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Learn about the popular musical format known as karaoke.

Karaoke is popular in bars, restaurants, and at weddings. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Karaoke is popular in bars, restaurants, and at weddings.

Originally a Japanese word, karaoke is now defined in English language dictionaries as an immensely popular musical format that is often a competition in the United States and around the world.

Karaoke is a musical technique in which average people sing along to popular recorded music that has been stripped of vocals. The artist's voice is replaced with the voice of the person singing karaoke. Karaoke is popular in bars and at weddings and restaurants. However, Karaoke Scene Magazine, explains that karaoke's popularity has sparked everything from internet radio shows to festivals, moving it out of a narrower entertainment nightlife sphere.

Karaoke has also migrated into the home. Today, many smaller, portable karaoke machines are available that allow people to record lyrics over their favorite songs.

History of Karaoke

Karaoke derives from Japanese words meaning "empty" and "orchestra," according to Karaoke Scene Magazine. According to legend, a snack bar in Kobe City, Japan, was the first place in the world to feature karaoke. The bar was expecting a performing guitarist who didn't show. To amuse his customers, the snack bar owner played the songs without vocals, and people in the snack bar sang the lyrics.

Japanese culture has historically valued singing and gatherings, so the Japanese had little reticence toward singing in front of a crowd, which is believed to have helped fuel the rise of karaoke. Originally, karaoke was most popular among Japanese business people who would sing with clients in bars as a way of bonding with them and earning their business.

Although karaoke is typically traced to Japan, some argue that elements of the format can be found in American television programs from the 1950s and 1960s which featured a ball jumping across lyrics on the screen to guide singers at home.

According to KaraokeKanta, karaoke created a participatory culture in American bars and restaurants. Generally, karaoke is free -- the establishments profit from the food and drinks they sell. However, karaoke has spilled beyond the bar and restaurant world to enjoy more popular recognition. Today, there are karaoke leagues in American cities, and San Francisco hosts karaoke music awards. The popular television program American Idol may have been influenced by karaoke.

Impacts of Karaoke

Some scholars have considered karaoke a form of folk music, or at least a format that borrows from that tradition. Karaoke also allows people to live out fantasies of being a professional singer in front of a real audience.

Some scholars say that karaoke is bringing an oral tradition back into an increasingly frenetic society. They see it as a community bonding activity. In other words, to some academics, karaoke is not just singing along with a box. It has broader societal implications, especially in urban environments where neighborhood connections have frayed.

Types of Karaoke

Karaoke has become increasingly accessibly and portable. Many different models of karaoke equipment are readily available for purchase in stores and online. Types of karaoke include:

  • Karaoke boxes. Karaoke is sometimes sung in a soundproofed karaoke box. This tradition stems from karaoke sung in Japanese houses, in which the boxes were made of wood.
  • DJ-driven Karaoke. In some establishments, a DJ functions as the "host," and karaoke is presented as a sort of game.
  • Karaoke machines. Karaoke machines, rather than boxes, are often used today. The machines are positioned on open stages or in establishments such as bars or restaurants. Several different types of karaoke machines are available, some of which are for use in the home. Some karaoke machines allow singers to change the song's pitch and other elements, according to The Karaoke Guide.

Karaoke machines include:

  • Microphone/karaoke machines. The microphone is loaded with a few songs. The machine plugs into a person's television.
  • MP3/iPod machines. People can strip the voice track from their favorite music and record their voices over it.
  • Portable all-in-one machines. These come with machine, monitor and speakers. Some also have cameras so people can film themselves creating their own music videos.

Other Karaoke Equipment

  • Video monitors. When karaoke is sung in the open in an establishment or a home, the words to the song scroll on a video monitor in front of the amateur singer. In addition, video images may play on the monitor.
  • Karaoke CDs. These are CDs with the lyrics stripped away.
  • Karaoke DVDs. These DVDs scroll lyrics timed to music.
  • Microphones. These amplify the singer's voice.

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