Composing in Hirajoshi Scale

FMT

Our content relies on support from our readers. This means if you click on some of our links and make a purchase, we'll receive a small commission. You won't pay a penny more, so no worries!  Learn More

top angle photography of cup

Cover Photo by 五玄土 ORIENTO

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score.

What is a Hirajoshi scale?

– Scale structure:  1 2 ♭3 5 ♭6 (Fig. A)

– Japanese Pentatonic Scale

person holding round brown metal tool
Cover Photo by Paulo Coucco

The Hirajoshi scale is an example of a pentatonic (five-tone) scale. Owing in part to the fact that there are only five notes, some of the intervals in this scale are wider than others we have seen in this chapter. There are two major thirds, between ♭3 and 5, and ♭6 and the subsequent 1 (Fig. A).

The scale originates from a tuning system for the koto that was developed by Japanese musician and composer Yatsuhashi Kengyō in the 17th century. He adapted this tuning system from shamisen music at the time. The word ‘Hirajoshi’ roughly translates as “standard tuning.”

Today, the scale is used in many musical genres, although it is often associated with traditional Japanese music. In our next example, we decided to write a more modern, techno-inspired piece infused with the Hirajoshi scale.

Fig. A Hirajoshi Scale

Composing with Hirajoshi Scale 

Hirajoshi Scale

Analysis

This piece is an energetic techno piece based on a few simple composition strategies. The piece begins with an unaccompanied G Hirajoshi scale, played by Kantele/Synth pluck, a nod to the Japanese koto. The harmony then shifts immediately to C Hirajoshi in measure 2, driven by a thumping kick drum, complex hi-hat patterns, and a moody synth bass.

The bass plays a two-bar pattern that repeats throughout, mostly alternating between C (1) and G (5). Notice that the second bar includes A♭ (♭6) for a touch of variety. At the same time, the Rhodes piano plays a four-bar chord pattern, supporting the tonality of the scale. The middle note of each chord alternates between G (5) and A♭ (♭6) (❶).

The four bars of chords help us experience a longer pattern when layered on top of the two-bar bass pattern. Afterall, four measures is a little less repetitive than two. In addition, there is an arpeggiator and a delay effect on the Rhodes, creating sixteenth notes that percolate into the texture of the mix. Starting in measure 5, the Pluck and Lead synths begin outlining the C Hirajoshi scale, thereby providing a little more sonic variety (❷).

👉 READ Recommended Books for Film Composers

Tips) Using the Entire Pentatonic Scale
The sound of any pentatonic scale is best heard when all five notes are used. For Western ears, it’s not incorrect to say that C Hirajoshi bears some resemblance to C Minor. For instance, on its own, the bass line in this piece could suggest a minor tonality (C, G, and A♭). However, the scale runs in the synth lead and synth pluck help distinguish Hirajoshi from a minor scale. They incorporate all five notes in a short span of time, and expose the wide major third intervals between E♭ (♭3) and G (5), and between A♭ (♭6) and C (1), one of the identifying sounds of C Hirajoshi.

“Remember that sometimes, the most captivating melodies emerge from the most unexpected places. “

Summary

Hirajoshi, meaning “even” or “standard tuning” in Japanese, originated in the realm of shamisen music. Yatsuhashi Kengyō, a renowned musician, adapted it for the koto, a Japanese zither. The scale’s unique character stems from its five-note structure, classified as a pentatonic scale. This characteristic makes it instantly recognizable and lends it a distinct exotic charm.

What truly sets Hirajoshi apart is its specific interval pattern. Unlike the familiar major or minor scales, Hirajoshi employs a sequence of two half steps and two whole steps. This distinct arrangement creates a sound that is neither major nor minor, but possesses an intriguing ambiguity that sparks creativity.

More Resources

The Hirajoshi scale provides boundless creativity within the world of music. Its unique character and the potential it holds for exploration continue to inspire musicians and captivate listeners. Remember that sometimes, the most captivating melodies emerge from the most unexpected places!

👉 READ Recommended Books for Film Composers

[Related Lessons]