Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities
Nelson Babin-Coy spent time in Japan during both high school and college and eventually took up residence. He performs as a singer-songwriter and has uploaded his versions of 100 Japanese songs on YouTube. Watch for him on NHK WORLD's Trails to Tsukiji and Haiku Masters.
As a lifelong music lover and always-aspiring songwriter, one of my first true connections to the Japanese language was through the music. When I decided I wanted to learn how to speak and understand Japanese, it only seemed natural to start with music and going from there.
After my first experience in Japan at 15, I immediately got back to Southern California and searched for "Japanese music" on a search engine which landed me on a message board of J-POP lovers from all around the world, mostly talking about idol groups like Morning Musume and SMAP as well as various visual-kei bands (L'Arc~en~Ciel, DIR EN GREY). Bear in mind, social media was in its early infancy, so the only real source for niche information was on these very secluded message boards, full of extreme J-POP fans. Although I didn't really grasp on to the music until I found more pop-rock, Western-influenced bands like Mr.Children and Dragon Ash, I absolutely loved figuring out what Japanese lyrics meant, which led to me creating a list of words I found particularly interesting, most of which I tried my best to include in my own original Japanese compositions. Looking back, learning vocabulary from Japanese lyrics gave me quite a deep understanding of the language and the mentality of Japanese people at a very early stage in my studies. I think it's safe to say that I probably wouldn't have found the success I have when it comes to writing lyrics for popular Japanese acts like SEKAI NO OWARI without that initial foray into Japanese music at such a young age.
Now to get back on topic. The more I listened to mainstream J-POP the more I realized that nearly every hit song followed the same musical formula; a formula that still holds strong in today's Japanese music industry.
One of the most important parts of a hit pop song around the world is the ability for the audience to immediately feel familiar with the song as well as having a hook that stays with the listener even after the song ends. A pop song is successful if it's catchy while still feeling like something you've heard before. This gives listeners a sense of comfort that they know where the song is going, and in Japan, this is true to the extreme. As most of you probably know, Japan is a society that thrives when everyone is on the same page, be it for work or pleasure. Don't stick out and move in the same direction as everyone else. This is why a lot of hit J-POP songs seem to have melodies that sound exactly the same.
So, what exactly do hit J-POP songs have in common besides similar melodies and lyrical topics? The structure. Without going into too much specifics, Japanese pop songs primarily follow this formula:
Intro – A-MELO (Verse) – B-MELO (Pre-chorus) – SABI (Chorus) – 2nd A-MELO – 2nd B-MELO – SABI – OCHI-SABI (Soft chorus) – OO-SABI (Large chorus)
As Western pop music has seen a lot of simplicity with recent hits (most only feature a verse and a chorus, repeated ad nauseam over the same chord progression), J-POP continues to follow the same (and sometimes overly complicated) structure. Now let's look a little more into the various parts.
This section usually follows the same chord progression as the chorus, with a piano or lead instrument playing the melody hook.
Catchy, but not-too-catchy melody (gotta save that melodious sugar for the chorus).
Chord progression changes to signify to the listener that the chorus is coming so be prepared! Most J-POP songs lead into the SABI / chorus with a 5th chord (for example, if the song is in the key of C, the 5th chord would be a G), which is a trend that dates back to old classical music and seems to feel like a perfect connector to the main part of the song.
The bread and butter of any pop song. In order to be a hit J-POP song, the chorus melody can't simply be "catchy". This thing needs to be so catchy that you're going to find yourself humming this thing in your dreams (or nightmares, depending on how much you enjoy J-POP).
■OCHI-SABI (Soft chorus):
Same as the main chorus, but usually with minimal instrumentation, and often finds the singer singing at a lower octave than usual. This is where the singer's ability to emote through song is important.
■OO-SABI (Large chorus):
The finale. The big payoff. This thing takes that super catchy chorus, injects it with steroids, and is usually what keeps the listener coming back for a second serving.
And there you have it. The J-POP formula. This is particularly applicable with ballads, but can be found in the majority of J-POP hits, both past and present.
As a songwriter in Japan, it has always blown me away at just how much focus Japanese labels and producers put on the catchiness of a melody. A typical J-POP verse is usually more catchy than a US pop song's chorus, but that doesn't stop Japanese songwriters from striving for that super hook.
Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your own musical tastes, but next time you listen to a J-POP song, try and see if you can pick out the different sections of the composition. It's a deceptively simple formula that is responsible for numerous platinum selling hits.
Maybe someday one of those hits will come from Nelson Babin-Coy. But until that day, I'm more than content playing the music I love in small clubs around Tokyo (and every now and then, watching artists I work with perform songs I wrote for them in front of 10s of thousands of fans).
Nelson Babin-Coy is a self-proclaimed "multi-potentialist," or someone who juggles multiple job titles at the same time. Besides working with various Japanese artists as a lyricist, songwriter, and producer, he does a lot of TV work both on and off-screen, in Japan and overseas. He also works as a freelance translator / interpreter, actor, YouTube and social media creator, and just about anything you can think of. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures, spent his junior year studying at Keio University in Tokyo, and acquired Level 1 of the Japanese Langauge Proficiency Test at age 20. He loves connecting with people from all different backgrounds, so feel free to reach out to him on social media.