Can You Learn Japanese with Music?

Japanese music was one of the main reasons I originally started learning the language. After watching some anime, I found myself really enjoying the intro songs and my interests gradually moved to various other genres.
 
Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand the language, the songs were just so fascinating to listen to. The language was beautiful and mysterious and I eventually ended up wanting to understand some of my favourite songs. 
 
And I still listen to Japanese music but if there’s one thing I want to get across in this post is that I am not saying NOT to use music, but just to be careful with how much music you listen to.
 

Music and Immersion 

For anyone who is using music as their main listening content (yes, you know who you are), stop right now.
 
Back in the early stages of learning Japanese I had a friend who was also interested in learning the language, and I managed to get him on-board AJATT. He completed RTK and used music to immerse to all day. I think he also watched some anime but the rest of the time he did stuff in English. 
 
At the time I kept telling him to cut his ties with English, e.g. stop playing video games with friends, stop watching TV shows that all our university colleges are constantly talking about and to stop watching his favourite YouTubers. His reply to this was, “yeah but I’m doing passive immersion all day and that’s fine, right?” At the time I agreed with his argument. I mean, let’s face it, if the majority of his day was spent in Japanese then a couple of hours in English won’t matter in the long run.
 
(I have since realised though that a large amount of active listening is essential otherwise passive listening becomes a waste of time).
 
However, what I didn’t find out until a few months later was that his main source of immersion was just Japanese music he’d found on YouTube, and most of it was from vocaloids
 
Leaving aside the fact that vocaloids don’t even sound natural, as they are computer generated and essentially the definition of auto-tune, he didn’t make any progress with listening and eventually ended up quitting Japanese.
 
That’s not to say you can’t make any progress from listening to music, in fact, I already learnt the word 世界 through listening to loads of Japanese songs before actually starting to learn the language. But that was one word and it took months for me to pick it up by hearing it and by reading the English subtitles to eventually make the correlation between “world” and “sekai”.
 
That is not efficient.
 
If you are using music as part of your immersion, please stop now. You will make so much more progress listening to anime, dramas, talk shows, films, podcasts, audiobooks instead.
 
Personally I only ever use music when doing “work” that needs high levels of concentration, i.e. while doing my anki reps. This is because if I try to listen to a drama, as I now understand Japanese, I will get easily distracted and never get my reps done, but at the same time I don’t want to stop listening.
 

Why You Shouldn’t Use Music 

There are a few issues that make music really inefficient as a listening resource. 
 
–  Words and phrases are stressed, lengthened and said in different ways compared to standard spoken Japanese. 
 
If you go and listen to any song in English you will notice the same thing. Words are lengthened to add effect, phrases are said faster in order to fit them into the songs rhythm, and sometimes, words can even be stressed so hard that they are indistinguishable and you therefore can’t understand them.
 
As a beginner language learner then, this is surely a no brainer. If you can’t yet hear and understand standard Japanese then trying to learn it from songs, which twist and bend the language to create art, is just going to confuse your poor brain when trying to decipher the language, making the process less efficient. 
 
I’m going to take an example from Wonderwall by Oasis. One of the lines goes “there are many things that I would like to say to you but I don’t know how.” In the “but I don’t know how.” part the start of the sentence starts off relatively quickly and it then increases in pitch before reaching “how” where it then decreases in pitch as each syllable is sung, and at the same time the word is dragged out for a long period of time.
 
Now, obviously this isn’t how most natives would say the word “how” in everyday speech so for a beginner learning English it might be quite hard for them to recognize that they are singing “how”.
 
There are some situations where someone may manipulate a word in such a way for comedic effect, and you will of course need to be able to understand when someone does this but it’s easier for you to listen to the most common way a word is said and from there noticing a word that is manipulated in such a way, whether it be in speech or in music, will come naturally.
 
– Limited amount of different constructs as phrases, choruses and even verses can be repeated again and again
 
This can be both a good and bad thing depending on how you look at it. In the beginning stages, repetition can be a good thing as you get used to certain structures and words which can be a good base to learn more language.
 
I think this can be a useful tactic for something like TV shows where you are listening to a lot of different language and if you listen to it over and over then it makes it easier for you to pick up new words and phrases as you get used to the show, the concepts and ideas and you get context to help you too.
 
However, a 3 minute song just doesn’t have that variety of language that a TV show has and I feel that it’s too much repetition especially if a chorus or a verse is repeated, as well as if you are listening to the same songs over and over again for long periods of time.
 
You will notice a lot more progress by listening to 1000 hours of anime than you would 1000 hours of music.
 
– Due to the way words are manipulated to fit the song, there will always be some parts of the song that you won’t understand unless you look up the lyrics (you may notice this effect in your native language too)
 
This is something that I have always struggled with when listening to certain songs even in English. Putting aside whether or not it’s because both my English and Japanese aren’t up to high standards, this seems to be a pretty common effect for a lot of people.
 
Of course it depends on the song. Any song that is sung cleanly is obviously easy to hear but those few songs where words are really manipulated in order to fit the song can sometimes make it really hard to decipher what words the singer is actually singing.
 
As a consequence a lot of people end up having to search up the song lyrics to understand what is being sung, which means that the song is basically useless for your listening skills. If anything reading the lyrics will help your reading skills but unless you SRS the lyrics, you will soon forget most of the words again and won’t be able to hear them when listening.
 
I will just mention though that I am not sure whether this effect only occurs for certain people or whether it occurs for everyone. I would love to hear what you think about it as I’m curious.
 
– No contextual information (unless there’s a relevant music video)
 
Dramas, anime or a manga have images and/or audio to give you contextual information which can make shows that use incredibly hard Japanese, still understandable to a certain degree even if you don’t fully understand the language.
 
With music it tends to be very hard to grasp the meaning of the lyrics without already having a good understanding of the language, which also makes it hard to use for sentence mining. Having no contextual information to help you out makes this 10x harder to understand.
 
If there is a music video then that can certainly help to paint a picture of what the lyrics mean but at the same time a lot of music videos are just random and have no real meaning or correlation to the lyrics.
 
– Some (Japanese) artists like to mess with your head by singing one word and in the lyrics writing a different word in kanji that has a similar-ish meaning.
 
I’ve seen this occur quite frequently in anime opening and ending songs. I can’t entirely remember what song it was but it was one of the songs for Fate Stay Night where in the song the artist sings 夢 but writes 理想 in the lyrics.
 
If you are reading the lyrics to help you understand the song or for sentence mining then this could be really confusing for you. This isn’t something to panic about though, just be aware that this is thing. It just means that the artist is using some word-play for the lyrics.

 

Compared to other types of media, music is the most inefficient for immersion

 
For all these reasons I strongly advise against using music for long periods of immersion. As you progress and getting better at the language then listening to music a bit more is fine but even then, you will get so much more out of an audiobook.
 
At the end of the day, if you want to learn how to understand natives so that you can converse with them then listening to them actually speak is the fastest way to do this. 
 
I think the best thing to do is think of music as poems. There is nothing wrong with reading/listening to them and being interested in the topic, but if you expect to get conversationally fluent in Japanese by reading haikus then you will have quite a bit of a shock.
 
Of course, you will still make progress by doing so, but as it does not correlate directly to your goal, it will not be as efficient as if you where to just listen to native Japanese speakers talking in the first place.
 

Thanks for reading!

Click here for more information on learning languages

マット

By Matthew Hawkins
2018/05/03
Massive thanks to Diederik and everyone else supporting me on Patreon. You guys are awesome! 🙂
Follow me on Twitter
Support me on Patreon to get early access to posts and exclusive content