II-V-I progression

What is it?

The II-V-I progression is a progression found in all western music. It is most commonly found in jazz. In fact, it is probably the most important progresion in jazz.

This progression is a cadence resolving to a tonic chord. The II is a subdominant chord, the V is a dominant chord, and the I is a tonic chord. The I chord can be major or minor. The II and V do not necessarily have to come from the scale of the I, but usually they do. Also, the chords can be triads or 7th chords. In pop music they will usually be triads, because pop is not very harmonically complex. In jazz, they will almost invariably be 7th chords. Often, in jazz, they will have tensions added on, which we'll get into further on.

Let's start with a major II-V-I: as an example, we'll take C major. We'll start with the simplest II-V-I: triads. The second degree of the C major scale is D, and the chord on that degree (derived from the D dorian scale) is Dm - D F A. The fifth degree is G, and we have a G major. The first is, of course, C major - C E G. So our first, and most basic II-V-I is Dm - G - C.You'll find that a lot in pop, as I said.

Using seventh chords, the II-V-I progression will be Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7. I will go into a more detailed explanation of this, as well as a discussion of minor II-V-I in a bit.

Why II-V-I ?

Tension and release (or resolution) is one of the cornerstones of western music, and in fact many musicians will claim that it is the very essence of western music. Tension is most often built up in the form of a dominant chord. I'm not going to explain the whole tension/resolution theory now, but I'll explain parts of it. The dominant seventh chord has a 3rd and a 7th a tritone apart. This has a lot of inherent tension, and really wants to resolve to the root and third of a chord a fourth up. An example - G7 is G B D F. B and F are a tritone apart, and want to resolve to C E (i.e the B moves up to C and the F moves down to E). It can also resolve to C Eb, which is a bit weaker, as F moves down a whole step. So the tension built up in the dominant chord resolves, and we are left happy and pleased. This is the reason that almost all classical music (I'm not talking about modern music, I'm talking about baroque, romantic, etc., especially because I'm not a classical music expert) ends with a V-I.

In classical music, the most common cadence (except for V-I) is IV - V - I. The IV is a subdominant chord, so it is less tense than the dominant, but more tense than the tonic. This provides for a gradual rise in tension, followed by resolution. The IV - V - I progression was used beyond recognition in the early years of pop - rock and roll especially.

The II chord has the same function as the IV, in that it is a subdominant chord. Thus, leading to a tonic through a II and then a V is very satisfying to the ear - a build up of tension followed by release of the tension.

In jazz,which is harmonically complex, having a I stand on its own is quite boring, so to add interest, a V is often put before it - this offers more temporary tensions and releases. As this is slightly static too, the II is often put before the V.

There are two main reasons why the II-V-I progression is used in jazz and not the IV-V-I. The first is that the movement of the bass is in fourths, which is a stronger movement than that of IV-V-I, and second - because it sounds better in jazz. The second reason may sound stupid, but in fact, it is the only one that counts - that's all music is - what sounds good. You can explain and analyze music in a million ways, but ultimately, it's all about how it sounds.

Major II-V-I

The major II-V-I is relatively simple, and I explained it briefly before. I will now talk about seventh chords, which are used in jazz. The second degree of a C major scale is D minor 7th - D F A C. (If you are unfamiliar with how chords are derived from scales, you might want to read Chord / Scale Theory). The fifth degree of the C major scale is G7 - G B D F. And the first is C E G B - C major 7th. So we have Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7.

Which scales do these chords receive? They are all derived from the major scale, and so they get the respective modes of the major scale. The second mode is the dorian scale, and so the Dm7 takes a dorian scale (D E F G A B C D). The G7 takes the fifth mode of the major scale, which is the mixolydian scale (G A B C D E F G). The C major takes, naturally, the ionian scale (C D E F G A B C). As you can see, these scales all consist of the same notes, so you can, theoretically, just happily play a C major scale over this entire progression. However, it's not all that simple, and you must be careful not to play (or to play correctly) the avoid notes: C over G7, and F over C. Also, in order to make the II-V sound come out, you might want to play chord tones, so that, although playing an ascending C major scale will not sound bad, playing mainly chord tones (or good II-V phrases) will bring out the sound. Remember, you want the melody to have tension and resolution too.

You can, of course, play other scales over this progression. Charlie Parker loved the b13 even on major II-V-I's (that would be playing Eb on G7. Few musicians stray from the dorian sound on the IIm7 chord, but, of course, the V7 is full of possibilities - you can play G7b9b13, G lydian b7, G diminished (half step-whole step), G altered - the combinations are endless. You will probably want to stick to the mixolydian sound most of the time, though, especially at the beginning. On the major, the ionian scale is usually played. You can experiment with the lydian, if you wish, or anything else for that matter.

For harmonic instruments, you might want to add tensions. You can add any available tension. So on Dm7, you can add the 9th (E) and the 11th (G). You usually don't want to add the 13th (B), as it is a functional avoid, i.e. it creates a tritone in the chord (F B), which makes it sound like a dominant, instead of a subdominant. Over the G7 you can add the 9th or 13th (A, E). Also, with the Cmaj7 you can add the 9th and 13th (D, A). In both the last cases you don't want to add the 11th as it is a tonal avoid.

Minor II-V-I

The minor II-V-I is a bit more complicated. The fifth mode of the natural minor scale is a minor seventh chord. This doesn't sound dominant, and doesn't want to resolve to the I. So the harmonic minor scale was invented, with a raised seventh (you can read a more detailed discussion in minor scale. In C natural minor, the fifth is Gm7, which as you can see by looking at its notes: G Bb D F doesn't have a tritone, and doesn't sound dominant, so naturally, we'll take the fifth mode of the C harmonic minor scale: G7: G B D F. So, using the harmonic minor scale (C D Eb F G Ab B C), we get the following II-V-I progression: Dm7b5 (D F Ab C), G7 (G B D F), C minor major 7 (C Eb G B).

However, the minor sound we are more used to hearing, and that occurs much more often than the minor major seventh chord is the minor seventh chord. The minor major seventh chord is rather harsh sounding, and so is rarely used. So the regular minor II-V-I progression will be IIm7b5 - V7 - Im7. Or in C minor - Dm7b5 - G7 - Cm7. Although the C is taken from the natural minor scale (has a minor seventh), the II and the V are taken from the harmonic minor scale. (As a note - the minor chord can be Cm7, C minor major 7, Cm6, or simply a C minor triad, but in jazz it is most often a minor seventh.).

Obviously, we have different scales here, (Cm7 has a Bb, G7 has a natural B), so what scales can we play over the chords? Over Dm7b5, we could theoretically play the second mode of the harmonic minor scale, locrian natural 6. In fact, theoretically, this is the most logical scale to play, as it is from this mode that the chord was constructed. In practice, this is rarely done. Why?, you may ask. And it is a good question. The answer I got from my teacher was "because it sounds like crap," which is basically the only reason that matters, and is true. The natural 6 doesn't sound good (that would be B on Dm7b5), and it makes it sound too much like a diminished chord. So the locrian scale is used. The locrian was virtually the only scale used over m7b5 chords until somewhere areound the 1950's, when the locrian natural 9 started being used. This is much better as it has no avoid notes. However, you have to learn to recognise the sound, before you can play it well, so I suggest starting on the locrian. (So on Dm7b5 that would be D Eb F G Ab Bb C).

Over G7, the possibilities are just about endless. The most basic scale to play here is the mixolydian b9 b13, which is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale. This is a good choice, because it has the flat 13, which is the minor third of the minor chord it resolves to (i.e on G7, the Eb is the b13, and Eb is the minor 3rd of Cm.) Also, it has the b9, which is the b13 of the minor chord it resloves to (On G7, the b9 is Ab, which is the b13 on Cm). The b13 is very important, the b9 less so. The b13 is so important, because it helps make clear that the dominant chord is going to resolve to a minor chord. If we played a natural 13 (E on G7), it would give the feeling of resolution to C major. This is generally bad, so you will usually want to play scales with the b13 on a minor II-V-I. Other options include the G7b13 (the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale), though this is hardly ever used, and the altered scale and combination scale (aka half step-whole step diminished). These are both good choices, especially the altered, although you are going to have to get to know the sound before you attempt to play it. This takes a lot of practice, as the sound is rather foreign to the untrained ear.

On the Im7, the most obvious scale to play is the aeolian scale, the scale corresponding to the natural minor. The natural minor is the most natural sounding minor to the ear, so this makes sense as a resolution chord. Despite this, though, it is possible to play the dorian scale on the Im7 as well. This is becasue the dorian sound is very deep-rooted into jazz. Again, in order to play the dorian scale, you should first get acquainted with its sound. If the resulting chord is a minor major 7th, it is possible to play the melodic or harmonic minors. In this case, the melodic is often the preferred scale, as it does not have the troublesome augmented second of the harmonic minor.

If you want to play tensions, you should play the available tensions of the scales. As there are many scales possible, I will not list all the available tensions. Suffice to say, that once you get to the point when you are playing intersting voicings with intersting tensions, that is slightly beyond the scope of one writeup.

Other II-V-I's

It is possible to combine major and minor II-V-I's.There are many jazz tunes which use a minor II-V which resolves to a major chord, as a 'surprise'. An example is Alone Together, which has this 'false resolution' several times: at the end of the 'A' section: Em7b5 - A7 - Dmaj7, and also in the 'B' section: Gm7b5 - C7 - Fmaj7. Also, it is possible to have a major II-V resolve to a minor chord. This happens a lot in turnarounds: Em7 - A7 - Dm7 - G7.

Another common II-V-I that is worth mentioning is not really a II-V-I. It is II-sub V-I (Or IIm-bII7-I). In Cmajor, this would be Dm7-Db7-Cmajor7. In C minor, this would be Dm7b5-Db7-Cm7. You might want to read about the sub V chord for a better understanding, if you're not too familiar with it. The II-sub V-I has the same function as the II-V-I, but you will probably want to play the lydian b7 scale over the sub V.

When to use the II-V-I progression

Any V can be turned into a II-V, if the melody allows it. This is usually the case, so to create more harmonic movement, you might want to change some long V chord into II-V.

One of the II-V's main uses in jazz (and indeed in other music), is to stabilize a temporary tonal centre. So, for example, if I'm in C major, and I have a Dm7 chord, that I want to give more power to, or stabilize it, or make is sound more tonic than subdominant, I might want to use a II-V to stabilize it. So instead of, say:

Cmaj7  |  Cmaj7       |  Dm7  |  Am7 |.....
I might have:
Cmaj7  | Em7b5  A7b13 |  Dm7  |  Am7 |...
If you play this, you will see that the Dm7 sounds more like tonic chord, after being built up into. This allows us to have more temporary tonal centers in the song, which makes it more interesting to hear.

II-V's without resolution

Although the topic of this node is II-V-I's, it is important to mention that although originally the function of the II-V was to 'announce' the I, this is not always the case. In fact, especially in jazz, there are many II-V's which stand alone, and do not resolve to the expected chord. Look at the chords for 'Stella By Starlight':
Em7b5  | A7  | Cm7   | F7  | Fm7  | Bb7  | Ebmaj7 | 
The first II-V, Em7b5-A7 is expected to resolve to Dm7, but it does not such thing, and then Cm7 - F7 is expected to resolve to Bb, but it goes to Fm7, and only the third II-V, Fm7-Bb7 actually resolves to the expected chord.

Incidentally, that trick Of Cm7 - F7 - Fm7 - Bb7 is used a lot. It is a variation on 'extended dominants', which is dominants following one another is the circle of fourths. This helps 'blur' the tonality of the moment, and is used quite alot, for example in the B section of Rhythm Changes, we have:

D7   |  D7 |  G7   |  G7  |  C7   |  C7  |  F7   |  F7  |
Like I said earlier, V7 chords can often be replaced by II-V, so on the bridge of Rhythm Changes, you will often find the following:
Am7  |  D7 |  Dm7  |  G7  |  Gm7  |  C7  |  Cm7  |  F7  |


This should perhaps be called: "How to practice improvising over the II-V-I progression."

In jazz, improvisers are often judged, (amongst other things, of course), by their ability to navigate through II-V-I's. To be able to do so takes A LOT of practice. And there are several ways to do so. I'll mention the two most popular ones:

  1. Chord Scales - record the II-V-I's in all twelve keys. This is important! You must practice in all twelve keys. It is rather pointless to know how to play II-V's in only one or two keys, because sooner or later (sooner) you are going to encounter II-V's in all keys. You can record II-V-I's in the circle of fifths (i.e Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 - Cmaj7 - Am7 - D7 - Gmaj7 - Gmaj7 - Em7 - etc...), or in ascending or descending minor or major seconds... try all combinations. Then go from the lowest note on yourinstrument to the highest and then back, always playing in the correct scales, in steps, i.e. never moving more than a second (major second). Do this in quarter notes, straight eights, swing eights, triplets and (if you can) sixteenths.
  2. II-V-I phrases. You may want to build up a large 'database' of II-V-I phrases and II-V phrases to take from. There are many ways to do this. You can make up ones that you like, or you can take the ones you like from solos that you have either transcribed or read. I had a teacher about 3 years ago who told me to go through the Omnibook and find 10 phrases that I like from each note of the first chord (i.e for Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7, 10 phrases starting on D, 10 on E, etc), and learn them in all keys and be able to use them flawlessly. I was supposed to go for a lesson the next week, but I couldn't do it, and kept putting it off until I could. I still haven't gone back there. (I stopped working on it compulsively after about a month, realizing that either he was a useless teacher or he didn't expect me to do it in a week, and I was the crazy one.) Anyway, that takes a LONG time to be able to do. I still work on finding II-V phrases that I like and learn them in all 12 keys. And then I practice them in 'real' improvising. Some musicians don't like this approach, saying that you'll just end up spitting out phrases, instead of really playing. If you do use this, remember to only practice phrases you like. You don't want to incorporate into your playing things that aren't YOU.
I recommend both methods; even if you just practice phrases to get the sound of the different scales, etc. I am against just spitting out one phrase after another, but learning and practicing phrases helps get the II-V sound in your ear, especially of less familiar scales, such as the altered. Whichever method you decide to use, remember the following points:
  • You should practice 'long' II-V-I's as well as 'short' II-V-I's. By long I mean Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 | Cmaj7 (i.e 1 bar Dm7, 1 bar G7, 2 bars Cmaj7), and by short I mean Dm7 G7 | Cmaj7 (2 beats each Dm7 and G7, 1 bar Cmaj7).
  • You should also practice unresolved II-V's.
  • Practice in all 12 keys. Try different variations, as I specified earlier.
  • Make sure you use these in real playing situations.
  • As usual, start slowly, and gradually build up speed.
And of course, have fun!