How To Play Japanese Chord Progressions From Anime To J-pop!

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Japanese chord progressions vary depending on the genre, style, and historical period. Both traditional Japanese music and modern popular music have their own characteristic chord progressions. While some elements of traditional Japanese music continue to influence modern music, the incorporation of western musical styles has led to a broader range of harmonic possibilities in Japanese music today.

In this article we will discuss the elements of classical Japanese music, as well as the popular chord progressions of modern j-pop music. In addition to that, we will learn the Japanese scales that are characteristic of the country’s exotic sound. Keep reading to learn about Japanese chord progressions!

Japanese Chord Progressions

Traditional Japanese Progressions

The oldest traditional music of Japan was called Gagaku, meaning elegant music. It developed in the Heinan period (794-1185). 

The Gagaku genre was centered around modal harmony, as opposed to western tonal harmony. Modal music is a type of tonal music that makes use of modes, which are scales different from the basic major and minor keys, whereas tonal music is the name that describes all forms of music organized around a tonal center, also known as a root note. 

Traditional Japanese music used very minimal harmony to accompany the leading melodic line. Gagaku music is primarily characterized by its monophonic melodies, occasionally enriched by heterophonic textures, distinct from the homophonic and polyphonic textures commonly found in Western classical music. 

To put it plainly, Gagaku often used singular melodies without accompaniment, however occasionally a second instrument could be heard playing the same melody but lower or higher pitched. 

Primary instruments of the Gagaku genre included: voice, hichiriki (oboe), Fue (flute), koto (harp), Biwa (lute), and kakko, taiko, and shoko (percussion)

Later traditional Japanese genres included Nagauta, which showcased the shamisen as its primary instrument, and shakuhachi, a large bamboo flute used for meditations in the Edo period.

Japanese Scales

While you are probably accustomed to hearing the western major and minor scales, you may be pleased to find that traditional japanese scales sound and function entirely differently! Many Japanese scales are highly centered around the pentatonic scale. The first we will discuss is the Hirajoshi.

Hirajoshi Scale

The Hirajoshi scale is used in traditional Japanese compositions, and modern genres like J-Pop, video game music, and film scores. Composers use this scale to create melodies that resonate with traditional Japanese themes and emotions. 

The intervals of the Hirajoshi scale, expressed in Western musical notation, are as follows:

  1. Root (1)
  2. Flat Second (♭2)
  3. Flat Third (♭3)
  4. Fifth (5)
  5. Flat Sixth (♭6)

a Hirojoshi scale in the key of C would contain the following pitches: C, D♭, E♭, G, A♭.

In Scale

The In scale, also known as the “In-On-Kai” scale, is one of the traditional Japanese pentatonic scales. The term “In” translates to “yin” or “shadow” in Japanese, which reflects the scale’s melancholic and introspective nature. The large leaps from b3 to 5 creates a sense of introspection, making it suitable for conveying a contemplative mood.

The intervals of the In scale, expressed in Western musical notation, are as follows:

  1. Root (1)
  2. Major Second (2)
  3. Flat Third (♭3)
  4. Perfect Fifth (5)
  5. Major Sixth (6)

In terms of specific notes, a C In scale would contain the following pitches: C, D, E♭, G, A.

Yo Scale

The Yo scale is comparatively bright and major sounding than the In scale. The Yo scale features a major second interval, perfect fourth, and major sixth, giving it a bright and uplifting quality. The Yo scale evokes a feeling of joy and celebration. As such, it is commonly used in festive and ceremonial contexts.

The intervals of the Yo scale, expressed in Western musical notation, are as follows:

  1. Root (1)
  2. Major Second (2)
  3. Perfect Fourth (4)
  4. Perfect Fifth (5)
  5. Major Sixth (6)

a C Yo scale would contain the following pitches: C, D, F, G, A.

Modern Japanese Chord Progressions

In modern Japanese popular music, there is a significant influence from Western music, particularly Western pop and rock styles. This influence can be seen in the chord progressions used in J-Pop, J-Rock, and other contemporary genres. 

As with Western music, modern Japanese music often uses diatonic harmony based on major and minor scales. Additionally, modern Japanese music features a wide range of genres and styles, including pop, rock, hip-hop, EDM, and Jazz.

The Royal Road Progression

The Royal Road Progression evokes a sense of nostalgia and longing, making it a popular choice for ballads and emotional songs. The Royal Road chord progression is essentially a variation of the classic “vi-IV-I-V” progression, where the chords are built on the 6th, 4th, 1st, and 5th scale degrees of a major key. 

Here’s an example of the Royal Road chord progression in the key of C major:

vi – Am 

IV – F 

I – C 

V – G

One example of a Japanese song that uses the Royal Road chord progression is “Lemon” by Kenshi Yonezu. The chord progression in “Lemon” goes something like:

Verse: C – Em – F – G

Chorus: Am – Em – F – C – Am – Em – F – G

IV V vi I

The IV-V-vi-I progression is commonly used in various musical contexts, including anime and film including the “Death Note” theme.

The chord progression in the “Death Note” theme is as follows (in the key of A minor):

Verse: Dm – G – Am – C

Chorus: Dm – G – C – C – Dm – G – Am – C

I-V-vi-IV

The I-V-vi-IV progression is known for its versatile and pleasant sound, and it creates a sense of familiarity and comfort for listeners. It has been used in countless hit songs worldwide, making it a popular choice for songwriters and producers in the Japanese pop music landscape as well.

One example of a J-Pop song that uses the I-V-vi-IV chord progression is “Hanamizuki”

The chord progression in “Hanamizuki” can be simplified as follows (in the key of C major):

Verse: C – G – Am – F

Chorus: C – G – Am – F – C – G – Am – F

IV V vi iii IV V vi

The IV V vi iii IV V vi progression is common in Japanese pop music, this progression is often used to create a sense of emotional depth and nostalgia.

“First Love” by Utada Hikaru is a famous Japanese song that follows the IV-V-vi-iii-IV-V-vi chord progression. 

In the key of E-flat major, the chord progression is as follows:

IV – A-flat major 

V – B-flat major 

vi – C minor 

iii – G minor 

IV – A-flat major 

V – B-flat major 

vi – C minor

VI V i vii III

夜に駆ける Racing into the Night by YOASOBI uses this simple yet fun progression. In Am, the chords are:

VI: F Major

V: E Major

i: A minor

vii: G minor

III: C Major

i vi III VII

The song “Labyrinth” by Mondo Grosso, sung by Hikari Mitsushima, has a relatively straightforward progression that remains emotionally captivating. The song’s harmony revolves around a simple four-chord loop, creating a repeating and immersive musical experience.

In the key of D minor, the chord progression for “Labyrinth” is as follows:

i – D minor VI – Bb major III – F major VII – C major

Tips For Writing J-Pop Music

  1. Understand Japanese scales
  2. Incorporate Japanese instruments
  3. Study the patterns of Japanese Progressions
  4. Learn Japanese

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the chords in traditional Japanese music?

Traditional Japanese music is not entirely based on traditional Western harmony. It relies on various other musical elements, such as scales, modes, ornamentation, and timbre, to create its special sound. 

What mode is Japanese music in?

The Japanese modes are based off of any of the traditional Japanese scales. In modern times, popular Japanese music is written in major or minor.

Related: Minor Chord Progressions

Is Japanese music homophonic?

Traditionally Japanese music was monophonic. Meaning the main melody line was played with no accompaniment. On the other hand, some traditional Japanese ensembles, like koto, may have a heterophonic texture where multiple performers play variations of the same melody simultaneously. 

In modern Japanese music, such as J-pop and rock, the texture is typically more varied. While some songs may have homophonic textures, where a melody is accompanied by chords or harmonies, others may incorporate more complex textures like polyphony, where multiple independent melodies occur simultaneously.

Related: Lo-Fi Chord Progressions

What is a typical J-Pop chord progression?

One popular and straightforward chord progression is the I-V-vi-IV progression in a major key.

In the key of C major, the I-V-vi-IV chord progression is as follows:

I – C major V – G major vi – A minor IV – F major

Conclusion

Japanese music features a diverse array of chord progressions, each with its unique characteristics and cultural influences. Traditional Japanese music, such as Gagaku and traditional scales like Hirajoshi and Yo, showcase the country’s distinct musical heritage. In modern Japanese popular music, chord progressions like the Royal Road, I-V-vi-IV, IV-V-vi-III-IV-V-vi, and others are commonly used in J-Pop and various contemporary genres. By embracing both traditional and modern elements, Japanese music continues to inspire fans from all over the world. Thank you for reading!

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