School of Music pioneers new course on Japanese music

November 21, 2017

News and Events from the Mead Witter School of Music

University of Wisconsin-Madison
455 North Park Street, Madison Wisconsin 53706

Scroll down to see a partial list of additional second-semester courses (including String Literature, West African Dance & Music, and Electro-Acoustic Ensemble) offered at the School of Music. 

An Exploration of Japanese Music, from Traditional to Avante-Garde

Having taught one year already at the School of Music, musicology instructor Matthew Richardson (Ph. D, Northwestern University, 2016) isn’t brand new here. But we’d like to introduce you to him nonetheless, especially as he’s developed an innovative class in Japanese music history musicology that is now open to enrollment.

“Music in Japan”   (Music 660-402, Music Cultures of the World: Asia) will offer students an overview of the stylistic and historical depth of music in Japan, including traditional genres like classical court culture, kabuki, and geisha performance, as well as modern J-pop, film music, and anime music. A major theme will be to position Japanese music culture within global trends from China, Korea, the US, and beyond.  The class will meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:55 to 10:45 in Room 2441, Humanities. For music majors, the class will fulfill a world music requirement. For non-majors, the class will fulfill a distribution requirement.

We asked Matt to tell us the story behind his interest in Japanese music.

I got into Japanese music in a sort of round-about way. I had studied Japanese as a hobby during a gap year before graduate school. After I started grad school, I was writing a paper on some German synthpop* and came across a Japanese group called Perfume. They put together a lot of retro synthpop sounds with the really pop-y choreography that’s popular in Japan, and once I started trying to figure out what to make of them it snowballed into a dissertation on Japanese pop. One thing that drew me to the subject was that a lot of groups like Perfume work on many levels at once. On the surface level, they’re just really fun synthpop, but when you dig deeper there are references to obscure synthpop from the ‘70s, and sometimes even when they’re performing on a TV commercial or something, they sort of poke fun at advertising while they’re advertising something. It manages to be really simple but really complex at the same time.

“Japanese pop music has a lot of influence from European and American pop music, but at the same time some music styles mean something different in Japan than they do in Europe and the US. In other words, what Japanese hear in Japanese music is different from what Americans often hear in Japanese music. And when Japanese fans listen to American music, it often means something different to them, too. One good example might be punk rock. In the US, that sort of sound is associated with rebellion and counterculture. But in Japan, a lot of artists use it as simply an energetic, youthful style without intending any of the political and meanings it has in the US.

“Since I wrote the original description I’ve added a unit on Japanese artists who tour in the US, and American artists who tour in Japan, talking about why they do or do not catch on. One of the issues we’ll look at is how a lot of the Japanese singers who do sound more ‘American’ (like Thelma Aoyama and Utada Hikaru) flop in the US because they sound too ‘normal,’  but really eccentric pop groups (like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or Babymetal) often go viral in the US and then only later catch on in Japan.

“There actually aren’t any musicologists that specialize in anime, that I know of. That part of the class will be reading a lot of general things on anime in Japan, and then spitballing some of my ideas about how those ideas apply to how music works in anime. One of the takeaways will be that anime is all about creating these big, sweeping fantasy worlds, and each series or studio usually grabs onto one kind of music that somehow fits with the fantasy, whether it’s jazz or synthesizer music.”


“Sorry, sometimes I forget how much jargon is floating around in my head! Synthpop is a term for pop music that’s mostly played with keyboards and synthesizers, especially when there’s a little bit of a disco-ish beat (like A-ha or Devo back in the 70s/80s).”

Learn more about “Music in Japan” and other music courses available this spring by checking the “Public Search” option at this website.

A smattering of other courses offered next spring include the following. (Please note: check with the instructor as not all classes are open to general students and auditors):

  • MUSIC 416: Survey of Music in the Twentieth Century with Professor Susan C. Cook
  • MUSIC 542: Choral Literature and Performance Practices of Today with Associate Director of Choral Conducting Bruce Gladstone
  • MUSIC 546: String Literature with Artist-in-Residence and Pro Arte Quartet Violinist Suzanne Beia
  • MUSIC 319: Topics in Music and Ethnicity in the United States (Delta Blues) with Professor Charles Dill
  • MUSIC 318: Cultural Cross Currents: West African Dance/Music in the Americas with Associate Professor of Dance Christopher Walker

and a variety of Special Topics courses (all MUSIC 497):

  • Opera Production with Assistant Professor David Ronis
  • Electro-Acoustic Ensemble with Associate Professor Daniel Grabois
  • Advanced Aural Skills: From the Conservatoire with Professor Marc Vallon
  • Marching Band Techniques with Assistant Director of Bands  Darin Olson
  • Acting for Singers with Assistant Professor David Ronis
  • Jazz Innovators: Armstrong, Ellington and Beyond with Adjunct Professor Matthew Endres
  • Music, Critical Pedagogy = Social Change with Associate Professor Teryl Dobbs

Our Full Concert Calendar


The School of Music offers a smorgasbord of performances each year; we invite you to visit our website and click on our events calendar. We also publish a season brochure that is mailed every August. To receive the brochure, please send your postal address to newsletter editor..

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