How to Learn Japanese Using Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music & YouTube Music
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ―Plato
Music is a wonderful Japanese language learning tool for three key reasons:
- Music is fun! The most important factor in language learning is consistent daily action. And the easiest way to make sure you get your daily dose of Japanese is ensuring that you actually enjoy the process. Listening to music is inherently enjoyable for most people, and is therefore something you are more likely to do consistently.
- Music makes repetition more enjoyable. Repetition is an essential ingredient in successful language acquisition, but there’s one big problem: repeating resources is usually boring as hell! Reading the same article or watching the same episode of a Japanese show is less than fun. But with music we love, we can enjoy the same song over and over.
- Music improves memory. Not only are the melodies and rhythms of music pleasing to the ear, but they are also useful for increasing retention and providing a scaffolding for new information. In fact, if you ever find it difficult to remember a given Japanese phrase or collocation, try saying it aloud to a common tune you know (e.g. “Yankee Doodle”).
💡 Fun Fact: The two characters in the Japanese word for music―on (音) and gaku (楽)―literally mean “sound” and “fun” respectively. Now there's an apt descriptor for the power of music in language learning!
In this post, I share tips for immersing yourself in Japanese using music, plus detailed instructions for finding Japanese songs on today's most popular music streaming platforms.
How to Learn Japanese Using Music
Choose Japanese music genres that are ideal for language learning
Not all music is created equal when it comes to learning Japanese. Here are some of the best genres for language learning (arranged in alphabetical order):
- Enka (演歌): This classic genre had its start in the Meiji (明治) era as a way for political activists to voice their opinions without breaking anti-dissent laws. Enka employs the “pentatonic” scale and often features stories of loss and loneliness, giving it a somewhat similar vibe to American Blues. Learn more about Enka in this Wikipedia article.
- Japanese Folk Rock (フォークロック): The Japanese flavor of folk rock shares many themes and musical styles with its American counterpart. It's a perfect genre for language learners since singer-songwriters tend to pronounce their ballads more clearly than artists from many other genres. Learn more in this Japanese Wikipedia article.
- J-Hop (ヒップホップ): Japanese hip hop gained steam in the 1980s, largely influenced by the old-school hip hop being developed across the seas in New York. It tends to have rather simple lyrics, which makes the genre a great tool for language learning. Learn more about Japanese hip hop in this Wikipedia article.
- J-Pop (ジェイポップ): Japanese Pop is arguably the most popular genre of music in Japan, and probably the easiest to approach for non-native speakers since its lyrics and concepts tend to be fairly straight forward, and the words are usually clearly pronounced. Learn more about J-Pop in this Wikipedia article.
- J-Rock (日本のロック): Japanese Rock ranges from fairly light pop rock (e.g. J-Pop) to quite intense heavy metal. The former tends to be better for language learning since you can better comprehend the words. If you like the heavy stuff, go for it. But just realize that it probably won't help your Japanese very much. Learn more about J-Rock in this Wikipedia article.
Choose a few Japanese music artists to focus on
Musical taste is a very personal thing, and you will need to try out a wide range of Japanese artists to find who resonates with you most. But to help you start your journey of musical exploration, here is a diverse "tasting menu" of top Japanese bands and singers to try out (arranged in alphabetical order).
- Amuro Namie (安室奈美恵): Known to some as the “Queen of J-Pop,” Amuro Namie began her music career as a teen idol member of the Super Monkeys. Shen later went on to have an über successful solo career, winning “Album of the Year” at the 50th Japan Record Awards. Learn more about Amuro Namie in this Wikipedia article.
- Bump of Chicken (バンプ・オブ・ チキン): Since their founding in 1994, Bump of Chicken has grown into one of Japan’s top rock bands, with fourteen singles and five albums under their collective belts. Their tunes are frequently used as theme songs in television shows and video games, so you will likely come across their work in your various Anywhere Immersion activities. Learn more about Bump of Chicken in this Wikipedia article.
- B’z (ビーズ): Pronounced Bee-zu, B’z is one of Japan’s most well-known rock bands. If you ever visit Hollywood’s RockWalk, you will find the signatures and handprints of the band’s guitarist, Matsumoto Takahiro (松本孝弘) and vocalist, Inaba Koushi (稲葉浩志). Learn more about B’z in this Wikipedia article.
- Dabo (ダボ): Unlike most Japanese hip hop that tends to be rather “poppy,” Dabo represents a sound and message more reminiscent of contemporary American rap. In the early 2000s, he became the first Japanese artist to sign with Def Jam Japan. Learn more about Dabo in this Wikipedia article.
- FLOW (フロウ): Formed in the late 90s, this “mixture rock” (ミクスチャー・ロック) band has been featured in many popular Japanese anime, including Naruto (ナルト). Learn more about FLOW in this Wikipedia article.
- GLAY (グレイ): Ranked number seven on Music Station’s best selling Japanese music artists of all time, GLAY is known for music spanning a wide range of genres, including pop, rock, reggae, and even gospel. Learn more about GLAY in this Wikipedia article.
- Hamasaki Ayumi (浜崎あゆみ): Known by her fans as simply Ayu (あゆ) for short, Hamasaki Ayumi is often called the “Empress of Pop” given her nearly 50 million record sales and the influence she’s had on other artists in Japan and Asia. Learn more about Ayu in this Wikipedia article.
- Hikawa Kiyoshi (氷川清志): Beloved by the old and young alike, Hikawa Kiyoshi is known to some as “The Prince of Enka.” His real name is Yamada Kiyoshi (山田清志), and you will sometimes see him referred to as simply KIYOSHI (written in all capital English letters) in his non-enka endeavors. Learn more about KIYOSHI in this Wikipedia article.
- Jero (ジェロ): Jerome Charles White is the first African-American enka singer in Japanese music history. His interest in the art form was sparked at an early age by his Japanese grandmother, who had met his grandfather—an American serviceman—at a dance in post World War II Japan. Learn more about Jero in this Wikipedia article.
- Kawaguchi Kyougo (河口恭吾): If you like bittersweet folk, you will love Kawaguchi's music. One of his best known songs―and one of my all time favorites of any genre or language―is titled simply Sakura (桜, “Cherry Blossoms”). Learn more about Kawaguchi in this Wikipedia article.
- King Giddra (キングギドラ): The three-member group (MC K Dub Shine, MC Zeebra, and DJ Oasis) debuted in 1993 and are considered one of the primary pioneers of Japanese hip hop. They were heavily influenced by Public Enemy, and like the U.S. group, use hip hop as a platform for addressing social problems. If you’re curious, the group named itself after the three-headed dragon in Godzilla of the same name. Learn more about King Giddra in this Wikipedia article.
- Kitajima Saburou (北島三郎)): Kitajima Saburou is one of Japan’s most well-known enka singers. He is best known for these two songs: Namida Bune (なみだ船, “Boat of Tears”), released in 1962, and Kyoudai Jingi (兄弟仁義, “Brothers, Humanity & Justice”), released in 1965. Learn more about Kitajima Saburou in this Wikipedia article.
- Kouda Kumi (倖田來未): Final Fantasy X-2 fans should already be familiar with Kouda Kumi's work since her songs were used extensively in the game. While she initially represented a more conservative look and sound, she evolved into a more provocative artist. Learn more about Kouda Kumi in this Wikipedia article.
- L'Arc-en-Ciel (ラルク アン シエル): Beginning as a “Visual Kei” (ヴィジュアル系) group using makeup and costumes somewhat akin to rock band Kiss, L'Arc-en-Ciel (which means “The Rainbow” in French) gave up the visual gags shortly after their major label debut in 1994. Learn more about L'Arc-en-Ciel in this Wikipedia article.
- Misora Hibari (美空ひばり): With her passing in 1989, the world lost one of the Japanese music industry’s most prolific artists. She was the first woman in Japan to be awarded the “People’s Honor Award” (awarded posthumously). Her most famous song is Kawa-no Nagare-no Youni (川の流れのように, “Like the Flow of The River”), which has been remade by many artists, including The Three Tenors, Teresa Teng, and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. Learn more about Misora Hibari in this Wikipedia article.
- Mr. Children (ミスターチルドレン): Mr. Children is difficult to classify, with one foot in J-Pop and another in Folk Rock. Their song Kuruma no Naka de Kakurete Kisu o Shiyou (車の中でかれてキスをしよう, “Let’s Hide Away in the Car and Kiss”) is one of my favorites. Learn more about Mr. Children in this Wikipedia article.
- Okabayashi Nobuyasu (岡林信康): Called “Japan’s Bob Dylan” and “The God of Folk” by some, Okabayashi Nobuyasu is one of Japan’s best-known folk singers. Once a Christian, he later began to question his beliefs, looking for escape and expression in his music. Learn more about Okabayashi Nobuyasu in this Wikipedia article.
- Onitsuka Chihiro (鬼束ちひろ): If you’ve watched Trick (トリック) before, you will be familiar with Gekkou (月光, “Moonlight”), Onitsuka Chihiro's hauntingly beautiful debut single used in the show’s closing credits (another one of my all-time faves). Learn more about Onitsuka Chihiro in this Wikipedia article.
- Rhymester (ライムスター): Rhymester was one of the first hip hop groups in Japan. The three members include MC Mummy-D, MC Utamaru, and DJ Jin. Though their first works were not well received by critics, they have gradually become popular with rap and rock fans alike. Rhymester is well-known for political and social satire, with frequent criticism of both the Japanese and U.S. governments. Learn more about Rhymester in this Wikipedia article.
- Sambomaster (サンボマスター): Named after the Russian martial art Sambo, Sambomaster has a number of hits and is frequently tapped for theme songs in Japanese anime, dramas, and video games. For example, their song Kimi-wo Mamotte, Kimi-wo Aishite (君を守って君を愛して, “I Protect You, I Love You”) was used as the closing theme of Bleach from episode 215 through 229. Learn more about Sambomaster in this Wikipedia article.
- SMAP (スマップ) was one of Japan’s best-known J-pop bands until they disbanded in 2016. Their upbeat sound is exemplified by their best-selling single Sekai-ni Hitotsu-Dake no Hana (世界に一つだけの花, “The One and Only Flower in the World”). Learn more about SMAP in this Wikipedia article.
💡 Pro Tip: For more Japanese music artist recommendations, check out the r/japanesemusic subreddit. It’s a great place to find recommended albums, songs, and music videos.
Study Japanese Song Lyrics
Most people will automatically associate music with listening, but kashi (歌詞, "lyrics") provide a useful way to strengthen your Japanese reading skills, too.
Lyrics also help you:
- Look up new words more easily by copying and pasting into digital Japanese dictionaries.
- Identify gaps in your vocabulary and grammar, which you can then look up online or practice with your Japanese tutor.
- Create context and better understand the meaning of a song. This comprehension increases enjoyment and efficacy.
Most major music platforms (e.g. Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music) include built-in lyrics for some Japanese songs, or you can search for Japanese lyrics using the following websites:
💡 Pro Tip: You can also just do a Google search for the Japanese name of the song (e.g. 車の中で隠れてキスをしよう) followed by 歌詞 (the Japanese word for "lyrics").
Look up new words and phrases
You will likely encounter many unfamiliar words and phrases as you listen to Japanese music. Fortunately, there are some great tools out there today that let you easily copy and paste in text for instant definitions. Here are the three best tools I've found to date:
- Nihongo app (iOS): Tap on the Clippings tab at the bottom and paste in your lyrics. You can tap on any new words to look them up or save them for later.
- Japanese app (iOS & Android): Use the Text tab within the Japanese app to to paste in lyrics and quickly tap on unknown words for definitions.
- LingQ (iOS, Android & Web): Want to study song lyrics more systematically? Try importing both the text and MP3 into the LingQ app (pronounced "link").
Use Anki to create custom flashcards
The best way to remember new words from songs is creating spaced repetition flashcards with the Anki SRS app. Make sure to include the original sentence from the song for context, avoiding single word cards with just the Japanese word on the front and the English translation on the back.
💡Pro Tip: The fastest way to consolidate new words is reviewing your flashcards right before bed and as soon as you wake up since we store memories during sleep.
Listen to the same song multiple times at different levels of analysis
As I said above, repetition is one of the essential ingredients of language learning. Music makes repetition much more enjoyable than most other forms of media, but I suggest mixing things up with different forms of repetition:
- Listen to the song a few times without looking at the lyrics. Focus on getting a general gist of the song.
- Now read the lyrics a few times to increase your understanding. Look up any new words you don't know.
- Listen again as you read along with the lyrics. Make note of any characters that are pronounced differently than you expected.
- Listen again without reading the lyrics. You will likely notice that you can now understand much more of the words and meaning.
- Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Use a specific Japanese song as a conversation topic with your tutor
One-on-one online tutoring (e.g. using italki) is the single most effective way to improve your Japanese fluency. But after you've covered self-introductions, hobbies, jobs, etc., it can be tough to find interesting topics to keep things fresh. Songs provide an endless source of potential themes to chat about, and create a useful constraint for each session.
Where to Find Japanese Music
Okay, so now that I've made the case for using music to learn Japanese, the obvious question remains: Where in the heck can you find Japanese tunes?
The short answer: almost anywhere!
Most popular music platforms today have a decent amount of Japanese music to choose from, and many of the apps even include built-in lyrics written in Japanese characters.
Here are four of the most popular music streaming apps, with tips for how to get the most out of each platform.
With over 527 million monthly users, Spotify is now one of the world's biggest music streaming services. They have also made big moves in the podcast world, buying exclusive rights to popular shows like The Joe Rogan Experience. I actually host my own podcast, The Language Mastery Show, on their free hosting platform, Spotify for Podcasters.
The easiest way to find Japanese music on Spotify is to search for a specific artist or song title using either Japanese characters or roumaji.
💡 Pro Tip 1: To see lyrics in the Spotify app, simply scroll up (if available, there will be a box below the music player). Tap the arrow icon in the upper-right to see all of the lyrics.
💡 Pro Tip 3: Want to get a little Japanese reading practice as you use the Spotify app? Change the display language to Japanese in the settings: Settings > Spotify > Preferred Language > 日本語.
Apple Music is my go-to music service these days, though Amazon Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music are all strong options, too (see below). Here are a few quick tips to learn Japanese using Apple music:
- Sign up for Apple Music if you haven’t already. The best deal is subscribing to Apple One, which also gives you access to Apple TV, Apple News, Apple Arcade, Apple Fitness, and 2 TB of storage on iCloud+.
- Open the Apple Music app (ミュージック) on your iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV, or PC. Search for a Japanese artist, song, or album. You can use roumaji (e.g. Onitsuka Chihiro), kana (e.g. おにつかちひろ), or kanji (e.g. 鬼束ちひろ).
- Not sure where to start? Don’t have any favorite Japanese artists or songs yet? I've got you covered! See my list of recommended artists above or browse these popular Japanese artists available on Apple Music.
- Turn on dynamic karaoke style lyrics by tapping the quote icon in the lower-left while playing a song. Tap a line to repeat it or jump to another part of the song (Note: this only works for songs with built-in lyrics).
- If you want to see all of the lyrics at once, tap the ellipsis icon to the right of the song title (…) and then View Full Lyrics (歌詞をすべて表示).
💡 Pro Tip: If a particular song doesn’t include lyrics in Apple Music, you can add your own!
- Open the desktop version of Apple Music.
- Control/right-click on the song in your library.
- Click Get Info.
- Click the Lyrics tab.
- Paste in the lyrics.
If you are an Amazon Prime member, you get free access to millions of songs, including thousands of Japanese tunes.
💡 Pro Tip: To reveal lyrics in the Amazon Music app, simply swipe up on the ≡ icon in the middle of the screen while listening to a song.
Though YouTube is best known for over-the-top challenges (e.g. MrBeast), unboxing videos, DIY tutorials, etc., the platform has increasingly focused on music content in recent years. There is now a dedicated YouTube Music app for all the major platforms, which allows you to more easily find and enjoy music. The app lets you create playlists, read song lyrics synced to the music, and even switch to the music video if available.
There are two easy ways to find Japanese songs on YouTube music:
- Navigate to the J-Pop collection: Explore > Moods & Genres > J-Pop.
- Tap the magnifying glass icon in the mobile app or click Search at the top of the browser version and enter a Japanese artist or song name using Japanese characters or roumaji.
💡 Pro Tip 1: To see lyrics in the YouTube Music app, simply tap the Lyrics tab at the bottom of the mobile app or on the right when listening in your browser.
💡 Pro Tip 2: Want to repeat a line or jump to another part of the song? Just tap the line in the lyrics!
💡 Pro Tip 3: Want to copy the lyrics over to another app? The lyrics can't be copied from within the mobile app, but they can be within the browser version.