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Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is an important song in Evangelion.

The song is also important to the Read Or Die OVA.

And in the 13th episode of Gunslinger Girl, the girls start watching a meteor shower and want to listen to this particular as background music.

Why is this particular song so prevalent in anime? It may be a well-known piece, but there are lots of other well-known pieces of classical music.

According to Wikipedia, the song is played during Japanese New Year's celebrations. That would explain something, but in none of the above examples was there a New Year's celebration.

So, why does anime feature this particular song more heavily than other classical pieces?

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    I don't really think there's anything more to this than the Ode to Joy just being really famous. – senshin Sep 19 '13 at 6:15
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The Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th symphony is one of the most well-known classical pieces of music throughout the world (most lists put it in the top 10). But Beethoven's 9th symphony is especially well-known in Japan, where I suspect it would top the list or come close. It's a long-standing tradition to hold performances of this symphony, especially the finale (which includes the Ode to Joy), during New Year's celebrations. This tradition dates back to the 1920s, and became especially prominent in the WWII and post-WWII eras. Because of this, the piece is known universally in Japan.

The piece is also somewhat programmatic, in that it has a clear meaning which doesn't require interpretation (unlike most of Beethoven's works which were purely instrumental). Since the use of classical music in anime is usually to invoke symbollism, it's more natural to choose programmatic pieces like this.

If you consider all classical pieces which are well-known and have known symbolic meaning, there really aren't that many. The Ode to Joy is a pretty natural choice among them, and it's used a lot because it fits both of these criteria well. I don't think there's a lot more to it than that, and the amount that the Ode to Joy is played in anime isn't so much that it needs further explanation beyond that.

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With "Read Or Die", it was part of the plot, since they cloned Beethoven himself. With most of the other instances, it's selected background music, and I'm not sure I'd say it's even that prevalent. Schubert's Ave Maria is used in a lot of shows. Same with Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No.1, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata or Pathetique, Pachelbel's Canon in D, Ravel's Bolero, or what about Handel's Messiah?

Aside from the obvious thematic reasons you'd want to pick a classical piece, especially in shows that are set in a classical setting or at a music school (Nodame Cantabile, La Corda, etc), sometimes the animation/scene/sequence is storyboarded/tailored for a particular piece of music. In Evangelion, you had that super long pause during Ode to Joy. In Legends of the Galactic Heroes "My Conquest of the Sea of Stars", there's is a beyond epic 15+ minute long space battle that is intricately choreographed to the entirety of Ravel's Bolero.

Oddly, while it's said that Vivaldi's Four Seasons is the most played classical piece ever, I don't think it's used in anime all that much.

There's a thread on ANN that lists some of the more common classical pieces that get used in anime.

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