Like the ubiquitous neon signs and abundant convenience stores scattered throughout Tokyo, departure melodies at train stations are probably something many residents don’t give much thought to as they travel around the city each day.
And yet so much thought has been put into the creation of such tunes, it’s probably about time they get their dues.
The East Japan Railway Co., or JR East, introduced its first hassha merodi (departure melodies) at various stations on March 11, 1989.
Thirty years later, the jingles exist as part of the cacophony of noises that barrage the senses during commutes, which is ironic since they were originally created to tackle the problem of stress.
While commuting in Tokyo during rush hour continues to be a soul-crushing experience at the best of times, the mechanical sounds and shrill announcements that used to accompany a train’s departure prior to 1989 was a constant source of irritation for passengers.
Hiroaki Ide, a sound engineer who was tasked with creating new seven-second departure melodies for JR East in 1989, remembers the circumstances at the time well.
“What was it like before the introduction of the departure melody?” Ide says, repeating my question. “It was incredibly noisy.”
Technical capabilities at the time restricted audio output at train stations, distorting the announcements that were broadcast over the inadequate public address system. Add that to the noise that tens of thousands of people make when moving through passageways and you have an environment that’s far from relaxing.
“I guess most cities sound like that,” Ide says. “In any case, the noise level was abnormally high.”
However, creating a melody that could stand out from the general humdrum of a station without simply adding to the existing noise wasn’t easy, Ide says.
After conducting considerable research into the issue and analyzing spectrograms of various instruments, Ide and his team found that the sound of a bell performed best in terms of being heard in a noisy environment.
“I examined what sounds other rail companies in the world were using as departure melodies but most stations didn’t have anything,” Ide says. “So we had to come up with something ourselves. We decided to use the sound of a bell.”
Indeed, departure melodies based on the chime of a bell can still be heard at stations on many lines in the capital, including the underground network of Tokyo Metro.
Bells have long been part of Shinto rituals in Japan. Archaeologists have discovered bells made of clay that date back to the prehistoric Jomon Period (circa 10,000 B.C. to 200 B.C.), while bells have been used at shrines to get the attention of gods for centuries.
They’ve been incorporated into Shinto rituals for so long that they’ve basically become part of the background.
As a result, they have the ability to catch people’s attention without dominating the surrounding environment — a sound that’s both sharp and soft.
This, Ide says, is important if the sound of a bell is to work successfully as a departure melody. He likens this to a Buddhist concept called chūdō, or the “middle way,” which attempts to strike the right balance between a harmonious sound and one that catches people’s attention at specific moments.
At the same time, the melodies should neither be overly somber nor cheery.
At this point, Ide says it’s important to consider the iso principle, a technique in therapy by which music is matched to the mood of a listener, then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state.
“If you listen to the same song everyday, you’re going to be greatly affected,” Ide says. “You’re not listening consciously anymore, you’re listening unconsciously. I think the impact of this is massive.
“But, ultimately, what does that mean? In terms of the iso principle, it (mostly happens) when you’re upset. If you start thinking, ‘Argh, I’m not going to make it (to my destination) on time,’ it would be even more frustrating if a simple dum-dee-dum, dum-dee-dum melody then starts to play.”
The theory is simple, Ide says. When most people want to relax, they actually start feeling frustrated because they’re not able to feel relaxed in the first place. In this state, hearing a sound that is overly relaxing can actually stress a person out, and so it’s better to try and match audio material with a person’s inner tempo.
“It must be the same state,” Ide says.
Ide and his team started experimenting with the neutral sound of a bell to produce JR East’s first departure melodies but suddenly ran into an obstacle. Well, actually, four of them.
Ide describes them as “the four contradictions.”
“This was the biggest challenge,” Ide says. It’s almost impossible to strike a balance between these issues simultaneously.”
First, Ide found it hard to create a melody that could be played at an unobtrusive level and still be clearly heard above typical background noise that exists at a train station.
Second, Ide found it difficult to create a melody that got people’s attention and yet wasn’t annoying.
Third, Ide and his team struggled to distinguish between different melodies while retaining harmony.
Last but not least, Ide needed to try and create melodies that left both short- and long-term impressions on passengers.
Ide says it was tough but he still needed to create departure melodies that were striking — though not too striking.
Once he had settled on basing the departure melodies around the sound of bells, the composer invited a number of musicians to collaborate on the project.
“We called in artists, especially harpists or pianists,” Ide recalls. “I didn’t ask them to play like this or that, but I did say that the melody was supposed to be a signal of some sorts, and that they should play freely.”
Working alongside the musicians, Ide spent a lot of time in the studio and eventually composed around 300 melodies. At this point, he encountered a new issue that needed to be addressed: uniqueness.
In the same way that various rail lines in Tokyo needed to be distinguished by color, Ide realized that each line needed its own audio signature and separate melodies were then needed not just for individual stations but for separate platforms. It was imperative these melodies didn’t clash.
Ide decided to assign different sounds to different lines, giving the Chuo Main Line, Saikyo and Yamanote lines melodies based on a piano, the Chuo Line melodies based on a harp and the Sobu Line melodies based on a bell.
Ide conducted endless simulations, reproducing schedules for all lines simultaneously so that he could test what the melodies sounded like when played alongside each other. He made adjustments to a station’s melody as was necessary.
Even after the melodies had been assigned to individual stations, some rail operators were unconvinced passengers would know what these new melodies were on the morning of March 11, 1989.
Ten years after their introduction, 60-70 percent of respondents in a 1999 survey conducted by JR East on departure melodies were positive about their impact.
The departure melody was here to stay.
Ide stopped working with JR East in 2001, having laid the foundation for train melodies at stations across the city. Others have since picked up the mantle, including ex-Cassiopeia keyboardist Minoru Mukaiya, who has composed more than 170 new jingles.
Ide believes newer departure melodies lack the basic principles that were so important in the creation of the original jingles. Recent additions include such tunes as Nogizaka46’s “Kimi no Na wa Kibo” (at Nogizaka Station), AKB48’s “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” (at Akihabara Station) and Yoshimi Tendo and Yujiro Ishihara’s 1960s duet, “Ginza no Koi no Monogatari” (at Ginza Station).
“Modern departure melodies have no harmony.” Ide says. “It’s now all about image — it’s 100 percent identity.”
Now outsourced to companies such as UNI-PEX, Toyo Media Links, Asai Music Studio, Sound Factory, Eiraku Electric, Kanno Works and Switch Corp., the departure melodies on JR East are now a lot more fragmented than when they were managed by Ide’s team.
“A ringtone is what springs to mind when thinking of a station’s signature sound these days,” Ide says. “That’s what advertising agencies and people giving presentations are all about. … The new melodies lack the original functionality.”
Still, departure melodies continue to play at train stations nationwide, adding a subplot to people’s daily soundtrack as they catch the train to and from work.
“Departure melodies mean a lot to your average Japanese person,” Ide says. “It’s a feeling related to one’s senses.”
Ide digs out a copy of “Manyoshu,” which was compiled more than 1,200 years ago and contains poems by people of various social status, including emperors, noblemen and noblewomen, warriors and ordinary farmers.
Sound, it appears, is significant in the prose that has been included in the collection, with the late professor Donald Keene stating in a foreword to a 1965 translation that “birds, beasts, and insects, with their widely varied notes, (play) the accompaniment to man’s emotional life through all the seasons of the year.”
Ide believes it’s important for society to recognize the importance that different sounds play in their lives.
“We emphasize things like harmony so much, so it’s like individualism vs. harmony,” he says.
So as you are next standing on the platform waiting for your train, perhaps pay a little more attention to the sound of the departure melodies you can hear. And perhaps give thanks to Ide and his team for creating a system of jingles that provide a soundtrack of substance to your life.
Name that tune
Aside from the repurposed pop songs nowadays, there’s more to Tokyo’s departure melodies than you may think.
In 2002, Shinagawa Station introduced a melody called “Tetsudo Shoka” (“Railroad Song”) for the departure of the Tokaido Line to mark the 130th anniverasary of the station. This bouncy song was written in 1900 to celebrate the rail journey from Shimbashi to Kobe along what had been, just a few decades prior, a predominantly pedestrian route between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto.
From April 16, 2016, Iruma Station in Saitama Prefecture has featured a departure melody called “Chatsumi” (“Picking Tea”) that was first released in 1912. Iruma is famous for its green tea and although the operators of the Seibu Ikebukuro Line had only planned to run the jingle for a year, it proved so popular the town has decided to keep it.
The two platforms at Takadanobaba Station on the Yamanote Line feature a departure medley of the theme to “Astro Boy.” Takadanobaba is the nearest station to Tezuka Productions, which was founded by “Astro Boy” creator Osamu Tezuka in 1968.
Since June 6, 2005, the JR lines at Ebisu Station have played an arrangement of Anton Karas’ instrumental theme for Orson Welles movie “The Third Man.” This theme is also used in Yebisu Beer commercials. What’s the connection? It’s more than in name only: Ebisu Station first opened in 1901 as a freight terminal for the nearby Yebisu Beer factory, becoming a passenger stop in 1906.
The Tozai Line is a departure melody bonanza. Running between Nakano and Nishifunabashi stations, each departure melody at each platform at every station incredibly adds up into two different songs. “A Day in the Metro” is a jazzy number that can be heard on the ride from Nakano Station to Nishifunabashi Station, while “Beyond the Metropolis” is a more sultry song made up of the departure melodies of Nakano-bound trains. Minoru Mukaiya was the brains behind this.