Sunday, 27 March 2011

How to appreciate foreign language songs : Example of Japanese with Vocaloid

In the last article, after a quite long wall of text, I said that I would show you some Japanese songs that demonstrate the potential of the Vocaloid software while also being ear-friendly to westerners. If you've just arrived on this page and do not know what Vocaloid is, I invite you to be up-to-date on the subject with my previous (long) article "Hatsune Miku : Talent Ambassador".

And for the stereotype lovers : No, Japanese music isn't all about an old geisha playing a lute and repeating vowels in a very high-pitched voice.

Like the title says, I'll try to enumerate different approaches to the problem of the language barrier through the medium of Vocaloid music for the Japanese. If you are discovering this music trend, I don't think that you will get an interest in all of the songs in this article. But if just one is to your liking, then I'll be pleased that my work was not a complete waste of time and I will gladly advise you again, if you do ask. Good? So, let's get on with it.

First things first : How does a song please us?

1. The listener has to be willing to hear it. This is everyone own business and have to deal with it. If someone is reluctant to a music style, I would not bother trying to convince him. But if you, reading these lines, are open enough to discover another music culture, then move on to section 2.

2. The melody is good enough to get your attention. It can come from the singer(s), the musician(s) or both performances. Also, it doesn't need to be interesting during the whole song, as a particular refrain could surprise you. And we just need a first time to be able, the second time, to trigger that pleasant feeling we first had and thus enjoying the song even more.

3. In the case where neither voice(s) nor instrument(s) melodies are interesting enough, the damage can be reduced by relying on other senses. In this case the sight, by the use of the video.
In a music video, if what we see pleases us like a story, a good-looking character or a beautiful scenery, the music might not be the main interest anymore. But having it played in the background will still be heard and slowly and unconsciously assimilated by the brain as a role in the positive emotion we are experiencing.

In the case of a foreign song where we understand nothing and thus creating a barrier, we can use subtitles like in any movie and as explained above in paragraph 3, be focused by our sight on the song's story.

So the songs I chose will have some of these appealing factors. But a good voice and instrument melodies, subtitles and video all together can be tricky to find. And if you don't like it, it might simply mean that it's not to your taste. So move to the next one.

Using Vocaloids' songs to be accustomed to Japanese changes a few things. The voices and the instruments being synthesized might not help but the songs coming from a single mind and those minds being quite numerous, the quality meets the quantity. And to raise the quality even higher, amateur singers and musicians sharing freely their own version of songs lead to songs with real voices and instruments. The best example is to make chorus and not have only one singer. Having multiple non-professional singers (but still good) at the same time hides most of the small faults that any of them could make.

Another strong point of Vocaloid videos is their stories. The lyrics already form a story by themselves and when a video maker wishes to create artworks out of it, it's up to him to represent the story from his point of view in his video. Different art + different view = More song richness.

And finally we also have an intermediate step, the English songs. To see if Vocaloid has potential, we can also use them to sing in English, with more or less success. But it is in fact a very good way to display that potential because of the accent. Someone not from our country talking in our language has most of a time an accent. Is it annoying? Nah, it's most of the time either funny or attractive (especially when it's a member of the opposite sex ;p).
A Japanese talking English is sometimes referred to Engrish to point out that our sound "r" is pronounced more like a "l" to them. I'll add an English song then.

Let's move on to the songs. Vocaloid has numerous voices and characters. Here is an artwork of the most populars (can't find the name of the artist). Easily distinguishable by their hair color, we have from left to right: From Crypton's Vocaloid 1st generation, Kaito and Meiko and Vocaloid 2 Miku, Len and Rin, and Luka. The last one being Gakupo (or Gackpoid for some) from the developer Internet Co. There is more but knowing that much is plenty enough.

These characters are merely tools for the Vocaloid user as they do not have background stories nor relations between one and another. They are just the same as actors and so there is no limits to the story they can play.

1) Last Night, Good Night (Chorus). A very calm song to start with to demonstrate the quality used in Chorus even though there is no subtitles. With this method, every singer are shown as an avatar with their names and are displayed when they sing (not everyone all the time and at the same time). Personal preference to the very good performance at 3:48 and following. The original video and voice that you can see in background can be seen at this link.

2) Hello, how are you? (Chorus). Another chorus to ease the progression. A bit more lively and despite the childish love theme, it is very enjoyable because of a great melody pace and piano. To better understand the story with the lyrics -> Original song here.

3) Yotsuba no clover. We leave the chorus aside to try a song by Rin (the twin girl) so this voice is electronic. Still no subtitles but you can enjoy the making-of of an artwork representing the Kagamine twins.

4) 1/6. Good guitar and rhythm, it's one of my favorite of Miku. The video has lyrics so you can understand what 1/6 refers to. There is no action but a single nice artwork. I suggest you to check out a chorus made of it where singers are only men. Nice combination.

5) Hard To Say I'm Sorry (original from Chicago). An example of a Vocaloid trying to sing in English. In this one, the accent and childish voice of Miku work very well. The mispronounced "promise / sorry" into "plomise / solly" sounds like having a 12-year-old daughter singing for a school play and in the place of a parent, it would look adorable.

6) Daughter of Evil. Song by Rin. Good example of story-telling and a catchy refrain. A young princess of only age 14 at the head of her kingdom with her servant. The "Evil" arc is a composition of 3 songs relating the same story but with different points of view. Servant of Evil is one of them (can't remember the last one). Small note : The different countries have their own color (so Rin is from the kingdom of Yellow and etc). Both songs "Daughter of Evil" and "Servant of Evil" were chosen to be played on stage at the 2011 Concert.

7) The Riddle Solver who can't solve Riddles. Kind of a strange one but I loved it the first time right away because of the story and the music pace. It's about a one-armed detective interrogating a young woman about murders. Well, it didn't say that songs all needed to be about soft feelings like love. Some are for an adult audience. Note : This song also forms an arc, the other one being "The Riddler who won't solve Riddles", which can help understand the whole story.

I think that's enough for today. I can't post every interesting songs so I may make another post at a later time. Thanks for reading until the end and I hope you enjoyed the selection.
Feel free to comment. Bye.

PS: I didn't list any music where you can actually dance your a** off, so here's one with the Vocaloid Lily (Internet Co.). And it's a great compilation of what this community is : the initial music with real singers, instruments, numerous artworks, excellent video editing and karaoke lyrics (in Japanese but part of the refrain is English). Love it.

Lily Lily Burning Night :

Previous related Post 1 : "Hatsune Miku : Talent Ambassador"
Next related Post 3 : "Vocaloid's Future : The missing link in Music Creation"


  1. "and as a parent, it looks adorable."

    Did you hide something from us ?

  2. Haha no. You have to take it as : "if I was a parent and had a daughter" etc...
    I'll modify the sentence.

  3. Gumi should most likely be included in the main Vocaloid listing. Also, "duet" needs to be changed to "duo", since I think that's the word you were trying for and duet doesn't really make sense in context, but could imply the wrong thing to someone who doesn't know better.

    A few notes on the actual content: I think it's nice to try a different angle and approach it from the creative side, but this leads me to believe that should anyone new to Vocaloid be led here, it would give the impression that Vocaloid is gimmicky. The animesque PVs and the stories are interesting and all, but the average person certainly doesn't look to music for story, and I think it's been this way for a long time. If I'm right, then Vocaloid becomes an passing oddity, something to browse and forget about shortly thereafter. It becomes something that is not taken seriously, neither as a capable tool nor as a catalyst for wonderful music.

    The songs you show here do nothing to hint at the potential of the software. Nazotoki (where did people get that English title from, anyway?) is a pretty catchy song, but the Vocaloid editing is horrendous. 1/6 is very pleasant sounding, except for the fact that Miku is singing it. The unwritten rule of introducing newcomers to Vocaloid is you do not start with Miku, unless the tuning is something exceptional, like Weather Report.

    Just some food for thought.

  4. The group artwork was the closest to what I wanted to present the different voices of Crypton, for a start. I don't want to list too much characters. The list the other characters developed officially or by Vocaloid users is too long. Just wanted to limit it at first to the Crypton ones. (in this artwork, there is Gakupo so still had to present it).

    For duet, thanks for the note. After looking at "duo" definition in English, I'll just remove it completely ^^

    For the videos I linked, it's a personal choice and of course it can't please everyone. The idea to the article is to show the potential of Vocaloid by the result of the community work. Because the quality of the song, the video creativity or both.

    I chose to list them with first some real voices and not too fast at first (1 and 2) so that the non-Japanese person can slowly integrate the difference of language.
    3 and 4 are still calm music but with the electronic voices. Another step again. (3 shows another part of the community with the artwork and 4 with some lyrics).
    5 to show the possibility of English singing with it (English pack for Miku will come). And it create a funny break in the listing. If all videos were Japanese only, the reader would like to make a stop.
    6 and 7 in last now to show some stories. For a regular person who is looking for music, I think that if he can see good examples where both music and stories are good, he will change his mind and see that it is a valuable part.

    About Nazotoki and 1/6, well it's a matter of taste ^^. Just like this blog, the articles are still from a personal point of view and I try to be objective as much as possible.

    Thanks for your thought. I can only get better with them.