Note: This article contains potential spoilers for Tamako Market, K-On! and Toradora.
Music seems to be an essential component of Anime. Specially considering its capacity to enhance the mood of a scene. A task that can be achieved in many ways. In Tamako Market, for example, the characters like to visit a coffee shop. Usually the background music is in tone with the theme of the scene. An old french pop song can be heard while Midori reflects about her feelings for the protagonist, and a slow piano piece accompanies Asagiri while she gathers the strength to admit she had fun with Tamako and her friends. The music attributes, like the instrument being used or it’s tempo, is expected to enhance the mood of the moment; whether its romantic uncertainty or the struggle between social anxiety and the desire to have friends. But there may be another factor in play.
During each of these conversations, a record player is shown either being set-up or playing tracks from different genres. Explaining where the background music is coming from might have the purpose of presenting the owner as a sophisticated and wise individual. This makes sense given the role of passive counselor he plays in the series. But there could be another reason. Film theorists believe that, when music is unexplained, it appears as an obvious attempt to manipulate the audience. Placing its source within the character’s environment should reduce this perception, making it more effective. The idea is supported by an experiment in which a chase scene in a mall was perceived as more tense, when the music sounded like it came from the building speakers (Tan, Spackman, & Wakefield, 2008)1. It’s possible then that the record music made the referred scenes in Tamako Market feel more hopeful or cheerful. Sadly, directors can’t put a record player or a loudspeaker on every single scene. There are, nevertheless, other, less mechanic alternatives.
Having musicians among the characters also allow for a seamlessly introduction of music. Series about bands, like K-On! have the advantage of being able to explain the presence of songs through rehearsals and concert scenes2. The story doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around music though. The fantasy drama Angel Beats!, for example, has a couple of characters capable of singing and playing instruments, ready to perform as soon as the plot allows it. Animated musicians don’t even have to be that skilled. In an episode of Tamako Market, the protagonist father is revealed to have composed a song for her late wife, while they were both in high-school. His performance, shown through flashbacks, is clearly amateurish. But instead of disrupting the story, it ends up making it more believable and endearing.
Including an animated performance might have other benefits. People tend to rate music better when they are able to see the interpreter (Wapnick, Darrow, Kovacs, & Dalrymple, 1997; Wapnick, Mazza, & Darrow, 1998). And while this doesn’t make people experience more positive feelings or excitement (Vines, Krumhansl, Wanderlev, Dalca, & Levitin, 2011; Vuoskoski, Gatti, Spence, & Clarke, 2016), it can make the audience more interested on the music, or even happier, depending on how expressive the performer is (Broughton & Stevens, 2009; Vines, Krumhansl, Wanderlev, Dalca, & Levitin, 2011). It seems that body language could make music scenes more effective. But also that this would depend on what type of movements are animated and how.3
Interestingly, some production teams seem to consider musicians’ behaviors particularly important. Series like Angel Beats!, Sakamichi no Apollon or K-On! depict musical performances with an unusual level of detail and realism. The opening for Angel Beats!, for example, doesn’t just show Kanade’s fingers pressing a piano key in synchrony with the respective note. They also display the performers hands, torso and head moving in the same manner as an experienced interpreter’s would. This could be improving the viewer’s experience in different ways. First, it makes it easier for the audience to follow specific notes, facilitating the perception of tempo. A variable that seems to play an important role in the induction of tension and excitement through music (van der Zwaag, Westerink, & van den Broek, 2011). Another possibility is that it permits a vicarious participation in the performance. Being able to see how an artist produces music could be allowing viewers to feel like they are singing or playing an instrument, in the same way watching an avatars hands turn a steering wheel make gamers feel like they are actually driving. We should remember though that the effectiveness of this particular technique hasn’t been tested. So it’s still possible that it could have no effect on the audience whatsoever.
Behavior isn’t the only attribute that could enhance the experience of music. Experiments have shown that sang or instrumental pieces are rated better when the performer is more attractive (Wapnick, Darrow, Kovacs, & Dalrymple, 1997; Wapnick, Mazza, & Darrow, 1998). A factor that can be particularly useful in a highly stylized medium like Anime. In Toradora, the female lead secretly rehearses a song for the school’s Christmas party. The dress and jewelry she wears during her performance, as well as the delicate gestures she uses, contrast with the informal appearance and rough behavior displayed in previous episodes. The effort Tiga puts into her interpretation and the reaction this provokes in Ryuji are probably intended to suggest an increasing attraction between the characters. But her charming appearance could also have made the hopeful song seem more moving, and the scene more romantic. Putting the viewers in the right mood for the emotionally charged episodes that follow.4
Placing musicians among the cast seem to have various benefits. It allows to present the music as part of the depicted environment and enriches the viewer’s experience with the behavior an aesthetics of the characters. In spite of the limited amount of research on the subject though, Anime studios appear to already know how to take advantage of these mechanisms. Future productions might build upon these techniques, creating even more persuasive scenes. And even if this doesn’t occur, the interest in band-themed series and animated musician’s is ensured.
1. The experiment revolved around a scene in Minority Report, which features a man and a young, debilitated woman, struggling to hide and escape from their pursuers in a mall. All while a slow-beat romantic theme is heard as coming from the building loudspeakers. The melody is probably intended to make the viewers think about a couple caring for each other. This contrasts with the rough and fast interactions between the protagonists, increasing the feeling of urgency and threat of the scene. Interestingly, the experiment found that when the music sounded like a normal soundtrack (with higher volume and quality than it would have if it came from the mall), the interactions between the characters were perceived as more cooperative and the scene as less tense. Our interpretation serves as an example of how mood incongruent melodies could contribute in a positive way to cinematic experiences. But, more importantly, the experiment suggests that, even when the mood depicted by the music is incongruent with a scene, placing it in the fictional world can still enhance its effects.
2. Sub-plots involving musicians can also justify the existence of particular lyrics and melodies. Around the final episodes of K-On!, for example, it becomes increasingly difficult for Azusa, to cope with the fact that her older friends will be leaving both the school and the band after graduation. As usual she tries to control her feelings, but in the day of their graduation this becomes almost impossible. It’s at this point where the girls reveal that they have composed a song specially for her. The piece, titled “Touched by an angel!” expresses the positive impact Azusa has had in their lives, and how much they appreciate this. The band proceeds then to perform the song in front of Azusa. Who, while still emotional, also appears comforted and thankful.
3. It’s seems a bit incongruent that adding video to a musical performance provokes music to be rated better, while at the same time it doesn’t lead to more positive or exciting experiences. One possible explanation is that the mentioned studies used different types of stimuli (Wapnick, Darrow, Kovacs, & Dalrymple, 1997, used a singer, while Wapnick, Mazza, & Darrow, 1998 focused on violinists) and collected different measures (like low vs. high ratings of music performance, as well as valence and arousal of the experienced mood). Another cause for the different results observed is the use of relatively simple stimuli, like a single instrument performance. In the lab, this setting prevents the interference of external variables. However, it also makes it more difficult to generalize the results to Anime music, were different types of instruments and electronic techniques are used to create the composition. Finally, other variables like the effect of watching a beloved character compose, and perform music, haven’t been studied. So, there is both, space for speculation, and additional research to be done.
4. It should be noted that while Christmas is a more family oriented holiday in many countries, in Japan is treated as a romantic event, similar to Valentine’s Day.