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While it may feel like you’re not learning anything when you hear a Japanese 曲 (kyoku, song), it turns out that listening to music in a foreign language does have a positive impact on language learning. Research shows that listening to music can improve familiarity, pronunciation, syntax, memorization and more.

Some might claim that listening to Japanese music without a specific study focus is 役に立たない (yaku ni tatanai, not useful), but this isn’t necessarily true. The benefits to passive listening may be subtle, but they can build up over the years. The more time you spend exposed to the Japanese language, the better, so even casual listening can help. For a 初心者 (shoshinsha, beginner), exposure to music can help you familiarize yourself with the 音 (oto, sounds), リズム (rizumu, rhythm) and 発音 (hatsuon, pronunciation) of the Japanese language.

Although listening to your favorite Japanese song, no matter the genre, can passively build familiarity with the language, Japanese still takes a long time to learn. Accordingly, more focused studying will have a more pronounced impact. Fortunately, there are three great ways to use music to learn Japanese: 暗記 (anki, memorization), カラオケ (karaoke) and 筆写 (hissha, transcribing). Let’s dive into how each of these study activities work, and then discuss potential songs to use for 初心者, 中級者 (chūkyūsha, intermediate learners) and 上級者 (jōkyūsha, advanced learners).

The most basic and efficient way to make music work in your favor is by using 暗記 to build your Japanese 単語 (tango, vocabulary). Listen to a song and review it line by line, reading the lyrics in Japanese and in translation. Put unfamiliar words in the 和英辞書 (wa-ei jisho, Japanese-English dictionary) and add them to your vocabulary list. Finally, memorize the line as well as the corresponding meaning.

This can feel like a lot of work, but providing 文脈 (bunmyaku, context) to new vocabulary is a useful memory aid. Scientists have called the brain an “association machine,” a device that constantly wants to connect new information to existing memories. So learning a new 言葉 (kotoba, word/term) or 表現 (hyōgen, expression) in the context of a song you like is a handy reference for your mind to latch on to.

The second great way to learn Japanese through music is by singing along with カラオケ. Don’t panic: This doesn’t have to be in public. Instead, you can just do it in the comfort of your own room, カラオケに安心して行ける日が来るまで (karaoke ni anshinshite ikeru hi ga kuru made, until the day comes when people can go back to karaoke safely).

With カラオケ build on the 暗記 exercise by memorizing or looking up the 歌詞 (kashi, lyrics) to a song you like and trying to sing along. This can be difficult at first, but even following simple ローマ字 (rōmaji, Japanese rendered with Roman lettering) lyrics can make it a great deal easier if you’re not able to follow along in ひらがな (hiragana) and 漢字 (kanji). Even if you’re not working on your 音読 (ondoku, reading Japanese aloud), putting the words in your mouth can still help with 発音.

When you sing, try to mimic the sound of the artist as closely as possible. This can help train your tongue to handle sounds that are difficult to non-Japanese speakers, such as りょ (ryo) or りゃ (rya). Simply following along with the Japanese lyrics with your eyes will also train your brain to process ひらがな and 漢字 faster.

The third and deepest musical studying tool is 歌の筆写 (uta no hissha, transcribing songs). Rather than using the 歌詞 to memorize new vocabulary or to follow along with the song, 筆写 enables you to dive into the complete meaning of a song and learn as much Japanese from it as you possibly can. Choose a song and examine every word. 新しい漢字も、新しい言葉の意味も、見たことのない文法も、全てを勉強する (Atarashii kanji mo, atarashii kotoba no imi mo, mita koto no nai bunpō mo, subete o benkyō suru, Study everything: the new kanji characters, the meaning of new words, and unfamiliar grammar).

Linda Lombardi wrote an in-depth example of using this approach to absorb every possible Japanese lesson possible from a single song. Her approach is as follows: 1) Find a translation of the song lyrics online; 2) Lay out lyrics in either ローマ字 or kana underneath the kanji original; 3) Research all of the words and grammar structures that you don’t know and makes sure that you understand how each phrase turns into the translation; and 4) Make notes about the rhythm and tone of the song to help you sing along. This deep approach will immerse you in all aspects of Japanese: 単語, 文法, 漢字 and 発音.

But there is one important point that still needs to be addressed: What songs should you use?

For 初心者, lullabies and kid songs are a good place to start. Mama Lisa’s World has an extensive list of these, with traditional children’s music such as “どんぐりコロコロ” (“Donguri Korokoro,” “A Rolling Acorn”) and “ほたるこい” (“Hotaru Koi,” “Fireflies Come!”). The Japanese national anthem, “君が代” (“Kimigayo”) is one of the shortest in the world. Singing along can be a good way to practice pronunciation (you can find versions online by pop stars such as Ken Hirai).

中級者 have more leeway to study songs they like, but should still rely on recommendations for songs that have digestible Japanese. A pop ballad like Mika Nakashima’s “雪の花” (“Yuki no Hana,” “Snow Flower”) has study-friendly content and is also sung at a slower, sing-a-long pace. Some anime openers, such as “殘酷な天使のテーゼ” (“Zankokuna Tenshi no Tēze,” “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis”) from “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” also follow similar guidelines: The lyrics are accessible to learn, and the melody is feasible to sing along to.

On the other hand, 上級者 can take their pick of whatever Japanese music they like, from anime openers to visual-kei (style) to classic J-pop. For those in search of a challenge, I can offer two recommendations. First, the music of rock band Sid, most known for their “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” closer “” (“Uso,” “Lie”), has intricate, complex and poetic lyrics. Secondly, the songs of Seiko Oomori, an off-kilter pop idol, offer a similar challenge with quirky lyrical tendencies and occasional wild indulgences.

音楽を聴くことだけでも勉強になる。だからいっぱい聞いてください! (Ongaku o kiku koto dake demo benkyō ni naru. Dakara ippai kiite kudasai! Just listening to music can help you study. So listen as much as you want!)

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