Music is emotional. We’ve all heard music that makes us feel happy, excited, pensive or melancholy.
Music is also a universal activity. The question, “What music do you listen to?” usually returns an eclectic range of responses unique to each person; I’ve yet to hear someone respond to that question with a droll, “Oh, I don’t listen to music.”
So we partake in this inherently emotional experience of music together. And it seems as though from nothing but literal thin air — the vibrations of particles traveling to our ears — these human feelings emerge, and we listeners are, more often than not, at a loss to explain what gives that music a particular emotion. We listen, and we know that this sound is “happy.” We hear “open-minded” melodies, “angry” strings, “thoughtful” bass lines: We personify the sounds we hear in music.
Or perhaps the music instead affects us, and imbues us with such emotions. It humanizes us by coloring our lives with feeling. The ideas that music evokes are not limited to emotions, either: Sometimes, music sounds “Asian” or “Middle Eastern.” So music connotes identities as well.
Countless auditory cues influence the character of a song — the emotions and ideas that they evoke. While the explicit neurological processes that convert music into emotional ideas remain unclear to us, perhaps we can find something hidden plainly in the music that explains why certain sounds evoke certain feelings.
I’d like to talk about anime music today. I am a newcomer to anime, but I understand that it’s unfair to generalize all anime music into a genre, as theme songs will often include anything from synthpop to hard rock to alternative rock.
Yet, as I was watching a new anime film, “Your Name.”, an animated epic of magical realism and romantic drama (or rather, listening to “Your Name.”) there was something about the character of the music that felt very much at home in the movie. My friend turned to me and whispered about the song: “It sounds so anime!” And somehow, without any further discussion, without any hesitation, I understood his meaning. That song felt very “anime,” and that was a simple truth. But I didn’t quite understand just what about that song gave it that feeling.
So what does it mean for a song to sound, in those words, “so anime?”
Of course, by this time, you’ve probably thought of the simple answer: “Hey, the lyrics are in Japanese! Duh!”
Yet that answer was unsatisfactory. I had an unfortunate encounter with an English version of “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” the theme song to ‘90s anime favorite “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” But despite the gut-wrenching, awkward prosody, it somehow retained that ineffable “anime” feeling. It contained a certain emotion, more than the sum of its parts, something that arose from a combination of the lyrics, the beats, the chords — everything that comprised the backbone of that piece of music.
Some more musically-versed individuals may be familiar with the pentatonic scale. I initially thought that the use of this scale, often associated with Asian cultures and their music, might also explain the “anime” feeling in music.
The ubiquitous “Oriental riff,” famously used in the intro of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” sometimes played in parallel fourths, uses the pentatonic scale, and has cemented itself as a proxy for Asianness in the sonic mythology of the West. The introduction riff in “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” with a few exceptions, largely uses that scale. But other works such as the “Castle in the Sky” theme song appear a little more comfortable outside of that scale, dancing in and out of the pentatonic, while weaving a hauntingly beautiful melody that somehow has a similar feeling.
“Castle in the Sky” is not alone. Many other anime works such as “Hikaru Nara” from “Your Lie in April” or “Zen Zen Zense” from “Your Name” have various complex melodies that shirk the pentatonic scale, instead using the conventional major (Ionian) scale mode used in many pieces in the Western musical tradition. This major scale, often associated with a “happy” or “upbeat” feeling, is the musical backbone of many pop songs today, from “Closer” by the Chainsmokers to “Faded” by Alan Walker.
But there’s still something radically different, stylistically speaking, that creates the feeling of an “anime” piece. If we cannot find that difference in the melodies, then perhaps we should look towards the form.
In contrast with many European-American pop songs, Japanese anime music often features long, dramatic melodies combined with complex chord progressions that rapidly shift.
Let’s take a look at the form of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” Written in F major, it follows a verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus pattern, a rather conventional pop song structure. The melodic ideas are short, repetitive and memorable, characteristic of pop music, occurring in small units of two or four measures. The chords are similarly simple, both staying within chords present in the F major scale. In addition, “Closer” by the Chainsmokers uses a verse – pre-chorus – build – drop structure repeated twice, with the same chord progression used through the entire track.
“Zen Zen Zense” from “Your Name,” however, changes chords very quickly. Written in B major, it follows a A – B – C – D – D’ – E – E’ pattern (with each letter representing a new section), dynamically substituting chords in and out of the music every few bars. The melodies are longer; they form soaring musical lines above the chords instead of the choppy, memorable hooks of pop music.
“Hikaru Nara” from “Your Lie in April,” “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” from “Evangelion” and the titular theme of “Princess Mononoke” all follow this pattern, despite drastic differences in style: plenty of changes in chord progressions, combined with lengthy, beautiful, melodic lines. Put that together with the upbeat, acoustic rock-like percussion, cheesy brass and analog strings, and that anime feeling begins to emerge. Perhaps therein lies the golden thread that creates the peculiar feeling associated with the music.
Granted, not every song in an anime has this feeling, and perhaps that’s for the better — it breaks some of that emotional saturation. But there’s a certain type of emotion encapsulated within some of those songs that just evokes those images, drawn in ligne claire, with exaggerated eyes, clear-cut shadows and light rosy cheeks. Perhaps we haven’t gotten any closer in capturing what that feeling actually is — but then again, we’ll know it when we hear it.
Contact Trenton Chang at tchang97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.