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Karaoke (カラオケ in Japanese) is a form of entertainment where an amateur singer accompanies recorded music. The music is of a well-known song in which the voice of the original singer is absent or reduced in volume. Lyrics are usually also displayed, sometimes including color changes synchronized with the music, to help with the sing-along.

Karaoke has been a popular form of entertainment in East Asia since at least the 1980s, and has since spread to other parts of the world. Karaoke engenders quite a bit of culture specific to its enthusiasts, and this culture, unsurprisingly, varies from country to country. Much of the information in this entry is currently specific to karaoke's area of origin in the Far East.


Origin of the word

The Japanese word stems from the words: "kara" (空) which means 'empty' (same as in Karate) and "oke" which is short for 'orchestra'. The words together make a contraction literally meaning 'empty orchestra'. It used to be a slang in media where a live performance is substituted by a pre-recorded music and thus it is written in katakana. The term karaoke can be interpreted as "virtual orchestra" because one can specify a key to the music and start singing along without the presence of a live band or orchestra. In the United States, the word is often pronounced as /kɛɪrioki/. The Japanese pronunciation is /kaɽaokɛ/.


It has been common to provide a musical entertainment at a dinner or a party in Japan for a long time. It appeared in the earliest Japanese mythology. For a long time, singing and dancing remained the only entertainment in the rural area. Noh was initially played at a tea party and guests were welcomed to join in for a cheer or a shout of praise. Dancing and singing was also a part of a samurai's education. It was expected that every samurai have a dance or a song they could perform. During the Taisho period, Utagoe Kissa, (literally song coffee shop), became popular and customers sung to a live performance of a music band.

The industry started in Japan in the early 1970s when singer Daisuke Inoue (Inoue Daisuke) was asked by frequent guests in Utagoe Kissa where they performed, to provide a recording of their perfomance so that they could sing along on a company sponsored vacation. Realizing the potential for the market, Inoue made a tape recorder that played a song for a 100-yen coin. This was a karaoke machine. Instead of selling karaoke machine he leased them out, so that stores didn't have to buy new songs on their own. Originally it was considered a fad which was lacking the "live atmosphere" of a real performance. It was also regarded as somewhat expensive since 100 yen in 1970s was the price of two typical lunches. However, it caught on as a popular entertainment. Karaoke machines were initially placed in restaurants or hotel rooms; however, new businesses called Karaoke Box with compartmented rooms became popular.

Early karaoke machines used casette tapes but technological advances replaced this with CDs, VCDs, laserdiscs and, currently, DVDs. In 1992, Taito introduced the X2000 that fetched music via a dial-up telephone network. Its repertoire of music and graphics was limited, but the advantage of continous updates and the smaller machine size saw it gradually replace traditional machines. It is now common to use karaoke machines connected via fiber-optic links to provide instant high-quality music and video.

Karaoke soon spread to the rest of Asia and then to the United States in the 1990s. Facilities such as karaoke bars or "KTV parlors" provide the venue, equipment and software for amateur singers to entertain (or "torture") each other.

Its popularity has spread to the United States and other Western countries, where some people still regard it as purely a method for the intoxicated to embarrass themselves, but as the novelty has worn off many now take it slightly more seriously; sometimes, much more seriously. In the US, it is not uncommon for some bars to have karaoke performances seven nights a week, commonly with much more high-end sound equipment than the small, standalone machines noted above. Lyrics are often displayed on multiple TV sets around the bar, sometimes including big screens.


A basic karaoke machine consists of audio input, a means of altering the pitch of the music (not the singer) and an audio output. Some machines provide vocal suppression so that one can feed regular songs into the machine to filter out or greatly suppress the voice of the original singer. Most common machines are audio mixers with microphone input built-in with CD+G, Video CD, Laser Disc, or DVD players. CD+G players use a special track called subcode to encode the lyrics and pictures displayed on the screen, while the other formats natively display both audio and video. In some countries, karaoke with video lyrics display capabilities is called KTV.

Karaoke machines may involve technology that electronically changes the pitch of music so that amateur singers can sing along to any music source by choosing a key that is appropriate for their vocal range. Older equipment does this merely by varying the playback speed, which affects the tempo of the song as well (which can throw some singers off), whereas newer gear utilizes digital pitch changing, which maintains the original tempo of the song.

Some machines have a grading system of how well a song was sung. A popular game using karaoke is to randomly type in a number and call up a song, which participants take a turn to try to sing as much as they can. In some machines, this game is pre-programmed and may be limited to a genre so that they can't call up an obscure national anthem that none of them can sing. This game has come to be called "Kamikaze Karaoke" in some parts of the United States, which may be a somewhat inapt choice of term, considering karaoke's Japanese origins.

Many low-end entertainment systems (boom boxes etc) have a karaoke mode that attempts to remove the vocal track from general (non-karaoke) audio CDs. This is done by center removal which exploits the fact that in most music the vocals are in the center. This means that the voice, as part of the music, has equal volume on both stereo channels and no phase difference. To get the qausi-karaoke (mono) track the left channel of the original audio is subtracted from the right channel. The crudeness of that approach is reflected in the often poor performance of voice removal. Common effects are that you hear the echo of the voice track (due to stereo echo being put on the vocals), and also other instruments that happen to be mixed into the center get removed (snare/bass drum, solo instruments), degrading this approach to hardly more than a gimmick in those devices.

MIDI applications

Some computer programs that serve a similar purpose to the standard karaoke machine have been developed that use MIDI instrumentation to generate the accompaniment rather than a recorded track. This has the advantage of making transposition technically trivial and also shrinks the information needed to provide the accompaniment to the point where it is easy to transfer them across the Internet, even over slow connections, although this may violate copyrights. The standard file format used is *.KAR, which is an extension of the standard .MID MIDI disk format, and can be played unaltered by MIDI player software.

Video game

A karaoke game was already released for Famicon but its limited computing ability made for limited songs and fun. Until CD became a common media, karaoke games would be nothing more than a collector's item. Karaoke Revolution, created for the PlayStation 2 by Konami, is a console game in which a single player sings along with on-screen guidance, and receives a score based upon his or her pitch and rhythm, in game play similar to single-player Dance Dance Revolution.

Karaoke VCD

The takeoff of Video CDs in Southeast Asia is partly due to the cheap but tolerable quality, and partly due to the popularity of karaoke. Many VCD players in Southeast Asia have built-in Karaoke function. If users disable the singer's voice and leave the music alone, they can play karaoke. In the past, there were only pop-song karaoke VCDs. Nowadays, different types of karaoke VCD are available. Cantonese opera karaoke VCD is now a big hit among the elderly in Hong Kong.

Karaoke on Mobile Phones

In 2003, several companies started offering a karaoke service on a mobile phone. This is a still-budding service and it is unclear whether this service will take root even with all advances in technologies.

Alternative Playback Devices

The CD+G format of karaoke disc, which contains the lyrics on a specially encoded subcode track, has heretofore required special—and expensive—equipment to play it. Commercial players have come down in price, though, and some unexpected devices (including the Sega Saturn videogame console) can decode the graphics.

Public places for karaoke

A karaoke bar / karaoke restaurant / karaoke club is simply a bar/restaurant with karaoke equipment, so that people can sing publicly. This is the most common arrangement in the United States; some establishments offer karaoke on a weekly schedule, while a few have shows every night. Such establishments commonly invest more in both equipment and song discs, and are often extremely popular, with an hour or more wait between songs.

Outside the US, a Karaoke Box is the most popular place for karaoke. It offers a small room for several person and can be rented by an half hour increment often with one free glass of drink. It serves some quick food and some offers alcoholic drink. Its rooms have a door that could be locked but a large part of door is made of a transparent glass for safety reasons.

For those who wants a more intimate but less public atmosphere, some karaoke bars have karaoke rooms. A karaoke room is a small, private room equipped with karaoke equipment. In South Korea, it is believed the concept of karaoke rooms originated in Korea, where it is called noraebang, literally means "song (norae) room (bang)". Noraebang parlours is the Korean name for karaoke bars.

In some traditional Chinese restaurants, there are so-called "mahjong-karaoke rooms" where elderly can play mahjong and teenagers can enjoy karaoke. The result is less complaints about boredom but more noise.

Terms of Karaoke


A character from Doraemon, he is known for his highly questionable singing ability. Thus someone who loves karaoke but can only sing completely out of tune, is referred as a Gian.

Ohako (Number 18)

Some karaoke singers have one song which they are especially good at, and which they use to show off their singing abilities. It is called Ohako (十八番), meaning "number 18", which refers to the 18 most popular kabuki plays. It is also used to mean being good at any entertainment such as dancing or playing an instrument. "Number 18" is slang in Korean and mildly obscene because going to karaoke was one of the few occasion where a male and a female can get together in Korea. The term took hold in Korea during the Japanese colonial period when varieties of entertainments were introduced.

In Hong Kong, such a song is called 飲歌 (tea party song); the origin is unknown.

Karaoke in fiction

Karaoke appears in a variety of fictions in Asia often as a place young people gather for a fun. The smallness of a karaoke room makes for an intimate and simple setting.

Karaoke in film

Karaoke has been depicted in movies and television shows. One example is the 1996 movie The Cable Guy, a comedy film, and later the 1997 Korean movie No. 3 , a gangster comedy film, in which some of the characters are depicted drunk and singing off-key. A more recent example is Lost in Translation. Karaoke is central to the 2000 movie Duets , which was reasonably well researched, and presents the topic sympathetically.

External links

  • Singing as the "National Sport" of Korea
  • Karaoke Forever , a comprehensive guide to karaoke, including where to sing as well background information and community features..
  • Sound Choice

Last updated: 02-26-2005 04:53:46