Why You Love Anime Soundtracks: Royal Road Progression

If you’re like me, you may find yourself often drawn to the unique sounds of J-rock and J-pop but may not actually know why. I first recognized the stylization difference between Western and Japanese music in the opening anime soundtracks that preceded my favourite shows.

After compiling several playlists of my favourite opening soundtracks from J-rock bands, I finally discovered why Japanese music sounds refreshing despite drawing significant influence from Western pop and jazz.

The Royal Road Progression/ Ōdō shinkō

The royal road progression is a progression of chords commonly used in Japanese rock and pop music, the same way, Western music follows a similar progression of cliched chords such as I-V-vi-IV.

Informally known as Japanese Ōdō shinkō (王道進行), the term translates to “royal road progression,” which is understood as the “easy way.” Native Japanese speakers instead translate this term to the common way or the well-trodden path, signifying that this progression is the most efficient path.

How to Denote the Royal Road Progression

Classic Japanese chords follow the progression of IV-V-iii-vi, typically in seventh C major. This pattern can also be notated as F-G-Em-Am or IV-V-IIIm-IVm.

Pattern and Effect of the Royal Road Progression

The chord progression begins in the fourth chord of the key with a subdominant function and is followed by the fifth chord having a dominant function. This pattern begins with light tension and progresses to max tension. The key must move the mediant three-chord to relieve the tension, but it must still be satisfied. Lastly, the key moves to the submediant sixth chord to be at rest but remains unsatisfied. 

This subdominant, dominant, mediant and submediant pattern creates a looping effect of a never-ending unsatisfied story, never reaching satisfaction at the one chord. This combination is the reason why Japanese music sounds so revitalizing. 

Pianist, David Bennett, describes the sound as melodramatic and cheerful: “It sounds dramatic, and there’s a sense of movement and story, but it certainly is not serious. It doesn’t sound mournful, or there’s not really a sense of danger. It’s bright yet moody.” 

This unique sound possesses qualities of a new and refreshing sound for Western listeners that they often won’t get tired of.

【MV】光るなら Short ver. /Goose house

Anime Soundtracks that use the Royal Road Progression

  • Your Lie In April: Hikarunara – Goose House
  • Guilty Crown: My dearest – supercell
  • Haikyuu!! (season 2): FLY HIGH!! – BURNOUT SYNDROMES
  • Violet Evergarden: Sincerely – TRUE

Western Songs that use the Royal Road Progression

  • Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley
  • Dilemma – Nelly, Kelly Rowland
  • Starlight – Taylor Swift

To learn more about this chord progression, watch David Bennett’s video or read Shinryu Reviews article.

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