you listen to this song, you’d notice that they are constantly dropping and adding new instruments left and right. This was one of the first J-pop songs I was really interested in, and for good reason: it is a great song overall.
“Aiuta” by GReeeeN:
Well, this post is already way too long, as it has turned into one of my longest posts to date and is probably just a few words shy of a college thesis. But after having trouble coming up with a quality post most of the month, I feel this is due. Additionally, this is quite frankly an endless topic of study for me. Obviously, these are all generalizations, and I know that there are thousands of exemptions to the points I listed above. But after learning and studying hundreds if not thousands of songs from both areas of the world, these are some of the trends I have to offer at the moment.
UPDATE 4/18/2017: I will replace the audio samples in this post with higher quality recordings soon.