Japanese scales – The hirajōshi scale

By Max Canonaco

In this article, we will see one of the most used Japanese pentatonic scale, the hirajōshi scale, and I will show you some ways to use this scale.

There is a lot of confusion around on that topic, so a little premise on Japanese scales in general is necessary.

Japanese scales are exotic scales. But what does that mean really? In general, it is important to remark that in Eastern music, notes are often more important than chords, that are not used in that context as we use them in Western music, strumming an Am or a C chord on the guitar. Melodies played on instruments such as the Shamisen or the Koto are the most important musical component in Japanese music, together with the rhythm.

The scale we are about to see is so peculiar, because it is a pentatonic scale containing some notes that are only a fret a part, and therefore it is a hemitonic pentatonic scale. This characteristic is very different from our Western pentatonic scales. By the way, not all Japanese scales have hemitonic attributes.

To emphasize this hemitonic parts of the scale, is one of the easiest and effective ways to use the hirajōshi scale. And because this scale is hemitonic, it is a good way to substitute modes commonly used in rock or metal music, like the Eolian mode (natural minor scale/key) and the Phrygian mode. What do I mean by “substitute”? Since all the notes in the hirajōshi scale are included in those modes I mentioned, the hirajōshi scale can be played, over the same chords, instead of the mode that contains all the notes of the hirajōshi scale.

Now let me resume for you the principal musical categories of Japanese music. One specific scale corresponds to a specific category in Japan. Every Japanese scale is a group of five notes with a unique color, and each scale is associated with a specific social, popular, ritual function, or to a specific geographic area in Japan. We can split the Japanese scales in four categories:

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The Miyakobushi scale contains the same notes as the hirajōshi scale in the fourth mode, as we will see in a moment. Normally, the term hirajōshi is used to describe the tuning of the Koto, not the scale itself. In modern music theory, by the way, the term hirajōshi seems to be commonly used for that scale instead, and not many people use the term Miyakobushi to define that scale in Western countries.

Please also note that the minyô scale is the same as our minor pentatonic scale, and the ritsu scale is identical to the fifth mode of our minor pentatonic scale. That said, I have chosen to show you one of the most used Japanese scales in the rock-metal music.

The hirajōshi scale

This is the most used Japanese scale in metal music, because it is easy to use as a substitution for the Eolian mode (natural minor scale) or for the Phrygian and Phrygian dominant modes (depending on the mode of the hirajōshi scale you use).

Hirajōshi scale - first mode:

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As you can see all those notes in the example are notes of the A natural minor scale:

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Since the two modes are superimposable, you can use the first mode of the hirajōshi scale, instead of using the natural minor scale or the Eolian fingering.

Hirajōshi scale - fourth mode:

But let me show you the scale in its fourth mode. I am starting from the fourth note of the scale we just saw. But since that note (E in the example) is supposed to be the most important, it becomes the first of that mode:

japanese scale4.PNG

All those notes in the example are notes of the E Phrygian mode and of the E Phrygian dominant mode:

japanese scale5.PNG

Since the notes of the fourth mode of the hirajōshi scale are included in the Phrygian and in the Phrygian dominant mode, you can use the fourth mode of the hirajōshi scale, instead of using the Phrygian mode or fingering, over the same chords you were using. The same applies for the Phrygian dominant mode.

But there is something more to say about this fourth mode of the hirajōshi scale. This mode does not have a third, as an interval (in E, the scale does not contain G or G#). This means that you can play the fourth mode of the hirajōshi scale over a major AND over a minor chord with the same tonic note. So, if in the example above the 4th mode of the hirajōshi scale contains E, F, A, B, C, it can be easily played over an E major chord AND over an E minor chord. When you do so, make sure you start and end your phrases on E or B over those two chords. Also, by playing this scale, you want to emphasize the parts of the scale where the notes are one fret apart.

I hope that this article will help you to understand better the potential of this exotic scale, to enrich your arsenal of expressive tools.

About the author: Max Canonaco is a professional guitar player and guitar instructor, based in Locarno, Switzerland. If you are looking for guitar lessons in Locarno, please be sure to contact Max