The Voice as an Instrument, Not a Messenger

Coming from the United States, a primarily English-speaking country, it is odd to people I meet when I first tell them that I enjoy Japanese music. I am always required to answer the inevitable question, “do you understand what they’re saying?”

To be concise, not really. But I’m a wordy person, so of course I have to add detail. Understand that I took AP English in high school; adding detail is in my blood now.

I don’t know very much Japanese. I can speak basic conversational phrases, and have assimilated a large and random vocabulary from watching subbed anime and reading translated song lyrics. I’m nowhere fluent, and I will be the first to admit that. But why do I love songs in a language I barely understand?

I have learned to appreciate the voice as just another instrument. If a voice is beautiful, powerful, or capable of evoking some kind of response in me, then the language the voice sings in is a trivial matter. The problem with the people who are baffled that I listen to music I don’t understand is that they rely on lyrics as a crutch. They think, “if I can’t understand or relate to this song, then its terrible and I reject it altogether.” Come on. There are plenty of English artists who make no sense and are still popular. (Pink Floyd, anyone?) The point is that you don’t have to rely on lyrical content to make a good song. What if a song has a good beat, a catchy melody, beautiful vocals? Is it any less of a song because you don’t understand it?

Take for example Meg, an Italian artist I happened upon while googling the Japanese artist MEG. When I heard her song Simbiosi, my first thought was “this song is absolutely captivating,” not “oh, this is Italian and I can’t speak that language to save my life.” By the way, I highly recommend for all my readers to click the link and listen to the song. Its pure magic.

If you went through my iTunes library, you would be surprised. I have songs in too many languages to count. Zulu, German, Portuguese, and Arabic are just a few. I don’t listen to these songs to pretentiously appear scholarly or worldly, I like them because each one of them made me feel something. The language isn’t important. Really, its not.


Reader Question: Do people ever ask you if you understand foreign music, or why you like foreign music? How do you answer these questions? How do you feel about the voice as an instrument and not a messenger?



Filed under Sakurayume's Collection, Special Articles

12 responses to “The Voice as an Instrument, Not a Messenger

  1. I def sympathize with what you’re saying here, and you’re making a really good point. I find it a constant point of fascination that people reject amazing music based simply on the fact that it’s in a different language, or even just from a different country. I find that many people will even reject music sung by Japanese in English, which is almost more telling because it’s not a language-barrier issue anymore.
    Honestly, though, I think trying to look at this phenomenon through the idea that it’s an issue with language is a bit misleading. I think that at face value it’s the language that people use to lock themselves out of the music (i.e. “I can’t sing along”), but essentially I believe it’s more of an energetic mismatch. If you listen to a Japanese indie rock group, a German indie rock group, and an American one, they could all be playing similar music and still each have a totally unique energetic reading for people. For example, as someone who listens almost exclusively to Japanese music, I still try a lot of different music, and if people recommend stuff I won’t reject it without hearing it first. If I hear good music, I’m fully capable of acknowledging its quality, but even if I like something, I may not return to it because for me it’s not a right “fit”. On the other hand, if it totally rocks, I would never dis it because it’s in English, etc.

    I do find it interesting, though, because I only know a couple of people who listen to Jrock, but I know millions who adore Korean pop music. This adds a new level to the discussion, because Korean music should bring up the same issues (it’s harder to learn lyrics to Korean songs than Japanese ones, after all. Romanized Korean is an incredible brain-teaser, whereas even without prior knowledge of Japanese, you can easily learn lyrics via romaji. I learned a lot of Japanese through music before I did any formal study.) For some reason it seems like even in the scope of people who like “foreign” music, Japanese music is still widely unaccepted.

  2. haha yess definitely I get asked that as well…but not as much as you do I think cause 1st of all, I’m in asia anyway…and we have many different languages and races to start off with too…soo it’s not really an uncommon thing to enjoy japanese or korean music? lol.

    But yess I do have friends who would only listen to songs they understand. Not understanding the song isn’t a problem with me…If I’m attracted enough to the vocals and the melody and the beat itself, I’ll look for the translation anyway, and hence, I’ll understand it.

    And I do think that…as for Jpop…there’s alot of Jpop songs (not all but ALOT) that carry alot more meaning that alot of english songs today…of course not all english songs…but alot of the current, mainstream ones lack that depth that even mainstream japanese music has.

    The voice is definitely an instrument…alot of the artists I like today…it is thanks to their vocals and not ultimately what they were singing.

    But I have to say this…it’ll be a lie if I said lyrics wasn’t important. As an aspiring lyricist myself, that’s one of the main aspects I look at…I mean there are times I like the song, but not the lyrics…yes…but I really do appreciate well-phrased lyrics…which is why I do look alot into translations.

    But that’s why with google and Internet, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all liking a song of a language you can’t understand. HAHA. Hopefully I didn’t beat around the bush…I think I did but that’s my opinion of it 🙂

  3. keyinjpop

    Great post. I agree with every word you said. When people ask me why I like foreign music I just tell them “I just do”, simple as that. I don’t need to give a reason. I think the voice is just like an instrument because it add color to the music like a guitar or a piano.

  4. bleh they ask me this all the time. However I am a “language person” so I caught on to Japanese fairly quickly (Mandarin Chinese is another story lol). I usually tell people that listening to this music has actually helped me learn this language.

  5. Mike

    I just like good music, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. I study language and culture and enjoy learning about other countries, so I’m open to everything. Some people don’t like foreign food or movies either. I get a lot of questions about my dvd collection which includes a lot of world cinema, “why do you watch it when you have to read subtitles?”

    However theres certainly an extra level of appreciation added when you can understand the language. I enjoy Japanese music and cinema a lot more now that I can understand it firsthand. I’ve also been listening to american blues recently, and understanding the lyrics is a big step towards connecting with the song on the whole.

    I would love to hear some reccommendations of good music from around the world. I don’t have any Zulu or Arabic music in my collection

  6. elfwitch

    i get this all the time and especially since i’m black i get it ten times more, because people can’t honestly fathom that i would be interested in japanese music let alone like the culture so much. i have a handful of friends that appreciate it with me, but they’re mostly males.

    i answer with, ‘i don’t really care what language its in or whether i can understand it or not, if it sounds good, i like it’ lol. i love foreign songs as well, especially irish, spanish, italian and folk. i also really like traditional jewish music as well. i’ll listen to anything really.

  7. Happens to me all the time :/

    they’re always like “wait how do you know they’re not singing about sex/drugs and swearing?” and I just laugh because honestly, music here in the US is basically like that.

    Why do they ask me about the lyrics to foreign songs when they don’t even listen to the lyrics of the songs they listen to every day? Honestly.

  8. wjohns

    that whole post you did basically describes my thoughts when i get this from people i know as well, i’ll listen to anything new just to be different, have my own tastes because i don’t like trying to fit in with everyone else, i like to be unique. it’s nice to know that someone has the same views as me.

  9. Great post your points are spot-on, especially the starting part. Congratulations

  10. Whenever I tell people I listen to Japanese music, they just say “Oh, that stuff’s shit.” and start poking fun at it just to piss me off. 😐 Though if they ask if I understand it, I just say I usually can because of translations, though I can’t if I don’t have one.

    The statement of a voice being an instrument is absolutely spot on, too. This is why, depending on what genre I’m currently listening to, the songs where they write to fit the music instead of to actively trying to be wordy tend to be a lot better. Though, this is mainly with electronica and styles of rock, maybe pop, because some genres kind of call for wordiness.

  11. To me, music is such a universal language. The sound of the instruments is the language itself! I enjoy foreign music though I don’t even understand every single word of the lyric. I listen to anything as long as my ears don’t reject to hear it. I like instrumental music. The combination of rhythm and tones tells us about the song itself. Lyric is just a complement.

  12. I totally agree with your points! Although, I think lyrical content DOES deserve some credit. After I’ve been captivated by the catchiness of the melody, the sweetness of voice and the emotions that transcend language barriers, well-written lyrics can add an even deeper appreciation for the song.
    Case in point: I LOVED Aqua Timez’s “Ketsui no Asa ni” at first listen. I could “understand” the melancholic yet uplifting mood of the song before I even glanced at any translations. But I know that once I read the lyrics, the sheer raw honesty of the words definitely gave a whole new dimension of beauty to the song.
    So in the end, it’s the music that grabs you, but if you can relate to what’s being sung, it just makes the song that much more enjoyable.

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