I don’t think it’d necessarily be a wild or out-there opinion to say that music is one of the key pushing factors of any sort of production in which music can be present. Sound design in general is an incredibly important aspect of everything from television to video games, but more than anything else a production can do to help deliver any moment of emotion, music is by far the most effective means. Melodies can stay stuck in your head and any time they’re used to deliver a specific emotion, they can keep those moments of emotion remain memorable and relevant for much longer. I’ve already done a piece on production value in general, but this week I want to focus on and talk about soundtracks and music in anime in specific and why songs like AnoHana‘s secret base or Steins;Gate‘s Gate of Steiner are so incredible and effective at doing exactly what they were set out to do.
Music breathes life in to a lot of the productions that are so beloved and enjoyed by people in this community on a large-scale. To me, it’s telling when so many people’s minds get instantly drawn to the music in a scene whenever talking about a moment that they personally loved. We don’t do it intentionally, but it’s something I see in close to every single mentioning of specific scenes in anime and why I think iconic soundtracks have gotten to where they are now.
While I’m by no means a researcher or someone who’s done deep diving into researching how music effects memory to talk about this post (as that would take much longer than two weeks and would be much longer than my typical 2000 word posts), what I can do is speculate and bring out opinions and hopefully say something thought-provoking on accident along the way. I want to do it with a statement I’ve heard in a handful of ways from a handful of people: “AnoHana‘s ending song conditions its audience to feel sadness whenever they hear it.” It’s a statement that by no means is backed by science or anything, but it’s still one I agree with for the most part and have spent way too much time thinking about.
The song secret base ~Kimi ga Kureta Mono~ (10 years after ver), performed by the show’s female cast isn’t much special by itself. It’s just a kind of emotional J-pop styled song with overall a pretty generic melody. It’s slow, kind of poppy, with mildly emotional lyrics. Alone, the song is frankly boring. But, the glory of a commissioned song is that you can make something that fits your production as best as you can imagine, and that’s exactly what secret base is. The opening twenty seconds of that song were played leading into the credits while the episode was concluding often, rather than starting with the end roll and accompanying the ending animation. To me, these first twenty seconds are by far the most powerful part of the song exclusively because of how they were used.
The quiet buildup with solo vocals leading into the main melody and all three vocalists was turned almost into a warning that something that would pull at your heart was just about to happen and amplified its effect before a generic melody to let you fully take in what just happened. Now any time I hear any version of secret base I get goosebumps. The song very easily can be credited as conditioning its audience into sadness due to how the production ended a good number of episodes on a sad note to keep interest with its audience; all of which were followed by the song or had the song playing during the entire sad moment.
AnoHana of course isn’t the only show to do this, but I think it perfectly highlights how much a production benefits from this coupling of emotion and music. Music is something much easier to remember and get stuck in your head than a line of dialogue or moment of animation. When you couple the music with a specific moment or type of moment, like AnoHana does with secret base, that moment in return becomes much more memorable and in return reinforces the production in an extremely positive way. Something that I find equally interesting is when there’s a deliberate lack of musical backing to a scene.
In silence more emphasis can be put on singular details: spoken dialogue in a scene absent of narration, movements of characters and their surroundings; a moment of silence is an opportunity to make your production feel more alive and to articulate the points in which your production wants its audience to focus on. Silence as the absence of music also makes the revival of music backing the scene more impactful. If the music is brought back in the right moment where it isn’t obvious, it can push moments to be more impactful than they could have ever been with music backing the scene the entire time.
While I can see all of this as mainly obvious to a lot of people, what I want to do is try to imagine your favorite anime soundtracks and why you like them so much. Why is Madoka Magica‘s soundtrack so iconic and would moments that were amplified by, say, Decretum (Sayaka Miki’s theme) be just as powerful without them there? Would each witch fight, each new magical girl reveal, every plot twist be as powerful without Yuki Kajiura’s composition behind it? Obviously not, but these scenes are incredibly powerful to us because of highlights the show can wear as badges like it’s expert pacing and phenomenal writing, not because of what song was used to accompany it… Right?
I’d argue no. Not that I’m saying Madoka Magica isn’t great for the things I just mentioned, but that the production would suffer horribly if it had no soundtrack or a completely different one. Stand-out anime like Madoka Magica, Steins;Gate, Kimi no Na wa; they all utilise the mediums of video, television, and film to their fullest. The aforementioned take everything they can — writing, visuals, music, sound, pacing, acting — and combine them to yield something that can only be done in their medium. You can’t create a moments in the same way with books, comics, albums, or even things like video games or visual novels.
Each medium of entertainment takes what it has access to, and the true stand out pieces of those mediums create things only achievable within those mediums. While animation and voice acting get a large majority of the attention, with writing and plot as an aside that most people care about to at least some degree, music tends to take a bit of a backseat, at least in my experiences. It’s odd to me that people will try to attribute things like key animation to specific scenes with no evidence that X animator did that specific moment of animation other than that it feels like the animator did it, but composers like Yuki Kajiura (Madoka Magica, Kara no Kyoukai, Aldnoah.Zero) and Hiromi Mizutani (Non Non Biyori, Hell Girl, Tanaka-kun) get noticeably less credit when they’re crafting a significant portion of the productions we consume.
This is by no means an attempt to downplay writers, voice actors and actresses, or animators, but if you took your favorite anime and removed music altogether, it’s very likely that it would be scraps of what it was before. Music is a key driving element in this medium and while I’m not demanding more attention be given to anime composers, it’s something I want to shed light on and perhaps bring out everyone’s favorite moments with their favorite shows and the music that accompanied it; maybe it’d be worthwhile to find out who was responsible for writing that music.
I thought this would be a lot longer and I feel like I left some stuff out, but I guess at the end of the day that just means it gives people more food for thought. Thank you so much for reading this week’s post! It means a lot to me to have an audience interested in these weekly pieces. I read every comment that I get for these posts and a lot of the time you guys leave some really interesting thoughts on the topic for the week, so whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinions. As always, if you’d like to see what I’m up to when I’m not writing for this blog you can follow me on Twitter, and I’ll see you next week!
The featured image for this post was drawn by pixiv artist 田端みひら.