Kafka listens to Radiohead: the music in Haruki Murakami’s books

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Haruki Murakami’s favorite word is music. In Kafka on the Shore it’s mentioned 91 times, and the same happens in many of his other famous books.

In literature, normally words are what really matters, but in his books the music plays a crucial role, creating real soundtracks that follow the plot from the beginning to the end, growing together with the story. In fact, it is no coincidence that there is also a dedicated website where you can find all the musical quotes that appear in Murakami’s books.

Sometimes the music he chooses actually clashes with what is told in the story, generating the oxymoron trick, like what happens when the characters enter a laundry or a coffee and the soundtrack remind them memories, thoughts, nostalgia, emotions. It’s what happens to us too. The music is invasive. Like the smell: it’s impossible to control, we are forced to give her part of ourselves.

If we exclude every musical reference from his books, the stories would be incomplete, the characters mutilated and the visions of Murakami would appear like unfinished drafts. So today we want to propose a small journey through its books, in which it’s not necessary to browse pages, but only to raise the volume. To celebrate one of the most appreciated writers of our times.

Leoš Janáček in 1Q84

Leoš Janáček - Sinfonietta (1926)

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta -probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music.

In 1Q84, Janáček’s Sinfonietta resonates in the taxi and in the mind of the protagonist for a hundred pages of the book. It accompanies us like an obsession, while we are in the traffic jam in Tokyo, among the sunset and the erotic memories, underlining the empty space between one word and the other. The protagonist did not miss a note. It is a continuous game of opposites: the urban situation, the memories of the character and the harmony of music.

Gioacchino Rossini in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Rossini - La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie): Overture [HQ]

“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.”

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, before Toru’s life starts to progressively crumble, before his wife disappearing and the succession of absurd characters developing along the plot, the protagonist is depicted in a simple situation of domestic life. Rossini’s Thieving Magpie marks the moment when the events of Toru’s life begin to change direction.

Radiohead in Kafka on the Shore

Radiohead "How To Disappear Completely" Original Music Video by David Herrera

“The world is a huge space, but the space that will take you in – and it doesn’t have to be very big – is nowhere to be found. You seek a voice, but what do you get? Silence. You look for silence, but guess what? All you hear over and over and over is the voice of this omen. And sometimes this prophetic voice pushes a secret switch hidden deep inside your brain.

Since I ran away I’ve been listening to the same music over and over – Radiohead’s Kid A, Prince’s Greatest Hits, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things.”

In Kafka on the Shore, the teenager Kafka escapes from home, after the father prophesies him a tragic destiny: one day you will kill your father with your own hands, and you will sleep with your mother. So Kafka’s attempt to escape his Oedipal destiny: he leaves everything behind, takes with him the bare minimum and started to rely only on his walkman. Radiohead are part of the soundtrack that accompanies his wandering.

Franz Liszt in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

“The Yamaha grand piano in the living room of her house. Reflecting Shiro’s conscientiousness, it was always perfectly tuned. The lustrous exterior without a single smudge or fingerprint to mar its luster. The afternoon light filtering in through the window. Shadows cast in the garden by the cypress trees. The lace curtain wavering in the breeze. Teacups on the table. Her black hair, neatly tied back, her expression intent as she gazed at the score. Her ten long, lovely fingers on the keyboard. Her legs, as they precisely depressed the pedals, possessed a hidden strength that seemed unimaginable in other situations. Her calves were like glazed porcelain, white and smooth. Whenever she was asked to play something, this piece was the one she most often chose. Le Mal du Pays. The groundless sadness called forth in a person heart’s by a pastoral landscape. Homesickness. Melancholy.

Tazaki Tsukuru and his friends are inseparable from adolescence, and so remain until the second year of university, when Tsukuru is ousted by the group. Suddenly, with no explanation. From that day he won’t see them anymore, and Tsukuru will find himself alone in his own pain, in his memoirs, in the missing answers. Remembering the days spent listening to his friend Shiro, playing Liszt’s Le Mal du Pays, predicting the sadness that would have wrapped him soon.

Pet Shop Boys in After Dark

“Mari is washing her hands in the Skylark restroom. She is no longer wearing her hat—or her glasses. From a ceiling speaker at low volume an old hit song by the Pet Shop Boys is playing: Jealousy.

After Dark is perhaps the most cinematic of all his books. The whole story takes place between 23:56 and 6:52 in a winter night in Tokyo, where various characters cross each other’s steps, in their own solitude. What will remain after the night, will be something different. Pet Shop Boys’s hit marks a moment of waiting, of observation, in the night of Mari.


  1. This is simply amazing! I’ve read few of Murakamis books and am currently reading Kafka on the shore. And I was thinking to myself how amazing it would be if there was more articles and webpages which deal with music references from his books. Thank you a lot! 🙂

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