# Help me understand the chord progression in Tatsuro Yamashita's 'Sparkle'

I'm trying to understand/analyze 'Sparkle' (1982) by Tatsuro Yamashita. Funky stuff begins at 0:50.

The song is in Emaj (I think), and here's the chord progression I'm looking at (take it easy with my enharmonic spelling):

```|  AMaj7    |  AMaj7    |  g#m7(#5)  |  g#m7(#5)  |
|  AMaj7    |  AMaj7    |  g#m7(#5)  |  g#m7(#5)  |
|  a#m7(#5)  |  am6      |  E/G#     |  amM7     |
|  am6      |  a#m7(b5)  |  F#9      |  B6/9sus4  |
```

Now, I can understand some of the stuff that is happening, like the first 8 bars is just 'IV' going to a stylish inversion of the 'I'. Since g#m7(#5) is practically the same thing as E(add9)/G#, if I'm not mistaken.
Then we see the first thing I couldn't understand, this a#m7(#5) going to the borrowed minor 'iv' [am6].

1. What is this a#m7(#5) chord? What's the relationship with the chords being played before and after? Even if I see this chord being an inversion of the F#maj chord, I can't really see where this chord comes from... and goes to.

Right after this am6 chord, we go back to the 1st inversion of 'I' [E/G#], and get hit with 'iv#7' [amM7].

1. I believe the 'I' [E/G#] acts like a dominant for the next chord that is 'iv#7' [amM7], but where does this chord come from?

And then, we go back to the borrowed minor 'iv' [am6], and another movement I don't understand comes here: from the am6 we go to a#m7(b5), which I believe is just an F#9 without the F# in the bass, because right next to it we have a complete F#9, being a secondary dominant to the last chord B6/9sus4.

1. Now, I said "I don't understand", because I was wondering... Does every chord need preparation? Like, can we throw a secondary dominant anywhere (just like this song, iv > V/V > V > IV > I), or am I missing something?
• For what it's worth, I feel like m7#5 chord symbols are more often than not a sign that something's wrong with the sheet music! Here it's not incorrect, but it might be better described with an inversion for a different root - I'll try an answer, this is hard to explain in comments. Commented May 12, 2021 at 8:58

1. What is this a#m7(#5) chord? What's the relationship with the chords being played before and after? Even if I see this chord being an inversion of the F#maj chord, I can't really see where this chord comes from... and goes to.

Seems like you've got a solid grip on the first few bars of the section, so I'll skip over that. And yes, I'd say E major is the best choice of key by far here. That's a good start! So what is A#m7#5 doing in E major? Well, first of all, I would point out that it is rare for a minor chord to be played with its fifth raised, since that modification ends up making the chord enharmonic to an inversion of a major triad, and so if that sonority arises, I think the most likely scenario is that the chord is an inversion of a major chord. In other words, I would steer clear of m#5 as a label unless it's really the only sensible chord symbol.

So let's ignore the symbols and just try to put a finger on what this chord is even doing here. For starters, one of the most obvious things to notice is the A# in the bass, which isn't in the key of E at all. What's that doing there? Well, it's not part of any chord in E, but it does look and sound a lot like it wants to go towards the note B (yes, that means A# is the correct spelling rather than Bb).

It doesn't go there, but let's pretend that it does for a second. Typically, this A# in the bass is either the third of an F# chord (V/V, a secondary dominant) or the root of a diminished chord (viidim/V). These chords are predominant chords that set up a move to the dominant, and they move the bass up by half-step to get to the dominant note. This is even supported by the melody, which runs up to an F# as though landing on the supertonic chord. So that's one way this chord could be rationalized in the key of E - it's some kind of secondary chord pointing to the dominant.

However, clearly here we don't end up on the dominant at all; instead we arrive at Am6 (actually, upon close listening there's no E note in the chord, only an Eb/D#, so it's really a diminished seventh chord instead, but that doesn't end up changing its function in this case). In this case, you could look at the A# chord as a substitution for the IV chord, Amaj7. In fact, the only difference between A# half-diminished 7 and A major 7 is the note A being sharped. If you replace the A# chord with an A major chord, the progression makes sense as a minor plagal cadence that ends up going to the inverted I chord.

This is a common chord substitution in jazz harmonies, and that kind of city pop uses those kinds of progressions often (footnote 1). Or alternatively, this is also similar to the IV V iii vi progression that a lot of Japanese popular music uses, just change the IV and the V is replaced by any chord that has the same function of going to iii (in this case, iii is also replaced by I in first inversion). However you slice it, the idea is that the A# chord is really a substitution for the normal IV chord. This is the same kind of chord progression that "Christmastime is Here" by Vince Guaraldi uses, if you're looking for another example in context. So this is still a predominant chord, it's just in the context of a minor plagal cadence instead of a normal authentic cadence.

(footnote 2)

So now we have a good idea of what this chord is doing harmonically in the chord sequence. I'd say now that it's best written as either A# half-diminished 7th add flat 13th (which makes the function a bit more obvious but is a bit clunky - just stick to A# half-dim 7 for clarity), or as F#9/A# (much cleaner, but is it really an F# chord?).

1. I believe the 'I' [E/G#] acts like a dominant for the next chord that is 'iv#7' [amM7], but where does this chord come from?

Well, if we're considering the above chords, it made the most sense for E to be the I chord, so perhaps instead it's better to recognize that A is the IV of E. At least that way, we have another common minor plagal sound which would fit right into the music so far. The only issue I have with that is that it's a weird place to put Am(maj7), it doesn't feel very resolved going to the next chord. It doesn't continue the descending bassline that the previous three chords established, either.

I had to go and listen to the song from the beginning to get a better picture of what the structure of the song was, and I realized that the A# chord starts a new prechorus section. That immediately tells me that this Am(maj7) chord is in the middle of a section, so it makes more sense in context to play such a restless chord there to keep momentum. By the way, I don't think this song EVER lands on the tonic chord in root position, and that would make a jarring iv(maj7) chord all the more appropriate to avoid any strong cadential resolutions.

So my theory on the Am(maj7) chord is that it's simply an interesting chord to get away from the I in a semi-logical way while also not committing hard to a resolution. Notice that it is followed up by a C#m7 chord in third inversion (the Am6 in the question's chord chart is completely incorrect on that one) which immediately begins another chromatic walkdown - that's technically a tonic function chord like E6 would be, but this song really doesn't want the audience to get comfortable on the I chord. For another example, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys does some similar things with inversions and avoiding the I to avoid strong harmonic resolutions.

[...] another movement I don't understand comes here: from the am6 we go to a#m7(b5), which I believe is just an F#9 without the F# in the bass, because right next to it we have a complete F#9, being a secondary dominant to the last chord B6/9sus4.

The chord chart in question is incorrect again; after that A# chord is an F#m9 chord instead, just part of a regular ii V progression. So this makes a bit more sense; now the descending bassline idea that started with the C#m7/B is aimed squarely at the note A. True to form, the song jumps down to F#m instead, but that's a simple substitution for the subdominant chord that the audience expects. This progression wouldn't work as nicely if it were a secondary dominant there, in my opinion, since that A# half diminished chord needs to go somewhere and F#7 is just too similar to feel like motion.

B6/9(sus4) is the big honkin' V chord, obviously, and note that it retreats back down onto the IV every time instead of going to the I. No strong resolutions here, which is clearly a stylistic choice.

1. Now, I said "I don't understand", because I was wondering... Does every chord need preparation? Like, can we throw a secondary dominant anywhere (just like this song, iv > V/V > V > IV > I), or am I missing something?

That will depend heavily on context, genre, and a lot of other factors. It's generally true that for most chords in any functional harmony setting the placement matters a bit - I iii ii iii V is not a very convincing chord progression, for example. I wouldn't say it's necessary to have a complete reasoning behind every single chord in every song, but more often than not there are useful patterns to observe and analyze in when and where different chords appear in music.

And it never hurts to double-check the lead sheet before analyzing, there were some errors that could trip people up pretty easily in this question. You can save yourself a headache or two when playing it, and analysis will probably make more sense as well if you've got the right chords!

1. Tatsuro Yamashita has even cited jazz, big band, and soul as influences, and the same kind of progressions can be found in the music of his wife Mariya Takeuchi.

2. There's a whole thing about negative harmony that basically makes the case that the minor plagal cadence is of equal strength to the authentic cadence because perfect fifths invert to perfect fourths and some crazy stuff like that, if you're looking for some extra rabbit-hole spelunking research.

• This explanation was spectacular, thank you so much and sorry for the chord chart mistakes, I tried to figure it out by myself. I'm still scratching my head around that a#ø7 substituting the Amaj7, and, later, that minor major 7 chord as well. Can you recommend me any materials/books where I can learn more about 'chord substitution in jazz harmonies' and 'negative harmony'? Commented May 12, 2021 at 15:18

Yes, it's in E. The chords have many notes in them, which might make it harder to understand the progression in terms of something more familiar. I recommend trying to find a country/polka reduction with simplified chords, just basic triads stripped of bass inversions and sevenths, ninths etc. (I wrote this from the top of my head, not checking on an instrument, please report errors)

(I wrapped the chords in underscores to prevent this site's "smart" automatic guitar chord diagram generator from making this completely unreadable. :/ )

``````|  _A_          |  _A_         |  _E_         |  _E_         |
|  _A_          |  _A_         |  _E_         |  _E_         |
|  _F#_         |  _Am_        |  _E_         |  _Am_        |
|  _E_          |  _C#m_       |  _F#m_       |  _Bsus4_     |
``````

Then work from this bare-bones version towards something closer to the original. First, split the chords to triad + bass inversion:

``````|  _A_          |  _A_         |  _E/G#_      |  _E/G#_      |
|  _A_          |  _A_         |  _E/G#_      |  _E/G#_      |
|  _F#/A#_      |  _Am_        |  _E/G#_      |  _Am_        |
|  _E/B_        |  _C#m/A#_    |  _F#m_       |  _A/B_       |
``````

Then add sevenths, ninths, sharp and flat this and that. There are many of those used in this song. But it's just small detail texture - there's a hierarchy of importance, level of detail, so to speak. First you find out what country you're in, then what city, then what city block.

E/G# works as a I chord here, it's just a bass inversion. Similarly for F#/A#, in each chord the bass is where it is in order to have a smoothly stepping bass motion, e.g. A# - A - G# - A - B bass movement.

Maybe "F#9/A#" would describe the third-last chord better. Or maybe someone would look at it as A# half-diminished. The thing with harmony is, it is the sum of its parts, and all interpretations are right in a way, BUT there's one note that's more important than all the other notes and that's the tonic, your harmonic center point. In understanding harmonic progressions, you have to know where you are in relation to a tonic, and that's what you were already doing. If you know the set of sounding notes, one way to gain "understanding" is to simply stop analyzing and just play the tune. Then play it in different keys. When you've played long enough and can reproduce the harmony progression in any key and in any other context, then in many ways you "understand" it, and you don't have to be able to label it with fancy theoretic names.

If you're thinking how I could tell, or why I said it's E/G# and not some G#m something, that's just from experience. It sounded like E/G#, and the whole progression consists of idiosyncratic changes for this genre. If you can hear that the bass is G# and you're not sure what basic simple chord could best represent the harmony, guess something and test the hypotheses. If you play a G#m there, does it sound closer to the record than if you play an E? But anyway, it comes with practice. Listen, transcribe, play, make variations, play in different keys.