Have you noticed throughout your years of music listening that Western pop and Asian pop, in broad generality, “feel” very different from each other? If you thought that there might be a certain harmonic disparity between the two, you’d be right. There is a specific harmonic unit that appears incredibly abundantly in the latter but rather rarely in the former, and it boils down to just three chords.
Here it is, the single most distinctive and frequent sound signature of East-Asian pop music, transcribed in the key of G:
Sound familiar? It should, because it’s everywhere. Here are just a handful of examples from Japan I recall off the top of my head:
“Y/N” by School Food Punishment
“Happy Rainy Day” from the K-On!! OST Vol. 1
“Bran-New Lovesong” by the Pillows
“Staple Stable” by Chiwa Saito, Bakemonogatari OP
“Q&A Recital!” by Haruka Tomatsu, Tonari no Kaibutsu OP
“Darker than Black (Can You Fly?)” by Yasushii Ishii, Darker than Black OVA ED
“Religion” by Ringo Sheena
Can you hear the progression in the above examples? Keys change and the implementation varies, but the basic harmonic idea is the same throughout. Let’s take a look at why it sounds the way it does, which may give us an insight to why it’s so popular. First, observe the way the harmony moves within the key of G:
We see that the harmony moves from the tonal I to a seemingly irregular III (a shift by an uncommon major third from the tonal), which resolves ominously to vi, the relative minor of I. An immediate musical explanation for the progression’s sonority may not be readily obvious, but, in short, the chords are a smooth, rapid method of quickly changing a progression’s harmony to its relative minor.
The distinction arises when you view the B chord not as G’s III chord but as E minor’s major dominant chord (V). The III chord is not actually a momentary change in key, but actually a shift into the original key’s relative minor. E minor would usually have a dominant of v (in this case B minor), but composers often change a minor’s dominant to its major equivalent (here, B) to instill a more powerful sense of resolution.
But why this progression in particular? What’s so special about it? As I touched on above, these chords in conjunction sound incredibly smooth. What do I mean by “smooth?” The answer lies in the leading tones.
Leading tones are the notes within a chord that transition a semitone (half step) to the next chord. In the case of I-III-vi, there are two notes that move by a semitone between every chord. Note how the D shifts up to D#, which smoothly rises to E. In the same way, the G drops to F# which slides sonorously back up to G. The purpose of a chord progression (I should say “of most chord progressions”) is to introduce tension while leading to a resolution. Half-step leading tones have a tendency to want to “pull” toward resolution to the human ear. That’s why this progression is so “comfortable” and fun to listen to; it behaves predictably while being harmonically interesting.
Also observe how the B in each grouping remains consistent, but changes its role each time; it goes from being the third to serving as the root to sounding as the fifth. It acts as a tonal anchor of sorts, never allowing the “interesting” harmony to appear too foreign.
Further, the progression avoids inducing the ambiguities in tonality that result when chords move in direct semitonal parallels. For instance, the progression G-G#-A has three notes per chord that function rather like leading tones between each chord, but because the chords transition strictly in a parallel manner, much of the effect is lost without significant support from melodic and rhythmic context.
So, the simple answer as to why the progression is so popular is that it’s a convenient songwriting device that pleases the ear. It has the effect of sounding exciting, grandiose, and dramatic while serving as a reliable trope to accomplish a specific compositional task. It also offers more harmonic possibilities than simply going from I directly to vi. Next time you listen to music, keep an ear out for these chords, especially if the track you’re enjoying hails from the orient.
Got a question? Can you can name another track that uses these changes? Let me know in the comments.
(If you enjoyed this article, you may also like my analysis of Masato Honda’s alto saxophone solo in Cowboy Bebop‘s “Tank!”)