Learning Japanese using music is great for motivation. It’s one of the most fun resources out there, and you probably enjoyed the Japanese before you could understand it. Music is music after all, and lyric comprehension is mostly optional (?) However, there eventually comes a time when you want to listen to Japanese music and fully appreciate it, without ignoring the lyrics.
You tried at beginner level: you failed
You tried again at intermediate level: you failed
You tried yet again at advanced level: you failed
What’s going on here?
Understanding Japanese songs is one of the hardest things you can do in Japanese. Harder than literature. Harder than watching the news. Harder than talking to an older male taxi driver that mumbles. Did you think songs were supposed to be easy? Nope.
Let’s get the first truth out of the way which you may already know. Natives have trouble understanding the lyrics of songs. There are songs you could listen to over repeatedly and never come close to getting what is being said. Why do you think lyric sheets were invented? I’m not saying all songs are like this, but many songs have some part that is hard to hear. And this for natives.
Why is it so tough?
Songs are noisy
Don’t you hate it when the music gets in the way of a song? Depending on the genre, it puts the words in the background. Slower songs can still have loud points where the voice to music ratio isn’t optimized.
The Japanese is not normal
Songs are works of art and encourage creativity within the language. That’s what makes them special. It isn’t just someone talking. When you allow this much creativity, you get new ways of saying words and structuring sentences.
The pronunciation is different
In order for there to be a natural flow and melody to a song, words are pronounced differently from how they would be spoken. You might not ever hear certain pronunciation except in music. You might not even hear it outside that one specific song you are listening to.
English and Japanese mix
English is the real lyric killer. Did you think English lyrics in a Japanese song gave you an advantage? This English is almost always given Japanese pronunciation. These aren’t Japanese katakana loan words which you are used to either. It’s an entirely different beast.
The English situation in Japanese songs makes it difficult to guess lyrics. In your own native language, typically when you can’t understand a lyric, you can try to guess it based on what it sounds like. However, when the lyric may be English or Japanese, and you aren’t sure which one, it expands the possibilities making it harder to pin it down.
My Japanese lyric challenge for you
I’m a fan of the anime Overlord. In typical anime song fashion, the opening from Season 2 has some frustratingly difficult to understand lyrics, due to all the problems above. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to listen to the song, and transcribe the lyrics for the song between 0:15 to 1:19 (the first verse), in the comments section below this post. This is pretty short, so it shouldn’t take that much time (yeah, right…) and you can see why Japanese lyrics are out to get you.
Or if you want a quicker challenge, I dare you to try to transcribe the line at 0:30-0:35. If you can pull that off, you also win.
The image of the anime is fitting for the challenge…
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.