A chord progression is quite the powerful musical tool; the way in which a musician wields a series of chords can make multiple songs with the same progression sound radically different from one another.
There’s a reason some progressions are so popular – their underlying harmony makes for catchy, satisfying, and ear-pleasing tunes. The movement from one chord to another gives the impression of telling a complete story.
Training your ears to recognize chord progressions is an important musical skill that will enable you to make connections between songs you love, understand what makes them harmonically powerful, and use them to write your own punchy music.
One of these chord progression all-stars is the well-loved ii-V-I or ii-V7-I progression. Though overwhelmingly popular in jazz, you will also find this chord progression in pop music, country, rock, and even R&B. Let’s learn the mechanics of this progression, hear it in action, and look at how to use it in songwriting.
What is a ii-V7-I Chord Progression?
The ii-V7-I chord progression is one of the most iconic jazz chord progressions. It has a forward motion that moves a song towards a natural resolution, thanks to the way in which the chords interact with one another.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. In the tune “Satin Doll” by the incredible composer and jazz bandleader Duke Ellington, the chord progression seems to meander all over the place before resolving. Yet somehow this progression makes sense with the melody. Here’s a backing track that shows the progression with a lead sheet if you want to play the melody:
Let’s figure out where those crazy chords come from – – and how they could sound so natural and consonant together, leading to a natural resolution.
The Chords of the Major Scale
Here’s a quick refresher (or a quick introduction!) to the chords found in the major scale:
These are called the diatonic chords of the C major scale – that is, they are the chords naturally found in the key. Craig Buhler gives a fantastic in-depth look at the mechanics of the diatonic chords in a key.
Every major scale has these seven chords built on scale degrees – and no matter the key, these chords have a similar relationship to one another. That is, a ii-V-I progression in C major will sound very similar to a ii-V-I in Ab major.
To create the V7 chord, we simply stack another third (you can also look at it as a minor seventh from the root) on top of the usual V triad, like so:
String the ii, V7, and I chords of any key together, and it sounds like this:
Of course, it doesn’t have to sound bare – watch as Rock Like the Pros embellishes this progression… and makes it sound like the beginnings of a song!
Now that we know what it sounds like, let’s zoom in a little and look at the inner workings of this progression.
The Anatomy of the ii-V7-I
A key feature of the ii-V7-I is the forward motion that moves the song towards the tonic – namely, the presence of a V-I cadence, the most popular resolution of a chord progression. Out of all the chord progressions in Western harmony, none sound as complete and satisfying than moving from dominant to tonic.
A “Fifth” point of view…
We rearranging the order of the chord roots, the whole ii-V7-I progression can be understood as moving down in fifths. This movement gives it a very distinct and jazzy feel, reminiscent of the swing and jazz of mid-20th century America. We can understand this by transposing the ii chord up an octave and seeing how it moves down to the V, then to the I:
Another way to understand this chord progression is through the Circle of Fifths, a musical tool that visualizes the relationships between keys through fifths. As you can see, we start with C major, and head clockwise around the circle by building perfect fifth intervals on top of each note/key:
This visual guide showing the fifth-based relationships between keys is very helpful in understanding chord progressions. As illustrated above, the ii-V-I progression in C major is Dm-G-C. If you look at the circle starting at D, and moving counterclockwise – that is, down by fifths rather than up by fifths – you’ll see that it takes you from D, to G, to C.
For more information on using the circle of fifths to understand chord progressions in general, check out Mark Hahn Guitar’s illustrated guide.
With the circle of fifths, you can easily elucidate the ii-V-I progression of any key by starting with the tonic (I), moving up a fifth to the V, and moving up another fifth to the “II”. Just remember to make that II into a ii chord, because as we saw above, in a major diatonic scale, the supertonic of the scale (or the second degree of the scale, ii) is a minor chord.
When building up chord progressions, you need to know some of the basics. If you need to brush up on your chord progressions, take a moment to check out these great resources:
- Lotus Music’s primer on chord progressions
- Training Your Ear to Hear Chord Progressions
- Learn How to Build a Chord Podcast
How to Recognize the ii-V-I Chord
Let’s build a basic ii-V7-I chord progression. We’ll use the key of C major for our examples, but you can transpose these to any major key. Sometimes you will hear an inversion when you hear the chords, meaning the root of the chord is not the bottom note. The two examples below are in the root position, meaning that the root of the chord is the bottom note. However, there will be many inversions used in the music that you hear.
The roots of these chords descend down a fifth apart – D-G-C. Remember – in the progression, that D chord becomes a D minor, as the supertonic chord of a major scale (or the second degree of the scale, ii) is a minor chord. The dominant chord can also be a 7th chord.
Listening to the ii-V7-I
Think about ii-V7-I in the key of C Major:
Now let’s break it down. The ii chord is minor and built upon the second note of the scale:
This is followed by a dominant 7th chord. Can you hear the leading tone (B)? The leading tone naturally resolves to the tonic, which in this case is C:
You end the progression by resolving to the tonic. Let’s listen to the example below again. As you are listening, listen to the bass note as it moves down by fifths. We will discuss different voicings later. Right now, the root of each chord will be in the bass position:
Did you hear how the root notes progressed downward toward the tonic (C)? This is a key musical function of the ii-V-I chord progression:
Leading Tone to Tonic
Another feature of the progression is the leading tone’s resolution to the tonic note. The B note in the G7 chord naturally resolves to the C, with the B considered the leading tone in C major, meaning that it naturally wants to move towards the tonic.
Moving from the leading tone to the tonic of a scale – B to C in this case – is a staple of Western harmony. Even some of the most complicated harmonic progressions in Western harmony really just involve different permutations of a leading tone moving to eventual resolution with the tonic. Sometimes it may take a long time to get there, but this is often the purpose of the chord progression – resolution to the harmonic tension.
Flipping the Chords
It’s all nice and simple when the root note is the lowest, but in the wild, you’ll find plenty of chord progressions with different inversions, including the ii-V-I. To review, in root position, the chords have the root of the chord in the bass. Listen:
However, there are other ways to play this song with chord inversions, where the root of the chord is not in the bass. However, notice how there is still a satisfying resolution in the progression, regardless of where the leading tone or root may be.
This chord progression is more typical of jazz: C – Dm7 – G7/D – CM7. The G7/D means that it is a G seventh chord with D in the bass:
This chord progression can also be used as a passing chord. For example, the ii-V-I chord progression serves this function in the blues, which has a distinct twelve-bar pattern but does not necessarily move towards tonic in the dramatic fashion that you might find in traditional jazz or classical music.
Exercise: Listening to the ii-V-I chord progression
Below you will hear a short example of the ii-V-I chord progression. First listen to the chords isolated, then listen to the entire track.
As you listen, ask yourself the following questions:
- Where is the end of the phrase?
- Does the phrase end in tonic?
- Where is the ii-V-I chord progression?
- How does the leading tone resolve?
- Are the chords in root position?
Exercise: Listening to “Autumn Leaves”
“Autumn Leaves” is a popular jazz standard with chord progressions that move leisurely through the circle of fifths. Try this exercise:
- Listen to the chords in “Autumn Leaves”
- Play the chords along with the video on guitar, piano, or another instrument
- Improvise over the chords in “Autumn Leaves”
Can you have a II-V7-I chord progression in minor?
The ii-V-I chord progression is not just used in major keys. You can also use it in minor keys, however, the chord qualities will be different.
Listen to the change in chord quality in minor. Play along with this I-II-V progression on your instrument, and improvise over it for extra practice.
The progression here is D° – G7 – Cm7(maj).
Building the II-V-I
So let’s take the C Natural Minor Scale. When you build on the second chord, you end up with a D Half Diminished Chord 7th with the notes D-F-Ab-C. Put all together, the chord progression sounds a little wonky:
Instead you can raise the B (the seventh degree) to make a G7 (G-B-D-F) chord.
The progression would now be D Half Dim 7-G7-Cmin7. Take a listen:
This chord progression is technically a ii°-V-i, when chord qualities are taken into account.
For an in-depth, exploratory look at the ii-V-i, Jazz Guitar Online has a wonderful illustrated guide to deriving and understanding the chords in the progression.
This chord progression can also be used as a passing chord for changing keys and playing around with more complex harmonies and chords. This is especially true in jazz music from yesterday and today. However, you will find the II-V-I chord progression in both major and minor scales used as a passing chord progression in other musical genres like classical, pop, and rock.
Exercise: Chord Progression Identification
Listen to the chord progressions below. Identify the minor II-V-I chord progression.
Tricks of the ii-V-I Trade
The ii-V-I progression’s structure and harmony allows it to be used in a variety of interesting ways. Let’s take a moment to see how the chord anatomy and chord sequence lend themselves well to certain types of songwriting.
The most common use of the ii-V-I chord progression in jazz music and other musical genres is as a turnaround.
What is a turnaround exactly? Typically, we think of a turnaround as the last two bars at the end of a musical section. It moves towards the tonic and transitions easily from one section to the next, like the bridge back to the top of a song. These transitions move the song forward. The ii-V-I chord progression does just that, because of its harmonic strength and undeniable pull towards to tonic.
One of the reasons that jazz composers and songwriters use the ii-V-I chord progression so much is that it is an easy way to move to a new key – the new tonic is all set up for you!
As you can imagine, going through the entire circle of fifths can take a while, like in the “Autumn Leaves” example from before. This progression allows the tune to move around harmonically and quickly, focusing on the resolution to the tonic.
Try the turnaround out for yourself – follow the simple chord progression to practice playing ii-V-I on your instrument:
Want to see more of the turnaround in action? Check out the Blues Guitar Institute’s video tutorial on the turnaround, the perfect resource to help you contextualize the turnaround in music.
One more interesting thing to point out regarding chord progressions in jazz and songs with more complex harmonies: the use of the 7th, 9th, and 13th chords.
Many of the examples we have listened to so far have been in the root position, with some use of the 7th chords – namely, the V7 chord. However, after you internalize the basic ii-V-I and want to expand to more complex harmonies, you will want to explore use of the additional chords like the 9th or 13th chords. You will also play with inversions, changing keys, and complex fluid harmonies that may bend our traditional Western harmony. And that is a-okay – great, even!
Many types of music have intriguing harmonies that truly blow your mind. The trick is to start easy, with basic chord progressions, then add interest by stacking notes. Really internalize what these chords sound like, how they function in a tune, and then apply this knowledge to your music. Know the basics, then explore. Experimentation is a beautiful thing.
Music Lab details how stacking notes on top of the classic ii-V-I progression adds to its power on their wonderful blog.
How to Use the ii-V-I Chord Progression in Songwriting
Now that you are more familiar with the sound, function, and uses of the ii-V-I chord progression, let’s move on to another skill in musicality – songwriting. How can you use this chord progression when you are writing music?
This progression is far from being a jazz one-trick pony, though as detailed in Learn Piano Joy’s “The Joy of Improvisation”, it’s certainly a jazz favourite for songwriting and improv. However, it’s also ripe for use in rock, country music, classical music, and pop music. Keep in mind the turnaround and note stacking possibilities of the progression, and sink your teeth into these exercises…
Exercise: Write a Short Tune Using the ii-V-I Chord Progression
In this exercise you will practice writing a short tune using the ii-V-I chord progression. You can choose any musical genre that you want. Use a guitar, piano, or digital audio workstation (like Garageband, ProTools, or Logic) to write. For this exercise, lyrics are not necessary, but you are welcome to add them to complete your song. Let’s dive in:
- Sketch out 16 bars using chord progressions in any major scale. This can be written as a lead sheet, a full score, your DAW’s score window, or even just chicken scratch on a notepad.
- Identify the end of the phrases, where the song resolves back to tonic.
- Use the ii-V-I chord progression for the end of one or two phrases.
- Make sure that the buildup and resolutions around the ii-V-I chords make sense harmonically, with the leading tone resolving to tonic, and the buildup to these chords following good voice leading – don’t create such an elaborate chord progression that it ends up sounding meandering and directionless! Simplicity is great.
- Improvise a short melody over the chord progressions. You can do this with your voice, on your instrument, or on your computer.
- Record your song.
- Play it back and listen to how the ii-V-I chord progression functions in your tune.
- Share with a friend and get some feedback about your work!
Exercise: Jamming Out with the Band / Revisiting “Autumn Leaves”
As you are building up your musicality, don’t forget the importance of performance. Take some time to play around with this sample built around the chord progressions from “Autumn Leaves”.
- Listen to the chord progression.
- Play the chords
- Improvise over the chords
“Autumn Leaves” cycles through the Circle of Fifths. Listen to the song a few times. Listen for the change in chords and how the motion moves towards the tonic:
Now, listen to this simple backing track using the G7-C7-F6 chord progression in the key of F. Then, pick up your instrument and jam along:
Countless tunes make use of the ii-V-I progression in various keys, rhythms, and iterations. Keep your ear out for appearances of this progression that you can practice jamming along to!
Embracing the ii-V-I
Now you have had an opportunity to learn about the function of the ii-V-I chord progression in music, don’t be surprised if you start hearing it everywhere! As mentioned, you can listen for the chord’s unique qualities like the leading tone and its movement by fifths, and for the signature turnaround.
Best of all, this progression was made for songwriting, neatly bringing you back to the tonic and allowing you to change keys smoothly. Experiment with some chord-based songwriting to discover the ii-V-I’s awesome power for yourself.
Ear training, particularly the practice of recognizing common chord progressions, is one of the best things you can do for your songwriting skills. As your ears become accustomed to listening to various progressions, your understanding of harmony will improve and yield some truly incredible, unique music.