So I am reading up on music theory and learned about the difference between minor and major keys. So in rock, I would expect to see minor chords, because they are supposed to invoke not-so-happy emotions (I'm not sure if what I'm talking about is called rock, but I'll give examples of the music I'm referring to below. If you know the specific genre of these songs, can you please also tell me?). But when I tried to Google "rock chord progressions", I get chords that are always on major (I, IV, V, etc) Why is that?

Examples of the music I'm referring to (they are in Japanese, but music is universal, right? :) )

  1. (MikitoP - "Sayoko")

  2. (MikitoP - "Fortyseven")

  3. (buzzG - "Sirius" / "Against" / "Red Rain" [track 3])
  4. (Majiko - "Amadeus")
  5. (MikitoP - "Tokyo Train Station")

These are all not so happy, right? If you understand Japanese, then the more you know that these are in no way happy.

Here are several websites that show nothing but major chord progressions:

  1. https://thornepalmer.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/the-10-most-used-chord-progressions-in-pop-and-rock-and-roll/

  2. http://www.learn-to-play-rock-guitar.com/rock-guitar-chord.html

Why is this? Can anyone please tell me?

Thank you very much.

  • 1
    I don't know about "happy", but the chord progressions of the four examples you have that I listened to all sound major to me. Oct 17, 2016 at 1:40

7 Answers 7


You are under a misapprehension. Minor chords often don't make something sound sad (as in not-so-happy). They can invoke many other feelings, too. Like seriousness, thoughtfulness, and are very subjective in the way they make people react to them. Rock doesn't actually use a lot of minor keys. Major (and dom. 7ths) are far more common. The last of your examples is major. Possibly some of the rock stuff you listen to consists of some 5th 'chords', which sound neither major nor minor, but the 'happy/sad' part of the chords (maj /min 3rds) are missing, giving the listener an opportunity to 'fill in the gaps'.

  • I see. Seems like I understood it wrong. I will try to read more about it. Thank you very much for your reply. Oct 16, 2016 at 15:42
  • The first is major? And this is consensus? It leans really heavily on the Ab-Bb-Cm progression (extremely common in rock), and I clearly hear C as the tonic. You're probably hearing Eb major, but that's hard to argue when there's no Eb chord. And there is an occasional C major in place of the Cm, but that's not enough to make it C major.
    – Edward
    Jun 23, 2021 at 21:47
  • @Edward - you're correct, it does sound more minor, after a better listen! Edited accordingly.
    – Tim
    Sep 18, 2022 at 14:24

[This is sort of only tangential to the examples you provided, but might be interesting background.]

Due to its blues influences rock music does not strictly adhere to harmonic conventions of Western classical music. Bluesy guitar licks/riffs (and vocals..) regularly use both the major and minor thirds, and other blue notes that are often intonated within their own, non-diatonic, idiom.

When full chords are used in the rhythm, typically major chords are used as the backing, as part of the characteristic sound of this genre. But it's not a coincidence that power chords (root-fifth) have come to prominence here: by not stating the character of the chords in the backing, the lead/melody is able to use the entire palette of the blues scale without creating too many clashes.


You ask about key signatures, but there isn't a key signature anywhere in this question!

You're referring to Roman Numeral Analysis (RNA) and symbols like I V IV I and the system where upper case denotes major chords.

If you are talking about common practice (a.k.a. classical) music, then symbols like I for a major tonic, or i for a minor tonic, will more or less tell you whether the music is in a major or minor key. But that isn't always the case, and you should give the key before the numerals. Something like this demonstrates: Cm: i I7/iv iv V, notice that both lowercase i and uppercase I are given. If you have a good understanding of harmony, you can tell from the numerals alone that it is minor key, but the label Cm: is what really gives the key.

Anyway, RNA can be applied to rock and pop harmony, but you need to be careful about how to interpret the notion of "key." In a progression like I ♭III IV I all the chords are major triads, but chord roots come from a minor scale. This mixture of major and minor in rock/pop music is very common. It isn't really pure major or minor key, the name chromatic-minor has been proposed for the tonality.

But, sometimes rock/pop uses progressions that are easily placed into major keys, for example I vi IV V.

When I look for rock chord progressions on the net, I see major key signatures. Why is that?

Notwithstanding what I said above about major/minor ambiguity in rock/pop harmony you might say major key progressions are more popular, but there certainly are minor chord progressions. Style will matter a lot. It's hard to imagine exploring hard rock or metal and not realizing that lots and lots of that music is minor key or minor mode. You probably aren't selecting good sources for progressions. Two very common minor progressions are i ♭VII ♭VI V and ♭VI ♭VII i.

But when I tried to Google "rock chord progressions"...

Add the word you're looking for: "minor."

When I search "rock music minor chord progressions" at Google, these links come up on the first page of results:

The videos you posted aren't minor key. But, don't over emphasize the emotional happy/sad dichotomy of major/minor. Tempo, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, etc. hugely important emotional factors. Playing loud and fast, even in a major key, can sound aggressive or angry. Playing slow with soft tones in a major key can create a sad mood. Switching to slow, minor could make sad feel tragic. A lot depends on what exactly "sad" is supposed to mean. The musical factors going into creating an emotion are simply more complex that major=happy & minor=sad. There are more than two emotions.


Major vs. minor is only one possible musical cue toward representing happiness vs. sadness. Over the course of the 20th century, minor key representation in Western popular music styles fell off quite a bit. The use of the classical minor scale became somewhat rare in many varieties of pop music (including some types of rock), though you still see modal inflections suggesting minor elements in the variety of chord progressions used. By the word "modal," I refer to various scales that are often some sort of mixture of major and minor, though frequently sheet music will still tend to use a major or minor key signature for such pieces. (Arguably, a lot of modern rock harmony is neither "major" nor "minor" in the classical sense anymore -- it has its own hybrid language and harmonic syntax.)

So does that mean rock music can't express sadness? Of course not. Mode (major vs. minor) again is only one factor, and frequently not the most important factor in expressing happiness vs. sadness in music. There have probably been a couple hundred psychological studies on this topic by now, some of which have shown other factors (usually tempo or rhythmic sense) are more important than major/minor in influencing whether a listener perceives something as happy vs. sad. Other studies still show major/minor as being most important, but various other factors can combine together to project a different emotion.

The reason these studies are often somewhat conflicting in the relative weight given to various factors is because the precise musical stimuli used in any experiment are likely important. Psychologists like to only vary certain factors and keep other elements of the stimuli constant (like pitches, rhythms, etc.) in order to have some consistency in comparisons. But without using a very wide variety of stimuli, factors like overall texture, rhythmic groove, etc. may be overlooked.

Anyhow, one such study is freely available here and contains a good summary of lot of previous research at the outset. They tried varying seven different factors. Here's what they found in terms of musical features correlated with happy vs. sad:

The most effective way of expressing happiness is a major, fast tempo, high register, and staccato articulation within this particular set of examples. For sadness, the pattern of beta coefficients is almost the reverse of this, except a darker timber and a decrease in dynamics also contributes to the ratings.

So, if you play a major mode piece with a slow tempo, low register, legato articulation, dark timbre, and with softer dynamics, you can likely create a very "sad" effect. Various combinations of these elements can work too. And this is definitely not new to rock music. The idea that "major = happy" and "minor = sad" has never been a particularly stable element of music by itself. Some of the saddest, most poignant, most awful moments of classical music I can think of happen in a minor song or piece that suddenly turns toward a major key. And I can think of plenty of sad rock songs in major keys that use other elements like those mentioned above to produce a sense of sadness.


I listened to a bit of two examples and it seems that while they do contain many major chords, the phrases generally end on a type of minor chord. But I don't think they are straight minor triads, but I would have to listen closer. But in general there does seem to be sufficient minoryness to justify the lyrics being on the sadder side. But, just like human emotions, the music is more complex than just happy or sad. I imagine the lyrics are equally complex in feeling.

And anyway, happiness or sadness maybe culturally subjective so I would take my main cue from the lyrics anyway.


Here is a PDF of a study http://heller.brandeis.edu/sustainable-international-development/tsimane/wp/TAPS-WP-64.pdf


You cannot be seeing major key signatures, because there is no such thing.

A key signature is a set of sharps or flats written in a conventional way to indicate which 7 notes are being selected out of the 12 available notes.

The key signature does not imply the mode being used. Those 7 notes provide 7 different possible modes, one of which is always the Ionian mode which gives the relative major key of that key signature. Thus every key signature can be associated with a major key. By convention, we name the key signature after that key.

For instance, if you see a single sharp sign on the F staff line, then that music could be based around the G Ionian scale, which we also call "G Major". It could be based around the E root, using the E Aeolian mode, or "E Minor". It could be A Dorian.

If it is in "E Minor", then any alterations for the harmonic or melodic minor appears as incidentals; they are not part of the key signature. If they were, then we could plausibly talk about a "minor key signature".

Now about rock: some rock is strongly rooted in traditional western practice, and everything it does (at least in terms of the pitches used in the melodies and harmonies) has a neat description using key signatures. Extreme examples of that are outright neo-classical rock that uses ideas cribbed from classical music. Such rock music is like classical; we could write it using a key signature like the key of G, when it's really in E minor.

Rock is a broad genre whose origin is associated with American traditions like the Blues. A lot of what is in rock does not fit nicely into music theory coming from the classical period. (Not all rock even uses the twelve tone system, or not exactly; rock musicians have experimented with alternative tunings of conventional instruments.) That rock which does use the twelve tone system (no funny tuning) can be written down in traditional notation, but it doesn't necessarily fit very well; the written music might use some nominal key signature, but require accidentals for notes that are off that signature. Rock music won't necessarily have classical-style key changes where we can identify longer passages that have moved to a different key and could be notated with that key signature; it may be using multiple scales in parallel. If the full Blues scale is used, combining the minor and major pentatonic and tritone, that cannot be notated without accidentals.


First, this is soooo not rock!! It is J-Pop. But... please read on my friend.

It is interesting you point this out as I have noticed in the past but just accepted this as a part of living here... Many Japanese (or J-Pop) sad songs are in major.

I understand Japanese and understand why it is mostly major. The simple answer is that major scales are the first learned and easier. The longer answer is more linguistic. It is much easier to make a song sound melancholy or sad while singing Japanese over major. (SIDE NOTE: Lyric writing in Japanese is so much fun because the rhymes come so much easier (hence, oyaji gags galore) and abundant.)

If you throw in minor on top of a Japanese sad lyric, it would get very dramatic and dark really quick. Japanese Enka is a good example of this. Listen to the singer closely. You will find that while the music is major, many times the singer is singing in minor on darker songs. Or, is up an octave above the music to give it a more dramatic color. The singer minor/ music major combination in many songs repeatedly is what initially turns a lot of westerners off to much J-Pop. The voice often scratches against the music. Somebody that does great synch between lyrics and background music is the indie artist Hanaregumi, but even he goes subtly melancholy in tone color on vocals over major progressions.

And, BTW... agree totally with Tim above. Last week I wrote a piece in minor that was upbeat by adding different colorings to chords and a rhythm that kept the song upbeat. One way to do this is by using Dorian mode over minor, but instead of IV7, use a IVMaj7.

  • J-Pop, really? I'm not listing AKB48 songs! Are you really sure that these are considered J-Pop? Yes, these are Vocaloid songs. But that doesn't necessarily affect the genre--I listen to metal Vocaloid songs. Oct 17, 2016 at 9:43
  • Sorry, I just want to clarify that I am not confrontational at all. I am just shocked to hear that these were all J-Pop... Oct 17, 2016 at 9:44
  • Good question... scratching head...Anything that is Japanese and not rock, folk, nor Enka is J-Pop to me and most Japanese. AKB48 is J-Pop too. But these songs listed on a ranking chart in Japan would be listed under J-Pop. Unless you could think of any other genre? It certainly would not be listed on Japan rock charts.
    – blusician
    Oct 17, 2016 at 9:48
  • Ah, you're right.... these would be vocaloid. That is a chart category... or metal. Sorry!
    – blusician
    Oct 17, 2016 at 9:49
  • mikitop.com/kiss On the top-right part of the page, this is written (vertically): 心揺さぶるセツナ系ロックサウンド✕初音ミク "Setsuna-style Rock Sound that Moves the Heart coupled with Miku Hatsune" (I find it hard to translate Setsuna to english--if forced, I would translate it as "emotionally painful") The artist himself called it "Rock Sound". I don't think I can consider this J-Pop, unless convinced otherwise :) Oct 17, 2016 at 9:58

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