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. – Todd Wilcox Oct 17 '16 at 1:40

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 first 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. – Kyle Alexander Buan Oct 16 '16 at 15:42

[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.


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. – Kyle Alexander Buan Oct 17 '16 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... – Kyle Alexander Buan Oct 17 '16 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 '16 at 9:48
  • Ah, you're right.... these would be vocaloid. That is a chart category... or metal. Sorry! – blusician Oct 17 '16 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 :) – Kyle Alexander Buan Oct 17 '16 at 9:58

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

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