background looping, floating phrases, and gomes the hitman

There are different points of view on “passive listening”, whether very useful or not at all; and to go with that, different ideas of what it actually is. Olle Linge over at Hacking Chinese has been having a very useful series on listening, and what I’m talking about here is background listening – the sort of thing you turn on and tune out, not paying any serious attention to at all. This is probably what most of us have the most time for, but does it actually do anything for your language learning?

Some people are able to have video playing on a second monitor and somehow still get something done. I’m not one. Last time I tried it, I watched one whole episode of Working!! without hitting the keyboard once, and then gave up on the concept. Fairly often I have enough spare attention to have an audio drama playing without getting too distracted from what I’m nominally supposed to be doing at the office, or have one going while I run, so I get perhaps an hour of that every other day on average. But mostly, the topic here is music. Usually I have some sort of music playing six hours a day or more. (I know a lot of you listen more than that, and that’s good. I usually don’t have any playing at home. Let me put some on right now … there, that’s better. 島みやえい子 – ひかりなでしこ. Already listened to this three times today …)

And that repeated listening is something I can’t do with most audio dramas. There’s one or two exceptions, but for the most part they don’t get a lot of plays each. Music, though – sometimes my favourite albums can go by hundreds of times in total, maybe a couple dozen times in two weeks, then they get left alone for a month or two, picked up again, and so on. So you get this sort of random looping with peaks and valleys that goes on for years.

And when you do that, a curious phenomenon takes place. Every now and then, sometimes several times a day, whilst not paying attention in the least, a phrase will bubble to the surface that I’ve never heard before. Of course I’ve heard it dozens of times or more without understanding, but without the slightest effort, out of the blue, it comes through clear as day. (This happening while on a run the other day with Gomes the Hitman on the headphones was what inspired this post.)

Now actually learning words, grammar and so on, is a different story. I don’t think I’ve ever learned a new word from listening in this way. I don’t think you could. But as reinforcement for listening comprehension that you’re already somewhat capable of, there aren’t many things better, I think. Certainly more active listening gets you a higher percentage of comprehension per unit time. But you can’t really do that eight or twelve hours a day. (And if you can, I want firstly your job and secondly your mental energy.)

Of course to maximise the potential of this sort of thing happening a few minimal conditions need to be met. Well, I say a few; really just two. You have to enjoy the music enough to listen over and over again, firstly; and secondly, it has to be in a style that you personally find comprehensible (and that varies a bunch depending on what you’re used to. But I strongly recommend erring on the side of very clear lyrics).

At any rate I’ll just avail myself of this opportunity (excuse) to post a bit of my favourite music. Sorry for the poor sound quality on some of these, it is YouTube after all. Also some of them aren’t actually videos. This is fairly obscure stuff for the most part.

Gomes the Hitman seems hardly known at all outside Japan, which is a pity. If you recognize this song, you’ve probably watched 御伽草子 at some point in your life.

I don’t remember where I first heard of さよならポニーテール, but they’ve been a favourite for a long time. I guess they’re getting more popular as of late, which I’m happy to see. Somehow I didn’t realize it until a week or two ago but they do the ending theme to the currently running 釣り玉. One of the girls, not sure which one, does all the cute little illustrations for their CD covers and books, and videos like this one.

Every now and then one needs some melodrama and then it’s time for enka (演歌). (This genre also overlaps a lot with the more common 昭和 era pop ballads and 歌謡曲.) 藤圭子, who is considered the first enka stylist of the modern period, usually gets some play time on days like that, as does 由紀さおり, but lately 伊東ゆかり has been wearing out the turntable needle. (Figuratively. But I really should get some enka on vinyl. It seems only right.) Here’s a wonderful live version of 小指の思い出, with some preliminary commentary, from 2009.

I’ve been getting into jazz lately (again. Used to be mostly all I listened to, for a certain period). 中山うり is one of my recent finds. Here’s a Cuban-flavoured track from VIVA, 赤い風船がついてくる.

Oh and lastly here’s the track I put on earlier –

Hope you enjoyed!


4 responses to “background looping, floating phrases, and gomes the hitman

  1. Where do you get you Japanese music? Ideally, I’d like a legal way to purchase Japanese mp3s (at a reasonable price) from the states. I just haven’t been able to find anything like that.

    • I saw your comment this morning and not two hours later I heard that the source I was definitely going to recommend was shutting down 😦 HearJapan ( ) was the place to get this sort of thing for almost five years. They’ll be open till the end of the month. After that, the only other way I’m aware of is iTunes Japan, which you can get music from using a Japanese iTunes gift card, although it’s a bit of a process.

      I’ve never liked buying music in digital form and certainly not compressed files (being a bit of an audiophile, and also preferring to have a physical copy) so I normally just torrent stuff to discover music and then buy the CDs that I like. It’s pretty expensive though.

      If anyone else knows of a good source for digital music please do reply.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Spot on post!
    Another phenomenon I’ve experienced is certain songs I disliked/ignored when I first heard them will suddenly catch my interest. A useful extension to passively learning vie background listening is to look up lyrics when songs/verses/lines catch your attention. I recommend as they work with rikaisama.

    This process has slowly happened to me on virtually every いきものがかり song I have. My current top artist though is いとうかなこ, clear lyrics but with lots of big words! My other recommendations are Amazarashi and Plenty, but neither has as many albums as I’d like.

    Thanks for all the suggestions too, finding new Japanese artists is a pain.