A Closer Look at Asia’s Favorite Chord Progression

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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:

1-3-6

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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

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“Happy Rainy Day” from the K-On!! OST Vol. 1

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“Bran-New Lovesong” by the Pillows

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“Staple Stable” by Chiwa Saito, Bakemonogatari OP

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“Q&A Recital!” by Haruka Tomatsu, Tonari no Kaibutsu OP

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“Darker than Black (Can You Fly?)” by Yasushii Ishii, Darker than Black OVA ED

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“Religion” by Ringo Sheena

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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:


1-3-6 with roles 2

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.

1-3-6 with minor roles

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.

1-3-6 with arrows

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!”)

About the author

Aftershok A huge jazz nerd and unabashed fan of alternative rock, I joined Anime Instrumentality in December 2010. I tend to get very passionate when it comes to music and try my best to understand how it works. An enormous fan of The Pillows, among my favorite anime composers include Ko Otani and Yoko Kanno. My tastes in anime vary wildly, but I try to be as thoughtful about my viewing as I am about my listening. I play the saxophone.

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27 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. LeetStreet Boys says:

    Haha, I totally abuse this! :D Great article.

  2. The pattern like F G E Am is done all the time too.

  3. wazoox says:

    Theme from “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” seems to follow this progression too.

  4. Chris says:

    “Can you hear the progression in the above examples?”
    I can not.

    • Aftershok says:

      Haha, it’s certainly possible that it’s more difficult for some people to hear the progression, especially when context and key vary so drastically. If you can, try to play the chords along on a piano with the tracks. That should help a lot in hearing how the harmony moves. Try using the notes I transcribed above in G and play along with the Pillows track; it should be in the same key. If you feel like expanding your endeavors, try a E-G#-C#m progression on the Sheena track, with Eb-G-Cm on the School Food Punishment track. Once you get the feel of how the leading tones sound, the progression should stick out to you like a sore thumb whenever you hear it in music.

  5. anonymouse says:

    what a beautiful article! i have shared your sentiments about music for the entirety of my life, but definitely not your competence. please check out Shiina Ringo. i really dislike her pop rock tunes, but in some of her albums, she goes wild. she has some lovely dissonant melodies reminiscent of the blue notes of bossa nova

    -andrew, amateur jazz & bossa nova guitarist

    • Aftershok says:

      Many thanks! It’s funny you should mention Ringo Sheena, because I am actually a huge fan of hers. I own all of her solo albums (even Watashi to Hoden), and am getting close to owning much of her Tokyo Jihen works. My favorite album of hers, by far, is Kalk Zamen Kuri no Hana. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  6. Kaikyaku says:

    Excellent post. I can’t say I ever noticed it myself, but I could hear it in most of the examples. Brings back some memories of music theory class for sure.

    • Aftershok says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m thrilled to hear that my examples aided in your enjoyment and understanding of the material. I can’t say I’ve ever taken a formal music theory class myself, but hopefully the memories that you were reminded of were good ones!

  7. Kaikyaku says:

    I think the Pillows example is the clearest. Listen to the sample again, then the song right afterwards and see if you can hear it. :)

    • Aftershok says:

      Excellent advice for those folks who have a hard time hearing the chords. It also helps that the Pillows tune’s key matches that of the audio example I gave at the post’s outset. Good ear!

  8. S says:

    It’s always fun to read technical music analyses like this – I’m not much of a musician, with the exception of high school band, but I like seeing the mechanics behind it.

    Also, it was a nice surprise to see a Shiina Ringo song there, she’s one of my favorite artists :)

    • Aftershok says:

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I have to walk a fine line between being informative and being comprehensible when writing these sorts of articles. Ringo is one of my favorite artists as well (notice how her track is edited much longer than everyone else’s), and I wanted to make sure one of her tracks made it to this post.

  9. frx says:

    I’ve never paid a lot of attention to the musical theory behind what I listen to, but thanks for the great read!

    Do you think the composers do that kind of things on purpose when writing songs? I’d guess the answer is yes, but it may also just be a common melody floating around they would use unconsciously.

    Besides that, do you have any examples of that chord progression happening in Western music, even though it’s pretty rare? I’d be interested to check out the differences!

    • Aftershok says:

      I’m glad you liked the article. As for whether or not they do it “consciously,” it’s a subtle answer. Chords and their progressions aren’t something that are expected to be created from scratch every time for every song by musicians. Especially for a mass-appeal sector like pop music, there is usually a set toolkit of well-worn harmonic tropes that artists use to construct songs. Nothing is stopping them from coming up with new(ish) ideas, but there is just simply no need to manufacture new progressions when existing devices can facilitate their melodies just fine, especially when listeners are so used to hearing certain sonic landscapes.

      I admit my experience with “Western” music has been relatively limited outside of jazz and some rock, but a few, rough examples come to mind. Radiohead’s “Creep” has a very similar progression in its chorus, but it goes I-III-IV instead of I-II-vi. Keep in mind, though, IV and vi are similar chords, different by just one note; in fact, if you were to voice a IV chord with its seventh, it would sound just like a vi chord with a sixth in its voicing, so the intended harmonic idea is roughly equivalent, especially in “Creep,” where the melody note is IV’s seventh tone.

      Another example exists in Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford.” The song’s A section (transposed to my native Eb) is Cmaj7-E7-Fmaj7, the same progression as “Creep,” but with seventh voicings. Take a listen to these examples and see if you can hear the chords. It’s a little different, but the overall effect should be similar.

    • Aftershok says:

      You know what, here are links to YouTube videos of the songs I mentioned above set to play at the exact time when the progression is occurring.

      “Creep”
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=XFkzRNyygfk#t=61s

      “I Remember Clifford”
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=kuGO8IY50b4#t=26s

      • frx says:

        Thanks for the links! I can definitely hear the chords in the background. And, if I remember correctly, sevenths are often used in voicings, right? I’d have to give that a little try on the piano, since I always have some trouble distinguishing chords when two instruments/voices play at the same time with very different sounds. I can focus on either of them easily, but not together.

        Oh, well, at least that’s something to keep me thinking on my daily commute with my earphones on ;)

  10. Issadore says:

    Great article! This is called a secondary dominant in jazz theory and can be heard all over the place in jazz. It can be described as V/vi as in the V chord of vi as you explained. It doesn’t necessarily mean the song is moving into its relative minor key. It can be a cool way to move to any of the diatonic chords in a key. So you could play V/ii, V/iii, V/vi for minor chords and V/IV, V/V for majors. Sorry, I’m a big nerd!

  11. Rasmus Faber says:

    Hehe, awesome article! One thing we pick up on a lot when we do the Platina Jazz albums is the 4th dropping to the major 3rd in a dominant V-chord. Eternal Blaze OP intro is a good example. Another good candidate for most common Japanese chord maybe? :)
    On a side note, while your above described chord progression have almost disappeared from modern western music today, it was a lot more common in the good old days (however you define those), in fact, when I’m asked to describe the tonality of anime music (often in the context of how we rearrange to jazz) I find myself often reaching for the made-up term “Evergreen-chords”. Funnily enough, you can also find a LOT of the same tonalities in the more cheesy section of Italian love ballads. Don’t ask me why.. Love the blog! Best, /Rasmus Faber

    • Rasmus Faber says:
    • Aftershok says:

      Thanks for your kind words! It makes me happy that a musician of your caliber enjoyed my humble little post about theory. I actually have another one cooking about an uncommon meter, but that’s a discussion for another time.

      Hmm, by “4th dropping to the major 3rd,” are you referring to the way the fourth resolves to the third in a sus-I progression? I enjoyed the track you linked, but am unsure of what to look for. Just wanted to make sure I’m interpreting you correctly. But as far as I-III-vi is concerned, I didn’t know it was as rare as to say it’s “almost disappeared.” I know it’s still fairly prevalent in jazz, but that is certainly interesting to hear. I’m not exactly an aficionado on Italian ballads, so I’ll have to take your word for it!

    • @ Rasmus Faber: funny that you mention “evergreen” progressions that are common in cheesier songs. I did some thinking wondering why I prefer J-pop to American pop or western pop in general, as a musician (considering I generally ignore the lyrics, and don’t speak Japanese anyway), and it seems to me that — especially for those songs I like — J-pop songs tend to have far more “authentic-type” cadences/progressions, i.e. V to I and similar (such as (b)VII to i), while A-pop generally avoids this in favor of going from IV or II or VI to I, which makes me feel the music is stagnating and not going anywhere. The extremely-common “pop-punk” progression, I V vi IV, is a perfect example of the latter; I feel that it just stalls. Contrast this to my favorite progression, (in minor) i (b)VI (b)VII III (I call this the Humoresque Progression, after a piece by Dvorak) which feels like it has a very definite direction and emotional dynamic to it.

      I suspect that what you mean by “evergreen” chords has something to do with this. These authentic-based progressions definitely feel “stronger” when it comes to harmony-driven motion, and I’m pretty sure they’re also more frequent in sappy songs and the like, hence the feeling of cheesiness. But I guess I’m a fan of the cheesiness.

      For what it’s worth, the highly frequent (in J-pop) IV V iii vi progression seems to function as an elaborated deceptive progression (V to vi), and falls right into my earlier point about J-pop and authentic-type progressions. And it’s so everywhere that I thought this article (with the title “Asia’s favorite chord progression”) would be about it! On the other hand, it appears rarely in western pop, so much so that when it showed up in KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See”, it was very noticeable to me and actually helped me isolate it.

      PS: I love your song “TRY UNITE”. It is a brilliant sequence of rich harmonies whose logic I have not figured out yet (probably because I’m not jazz-trained, but classical-trained in theory) but that just makes it so much more wonderful.

  12. Haha, I was expecting a rant on the IV-V-iii-vi progression! Fantastic article, I quite like these chord changes, and the explanation of leading tones within the chords was very insightful. ^^

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