Music has been an important part of cultures worldwide for centuries, and still continues to be one of the most memorable parts of each passing decade. As for anime that means nailing a theme song can mean a lot. However, opening tracks are not the only important component of an OST…or are they?

Here at Miso we’ve delved into openings, endings, and what makes them good. But now it’s time to take a look beyond that. From background music to voice acting, we’ll be seeing what makes all of these things work together or in some cases—fall apart. Most importantly, we’ll be trying to answer the question of just how much it all matters for an anime’s success.


The Parts of a Soundtrack

The OST

An OST, or original soundtrack, usually refers to all of the music used in a film, tv show, or other piece of media collected into an album. Sometimes it’s kept limited to only original compositions, but can also include any pre-made songs a studio purchased to use in their project.

Openings & Endings

Theme songs are the first thing that come to mind when you mention “music” from a TV show (despite some of us definitely being serial skippers). They introduce the show’s atmosphere and hype you up for the episode to come!

Title card for Cartoon Network's "Regular Show."
Regular Show has an opening only 5 seconds long.

Western cartoons often stick with same opening and ending song for their entire run. Sometimes, they use the same song for both tracks. Others don’t even use a full song, just a short instrumental tune or sound effect to go along with the title card.

However, anime has traditionally switched up both opening and ending songs once a series hits a certain length. Often the first OP is the most iconic like Bleach’s “Asterisk.”

But new fan favorites still commonly pop up later on in an anime, like Inuyasha’s second OP “I Am.”

Background Music

While an opening song sets the mood for an anime, the rest of an OST has to see that through. Although sometimes that task is what lends to it being easily overlooked. Backing tracks blend into a scene, and are mostly overtaken by the actual action happening onscreen. Specific tracks rarely stand out for anyone but long-time viewers.

However, those tracks still play a key role. Especially in the case of films, which more often than not don’t have the same obvious kick-start in tone that openings provide for TV series, background music can really take center stage. A lengthier run time provides more leeway for animation and music alone to tell the story.

Hisaishi performs the main theme from Spirited Away, “One Summer’s Day.”

A fantastic example of bgm’s powerful influence on an anime’s feeling is the beautiful compositions of Joe Hisaishi, whose music contributed to the warm and meaningful undertones of so many whimsical Ghibli settings.

The Technical Side

What’s called an OST may only include music, but the actual soundtrack for anime has a little more to it than that.

Voice Acting

Right alongside its unique art style, anime’s voice acting is one of the most recognizable and commonly parodied traits it has. This is in part thanks to the overlap in how dialogue is written—such as characters saying each other’s names weirdly often.

But writing aside, over the top reactions and noises with seemingly every single move a character makes are an anime staple. They take more than just reading off a script to pull off.

VAs Aoi Yuuki and Daisuke Ono with several of the characters they've voiced.
Aoi Yuuki (right) and Daisuke Ono (left)

Voice actors (or seiyuu) can be a major draw for viewers. Many have their own fan clubs and even branch off into special subunits with fellow seiyuu to host radio shows, drama cds, and other events. Plus lines are usually recorded before production of an anime, so voice actors actually do help shape the animation too! Seeing experienced names like Aoi Yuuki or Daisuke Ono assures fans that at the very least a character’s performance will definitely be in good hands.

Sound Effects

Similar to voice acting, sound effects in anime can be pretty dramatic. They go beyond simple enhancing of everyday sounds like footsteps. Although they may not be as frequently parodied, they are a familiar part of most shows. There are some in particular that seasoned fans are sure to recognize.

Fairy Tail, Hunter x Hunter, and Hetalia have all used the “wow” sound effect.

This is because many anime actually use the same sound effects. It’s not a public library like the copyright free music you’d find scrolling through Youtube. But, studios do buy hours worth of these sounds from the same sources.

Using pre-made sounds, as opposed to relying on expensive foley techniques (where experts fake the real deal with all sorts of weird knick-knacks), allows anime to be produced more quickly and at a lower cost. It works; however, the extra result is that inevitable overlap.

What’s in an OST?

So we’ve broken down the main parts of a sound track, but what makes them good? What makes them bad? What makes one OST better than another? And can good sound save a bad anime? Can bad sound ruin a good one? Let’s see.

Bad Sound vs Good Sound

In the case of music, it’s tough to deem something as strictly bad since musical taste is inherently subjective. There could one song more technically impressive and one less so, but someone could enjoy listening to them the exact same amount.

Many times an anime can float by on a mediocre OST. What could even be considered “bad” sound design doesn’t put off most viewers in the same way that bad writing or animation does.

Nevertheless, an OST that’s treated with a little more thought is still worth something…

Creating tracks that not only match a scene, but enhance it.

src: Angel Beats

Rather than picking tunes that clash or just “get the job done.”

Timing sound effects well.

src: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures

Instead of letting them override things or become blaringly loud and annoying.

Bringing life to character’s emotions.

src: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

Not practically dragging them to the grave with dull delivery.

And knowing when silence works just as well.

src: A Silent Voice

An amazing soundtrack can turn an anime from average to good and from good to great even if it can’t save a bad one.

Musical Anime

There is a clear exception to bad sound not ruining a show: anime about music. When an anime’s main focus is on making or even just listening to music it’s obviously expected that the sound should be paid attention to—so a less than impressive soundtrack will be noticed. A subpar soundtrack in a musical anime simply leaves a more bitter taste than in your average shounen adventure or crazy comedy.

The cover of Nana's 707 OST, overlaid with clips from the show's first opening.
Nana is famous for its amazing soundtrack. The two lead singers in the show are even voiced by two popular J-Rock artists, OLIVIA and Anna Tsuchiya.

However, those expectations also give sound a chance to shine in music anime. A good OST still can’t make up entirely for bad characters or plot, but it does allow watchers to get more easily lost in the feeling of a show and forgive problems a little more easily too.

Nostalgia

There is one last place that sound really makes its mark, and that’s in our memories. It’s no secret how many people still remember the lyrics to the Pokemon theme song after all. It doesn’t have to be something so major as an OP either.

An outside shot of the high school from Azumanga Daioh.

A few years back when I would walk to the store with my family, we would always pass this old clock tower and every now and then we’d catch it when it rang to make the quarter hour. And every time it did I would be reminded of the same exact chiming melody they used in Azumanga Daioh, then I couldn’t help smiling.

Listening to the OST from an anime takes you back to the same place you were when first watching, with or without animation to help it. It’s that warm yet oddly melancholic feeling. That fuzzy nostalgia. Even if it may not the most important star upon initial viewing, there’s no doubt that sound has a lasting impact.


That wraps up Miso’s look at sound in anime. Do you have a favorite OST to listen to? And how important do you think sound is for an anime? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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