Picture yourself at five years old, sitting in front of the TV watching “Sesame Street.”
Now, can you still remember some of the songs you heard on that show?
How about the pop tunes you obsessed over as a teenager? Still got the choruses stuck in your head?
It’s no secret that music is a major memory booster. The rhythms, rhymes and repetition all help to stick ideas in our heads for years.
Plus, it’s just fun!
Ready to learn some great new tunes that’ll turn your language skills up to 11?
Why Use Music to Learn Japanese?
- Music improves listening skills. Depending on where you live in the world, hearing spoken Japanese on a regular basis might be quite rare.
For this reason, many Japanese language learners are comfortable when dealing with the language in written form, but not so hot when it comes to listening comprehension. Listening to words in song form helps you get used to the pronunciation and intonation of spoken Japanese, no matter where you live.
- Music reinforces grammar. Remembering lyrics or a song title can help to reinforce grammar structure.
For example, if you’re unsure where to place the particle の when you want to show possession, a song title or line in a song can help you remember. You might encounter “日本の色の歌”（にほんのいろのうた — Japanese Color Song) and notice this sequence: 日本 (Japan), の (possessive particle), 色 (color), の (possessive particle), 歌 (song).
- It even helps with speaking practice. When you sing along to your favorite Japanese song, your tongue and mouth become accustomed to forming sounds they’ve never formed before. Keeping up with the speed and melody of songs gets you used to speaking faster and more naturally in conversation.
- Repetition reinforces memory. What better way to remember something than to hear it over and over? After listening to the chorus of a song multiple times, the new vocabulary or grammar structures are bound to stick in your head.
- There are extra opportunities for reading practice. When watching music videos for language learning, you can often turn on subtitles to read the Japanese you’re hearing, which doesn’t just boost multiple skills but can also help you remember the language better.
For some of the beginner-level songs below, there will even be a picture of an object labeled with the written Japanese word. First off, you can see whether the writing is in kanji, hiragana or katakana. Depending on your reading level, you can read the word aloud as you say it. If you’re a beginner, you can pause the video and sound out the word in hiragana or katakana as well as learn the kanji for the word.
Helpful Techniques for Listening to Japanese
First things first: Get out those headphones! When listening to music, using headphones is a good way to make sure that you hear every word clearly with no distractions. Noise-canceling headphones are a great option, especially when you’re listening to music in public.
As you start listening, don’t fret if you can’t understand every word. Focus on grasping the overall meaning of the song—you can also go back and re-listen, or even print out lyrics to listen along with to boost your understanding. Practice makes perfect, as they say, and immersing yourself in Japanese music will pay dividends over time.
Once you’re starting to get the hang of things, it can also be helpful to listen to your favorite songs in the background while you’re cooking or doing chores.
When you learned your native language, no one sat you down with a textbook and a list of vocabulary words. You learned to speak by hearing your language around you every day. So you need to hear a language more than a few times a week if you want to become fluent. The more frequently you listen to Japanese music, the quicker things will just click and you’ll find yourself understanding Japanese words without even consciously trying.
If you’re looking to get even more out of your Japanese music, check out innovative tools like FluentU that take the whole experience up a notch.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
How to Choose Music That’s Right for Your Level
In the list below, we’ll show you several songs that are helpful for a range of proficiency levels. As you continue your Japanese music explorations, here are some tips for finding songs that match your needs:
- Beginners: In the beginning stages of Japanese learning, it may be difficult to distinguish one word from another. It’s best to start with simple Japanese songs where the words are basic and the melodies are a little slower.
Kids’ songs are a great option, not only because they’re easier to understand but also because you can learn a lot of common words used in everyday life such as colors, numbers, animals and other words that help you build a foundation on the road to becoming fluent in Japanese.
- Intermediate: The more you progress in Japanese language learning, the more you’re able to start grasping complex sentences and ideas.
Listening to pop music and simple love songs is a great way to learn colloquial terms used in everyday speech, because after all, in real life people don’t speak the way they do in practice dialogs from textbooks.
- Advanced: Once you’re at an advanced stage in Japanese, you’re ready to tackle rock music and songs with deeper lyrics. In these advanced songs, you often find different tenses and variations of words that you already know. This is great for fine tuning grammar.
Let’s Sing! 6 Great Songs to Learn Japanese with Music
Mastering Japanese starts with the basics: hiragana and katakana.
Just like the English ABC song, “あいうえおの歌” takes you through each syllable as colorful hiragana flashes across the screen. Set to a catchy drumbeat, you just might find yourself dancing as you learn hiragana.
This song offers an entertaining and memorable way for beginners to master Japanese fundamentals.
Wordpie is a language learning tool designed specifically to help you pick up new vocabulary by associating words with pictures and music. Vocabulary words are sung to a catchy tune as pictures of objects, along with the written words, are shown on screen.
“Learn Japanese Vocabulary with Songs!” contains 100 useful words in various categories such as weather and furniture, as well as words to describe things outside, such as “grass,” “river” and “sun.” Unlike, say, a huge stack of flashcards, this is a great tool for learning a ton of new Japanese words without getting overwhelmed or bored.
A bonus is that on Wordpie’s website, you can find language learning materials in multiple languages as well as PDF files of the vocabulary words in the videos.
With enthusiasm at its finest, learn useful phrases in Japanese as Mihara Keigo dances around, motivating you like pep squad leader.
Learn expressions for when you’re angry or sad, how to address yourself and much more with hiragana syllables weaved in between.
You might even get up and dance to this one as well!
If you have to profess your undying love to someone, this song may help you. Learn terms of endearment set to the backdrop of the Chinese television drama “My Sunshine.”
With lyrics written in kanji, romaji and English, this is a great song that helps you understand the subtleties of the Japanese language. Often with songs, you can’t translate lyrics word for word—so as you read the lyrics to this song you’ll learn how to form more abstract concepts in Japanese.
A bonus is that there are some English lyrics mixed in, which makes this song relatively easy even for a beginner.
The pop band Perfume sings of romantic uncertainty and insecurity in the catchy tune “Handyman.”
In a sense, this song discusses looking for a “handyman” to help fix the problems of the relationship. Sing along to lyrics written in romaji with the English translation below.
If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, sing along as hip hop artist MICHO flexes her rhyming skills in “UR Love.”
The lyrics are only in kanji, but the good news is that they’re printed in the video description and can be easily copied and translated online if you’re not able to read kanji.
Singing to the faster beat of hip hop music is guaranteed to get your tongue moving and it helps you get used to speaking in a less formal manner.
Outside of music videos, you may want to acquire some Japanese music of your own. In recent years, J-rock and J-pop have become more and more popular in the Western world and now, there are many albums available for download on iTunes.
Remember that language learning takes time, so use music and relax and make it fun. Soon, you’ll be singing like a pro and then it’ll be karaoke time where you can sing the lyrics on your own.
Melissa Aki is a freelance writer, language nerd and coffee enthusiast. She’s currently working on her second novel, “The Barista Chronicles,” about her 20 years of experience working in the specialty coffee industry. Melissa Aki’s portfolio can be viewed here.
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