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I'm a beginner but I've been learning music theory and practicing on a MIDI keyboard and FL Studio DAW. Just as I was learning basic chords and chord progressions in western music I was introduced to the Japanese In Sen scale, one of several pentatonic scales common in Japanese music. I quite enjoy it and writing little compositions in it, and as I've been listening to koto music I often hear them accompanying the main melody line with chords.

I want to learn about how to construct pleasant-sounding chords for such a scale with its wide intervals. In the western scales the chords and progressions that I've been learning are all diatonic for whatever scale I'm using. Should all the notes in the chords I use with the InSen scale come from that scale? Are there suggested formulas or sets of intervals that I can apply to creating chords in the InSen or other similar scales? Is there any concept of "leading chords" that applies to this kind of music?

NOTE: I may have the "In" and "In Sen" scales confused - in different texts I see the terms used a little differently, but the gist of the question remains - how to construct chords in pentatonic scales with wide/irregular intervals.

  • Can you give examples of such music? The Wikipedia page for the Insen scale suggests that people use other "compatible" chords that may have notes outside the Insen scale, but so that the chords don't clash with the scale notes, which are used for "soloing". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insen_scale – piiperi Reinstate Monica Sep 12 at 8:42
  • Can you give examples of such music? A well known traditional piece of music that's often played in the InSen scale is "Sakura" – user316117 Sep 12 at 13:28
  • I meant, an example of a recording of a full arrangement, with backing chords and everything. The Wikipedia page suggests that some people do it by using chords and notes from outside the pentatonic scale, but so that the chords are compatible with the pentatonic scale. Example chords are given on the Wikipedia page. By the way, I think Sakura uses the Hirajoshi scale, not Insen. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Sep 12 at 14:51
  • Btw, Sakura starts (4/4) a a b__ |a a b__ |a b c b |a ba f__ |e c e f |e ec b__ | (that last note's a seventh below the first note) So it's a Phrygian pentatonic of some kind. – Old Brixtonian Sep 12 at 15:07
  • @OldBrixtonian - And Sakura with a starting note of A ends with "Mi ni yu kan" playing back as D E F A | BA F E__ |. Thus piiperi's statement that it uses Hirajoshi. – Dekkadeci Sep 12 at 18:33
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Here's my beginner answer, based on only common sense, not knowledge of Japanese music, except what I could quickly find on English web pages.

How to make chords from a scale - by combining notes from the scale. And I'll assume one of the notes is a bass note, so for "chord progression" purposes we'll differentiate between chords containing the same notes depending on what the lowest note is.

As far as I can tell, applying ad-hoc combinatorics, here are all 3-note chords in the Hira-choshi or Hirajoshi pentatonic scale (meaning "regular tuning" according to this web page), 1:D, 2:Eb, 3:G, 4:A, 5:Bb.

3-note chords from Hira-choshi scale

Here are 4-note chords:

4-note chords from Hira-choshi scale

And finally, 5-note chords:

5-note chords from Hira-choshi scale

So, how to select which chord to use? My Western musical common sense tells me to look at them as chords in a Gm key context. Chords with D in the bass work as some kind of D or /D chords. Chords with A in the bass work like stuff in Gm works when it has A in the bass. Etc. For example:

  • 1-3-5 is Gm/D in Western chord naming
  • 3-5-1 is Gm
  • 2-3-4 is Eb-5
  • 2-3-5-1 is Ebmaj7
  • 2-3-4-1 is Ebmaj7-5
  • 3-4-5-1 is Gm add2
  • 1-3-4-5 is Gm add2 /D
  • 1-2-3-4 is something like Dsus4 add b2. Works like a Dsus4 but with an oriental twist.
  • 4-1-2-3 is a bit like Cm6add2/A, but with the C omitted.

So, combine notes from the scale and use the chords like you would use them in songs in the key of Gm.

Which of them sound nice? Pretty much all of them, IMO. Something like 3-4-5 i.e. G-A-Bb in tight voicing feels a bit pointless, but if you spread out the voicing to different octaves, it's an awesome chord. Does it sound Japanese? Beats me - you should ask someone who knows Japanese traditional music.

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Traditional Japanese music has no chords. It is monophonic (or more accurately heterophonic - several instruments may play the same line simultaneously but with different ornamentation).

Putting chords to traditional Japanese music would be a modern 'Western' addition. Of course you can do that, but you're not going to find guidance on it from any traditional Japanese music theory; you'll have to find the guidance from Western music theory.

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  • OP gave this link youtube.com/watch?v=h_ng-KcfI-s It indeed does have chords, and pretty ones too. There's a clear bassline that's not a constant single-note drone, and combined with the rest of the notes it can easily be seen as a chord progression. If you can link to a source that explains how that song isn't proper traditional Japanese music, it would be interesting. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 14 at 19:58
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If you are expecting to build chords in thirds on each scale degree, it will not work as it does for a major scale, because pentatonic scales use steps larger than whole and half steps.

That isn't necessarily a problem. You just need to re-orient (no pun intended) your thinking about harmony away from stuff like I V vi IV.

One approach is to use drone notes. You can hold primary tones like the first, fourth, or fifth scale degrees in the bass. Those basses could be harmonized with octaves or fifths. Most of the accompaniment could be a tonic drone with auxiliary shifts away to fit the melody. For the In scale on E you could try an octave on E with auxiliaries of A with a perfect fifth E above or F with perfect fith C above.

Another approach is closer to diatonic harmony. Use major/minor triads where available, incomplete triads to get around "missing" scale tones, or simply use chords that "fill in" the missing tones. Consider the In scale on E. There is no G in the scale so you could omit the third on a tonic chord. Chords Am and F can harmonize all tones of the scale except B. If you "fill in" the scale with D and G just for the accompaniment (sort of makes a phrygian scale) you could then use chords like Dm (a bVII chord which is popular for accompanying folk tunes.) Below is an example of Sakura that takes this approach...

enter image description here

Look at https://imslp.org/wiki/Cherry_Blossom_(Takaori%2C_Sh%C5%ABichi) for another example of accompaniment for Sakura.

Another approach is a bit more "modern." It's sort of like the drone note idea and could also incorporate a bit of "filling in" the scale like the second approach. Instead of using triads use chords built of fourths or fifths like B E A or A E B. Those two qu(ar/in)tal chords can accompany the beginning of the first line of Sakura and then the ending of that line could be Dm to F/C.

You can experiment with other idea of course (no reason to avoid tone clusters or other experimental things.) But, keeping the accompaniment mostly tonic with brief auxiliary moves away is a safe approach. Especially if music has a folk tune feel like Sakura.

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