"I'm not a chicken. I'm just really hesitant." -Frasier Crane
Question #88866 posted on 01/30/2017 7:55 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I heard a piece by Joe Hisaishi and I recognized it literally during the first chord. What specifically makes his music so recognizable and distinctive? Is it the type of chord he uses or the instrumentation? Or is it something else? I know a reasonable amount about music, so you don't feel like you have to dumb anything down. Thanks!

-Me, a saki


Dear Hayao,

So I'm no music expert here but I know what you're talking about when you say Hisaishi's music is recognizable. A couple of weeks ago I was working an evening shift and heard someone playing the piano in the building lobby. When I heard the melody, I knew I had heard it somewhere. There was no way I could have mistaken it for another song. It was so distinct and beautiful, and it made me feel so nostalgic and happy despite not being able to quite place it. 

After a couple of minutes racking my brain, I went to the lobby and asked the pianist what he was playing. It was the theme from Howl's Moving Castle, composed by Joe Hisaishi.

For those who don't know who Joe Hisaishi is, he's a Japanese composer known for his film scores and particularly for composing every Hayao Miyazaki film except one. Perhaps part of his signature style comes from his association with Miyazaki movies. As a director, Miyazaki also has a particular, kind of dreamlike style that creates a similar wistful atmosphere in his movies. 

According to real musicians, he uses a couple of musical elements that pattern out in much of his work. His melodies are very lyrical and almost childlike, and for lack of a more analytical word, "hummable." The rhythms themselves are not complex but direct, making them catchy and easy to absorb. Rather than "cluttering" them up with elaborate scales, he keeps them minimalistic. Also, his scores have so much heart. They burst with emotion in a way that is hard to achieve in any art medium.

That's all I can think of. Hope it helps.

-Van Goff


Dear person,

I consulted the Google and found a couple instances of people on message boards trying to analyze Hisaishi's sound and feel, and one thing that kept on coming up is that he often uses Quartal harmony, or harmonies based on stacking fourths rather than thirds. From what I can read (and hear - I've been listening to "Summer" and other Hisaishi music as I write this), this kind of harmony is a step away from traditional tonality, without necessarily being atonal. More subjectively, it reminds me of jazz or Debussy at different moments. He uses syncopated and somewhat impressionistic rhythms at times. He seems to have a wide variety of influences - there's one song that has come up that has even reminded me of Stravinsky ("Asian Dream"). Also, he uses a lot of pentatonic scales in melodies and harmonies, but not usually throughout an entire song.

He's definitely got a unique style. If I had to summarize, I would say he uses a lot of traditional European tonality and instrumentation and pentatonic tonality while frequently throwing in Quartal harmonies, and sometimes he even approaches atonality. It doesn't really fit one particular mold. Sometimes he uses really plain rhythms, sometimes he uses syncopation, sometimes he uses a bit of impressionism, and sometimes he does "Rite of Spring"-type rhythms that I don't really know how to describe in any other way. It's a cool balance. He's out there, but not so out there that people think that's he's out there.

Hopefully that makes sense and answers your question somewhat. Readers, if I made any boo boos here, please feel free to correct. I'm incredibly rusty at everything music and I could have missed something important.

Also, I found an honors thesis online that addresses this subject. I quickly scanned it and it looks like it examines certain things in more detail than I did as well as other things that I didn't talk about at all.