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Why is the ii-V-I so popular in jazz?

What do Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto 2,” Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” The Beatles “From Me to You,” “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5 and “As It Was” by Harry Styles all have in common?

Well, if you guessed ii-V-I progressions (or just read the title of the blog) you’d be correct!

Seasoned jazz players have played over every type of chord and hundreds of different progressions. But the ii-V-I comes up more than any other in jazz.

But why? What is it about this progression that makes it work? And moreover, why does it lend itself so well to jazz?

Let’s jump in and break it down. But before we get going, we have a few ii-V-I PDF packages to get you started, including: 50 ii-V-I phrases, 60 minor ii-V-I phrases, and 50 ii-V-I licks. Make sure to check these out if you’re looking to improve your ii-V-I solo lines and improv.


Building a ii-V-I progression

What’s really going on here?

Going further with the ii-V-I

Building a ii-V-I progression

Before we go too in depth, let’s get up to speed on what we mean by a ii-V-I (said: 2-5-1) progression.

As the name implies, it uses the second, fifth, and tonic chords from a tonal center. Let's use the C Major tonality as an example.

C-D-E-F-G-A-B (building the ii chord)

C-D-E-F-G-A-B (building the V chord)

C-D-E-F-G-A-B (building the I chord)

From C major, that will be D minor, G major, and C major.

Often in jazz, these chords will also be extended with sevenths as Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7. But you can also give more creative extensions like Dm9 / G7#9b13 / Cmaj9. Often, the V chord will use alterations to introduce chromatic lines, voice leading and added tension.

But major keys don’t have all the fun—there are ii-V-I progressions in minor, too! More precisely, iiø7-V7-i progressions.

While the V chord remains a dominant chord, in the minor key, the ii is a half -diminished chord, and the i is minor.

In context, this would be Dm7b5 / G7 / Cm7 in C minor.

It’s also possible to build modal ii-V-I progressions:

Dorian: iim7 - vm7 - im7

Phyrgian: bIImaj7 - vø7 - im7

Lydian: II7 - Vmaj7 - I maj7

Mixolydian: iim7 - vm7 - I7

Aeolian: iiø7 - vm7 - im7

Locrian: bIImaj7 - bVmaj7 - iø7

While these progressions are technically correct as ii-V-I progressions, the absence of a major/dominant V chord weakens all of these progressions, making their resolutions less solid. For this reason, modal ii-V-I progressions aren’t widely used, but they do still exist.

What’s really going on here?

So now that we know what ii-V-I progressions are and how to build them, let’s talk about what’s going on harmonically.

We mentioned before that the progression had roots in classical music, and if you’ve ever taken a music theory course, you’ve likely seen this diagram.

This diagram outlines a common classical chord progression: iii - vi - ii - V - I, or in C:

Em / Am / Dm / G7 / C

In very technical terms, these chords take on the following names:

Mediant, submediant, predominant, dominant, tonic

(Take a deep breath, there are no pop quizzes here!)

You can also substitute the IV for the ii chord, since they both have a predominant function—meaning they both set up the V chord.

Taken too literally, this progression flow chart can be rigid and stifling. It’s important to remember that chord progressions do not have to follow this flow.

However, in the classical era, it was common to follow this progression.

There are a few reasons for this. First, this cycle creates a departure-tension-resolution arc. It departs from the tonic chord, creates tension that wants to resolve, then leads that resolution toward the tonic chord.

This progression also follows the circle of fifths. Notice how E is the fifth of A, A is the fifth of D, D is the fifth of G, and G is the fifth of C.

Ok, enough with that—this is Jazz Lesson Videos, not Classical Lesson Videos. ;)

Still, ragtime music was very influenced by this circle of fifths progression. Ragtime music, in turn, influenced the music of Tin Pan Alley, which included composers like Cole Porter and George Gershwin—names you’ll probably recognize from common jazz standards.

Tin Pan Alley composers influenced the development of jazz, which was already well underway as an evolution of the Blues. Tin Pan Alley composers often wanted to modulate quickly for dramatic effect in their musicals, and they found that the ii-V-I progression was a quick way to establish a key. They would use ii-V-I progressions in succession to change to new tonal centers.

This leads to the third reason this progression is so powerful—tonicization, which is just a fancy way of saying “making a chord sound like the tonic.” Part of why this happens is because of the leading tones and half steps inside of the ii-V-I progression.

From Dm7 (D F A C), the seventh wants to resolve down by half step to B.

From G7 (G B D F), the seventh wants to resolve down by a half step to E, and the third wants to resolve up by a half step to C.

It’s very common to see ii-V turnarounds at the end of jazz standards, which help kick the tune back to the top. This can be helpful if you want to prolong a tune and bring it back for another play-through. You may see these turnarounds at the end of a chart in brackets.

These Tin Pan Alley songs lived on as jazz standards, but also carried on as pop music (especially as Christmas music). This helped push the ii-V-I into today’s mainstream pop and rock hits.

Today, you can hear a ii-V-I in really any genre, and it’s one of the most common progressions. That said, some jazz musicians have branched out to try and breathe a little bit of life into the progression.

Going further with the ii-V-I

An easy way to take a ii-V-I further is to use it as a substitution.

In a standard blues form in C, the chart would look like this.

C7 / F7 / C7 / C7

F7 / F7 / C7 / C7

G7 / F7 / C7 / G7


I / IV / I / I

IV / IV / I / I

V / IV / I / V

Now let’s substitute ii-V progressions to make it a bit more interesting:

C7 / F7 / C7 / Gm7 C7

F7 / F7 / C7 / Em7 A7

Dm7 / G7 / C7 / Dm7 G7

These substitutions introduce some light chromaticism—a Bb on the Gm and C7, and a C# on the A7. In this case, we have substituted ii-V progressions to give movement toward important chords.

A famous example of taking the ii-V-I even further is John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” You can read all about our analysis of that tune here, but the short version is that it uses ii-V-I and V-I progressions to navigate to three major key centers in a cycle. This constant modulation gives the song a very driving and forward feel—where it keeps pushing ahead, enough so that it is notoriously difficult to solo over.

One final consideration for the ii-V-I is the substitution used for the ii-V-I—commonly known as the tritone substitution.

Tritone substitutions can take place anywhere, but commonly are seen as a movement from the ii chord to the I chord. The tritone substitution substitutes the V chord with a chord a tritone away. This creates chromatic bass movement while still maintaining the pull of the original ii-V-I.

For example in C:

Dm7 / G7 / Cmaj7 > D F A C / G B D F / C E G B

Dm7 / Db7 / Cmaj7 > D F A C / Db F Ab Cb / C E G B

When compared to the standard ii-V-I, you can see that the tritone sub chord has two notes in common with the V chord—the third and the seventh. This substitution creates strong voice leading with a sound that is more original than the tried-and-true ii-V-I.

If you want to get more practice, we have a few ii-V-I PDF packages that can get you soloing comfortably over this progression, including: 50 ii-V-I phrases, 60 minor ii-V-I phrases, and 50 ii-V-I licks.

That’s all for today—now get out there and slay some ii-V-I progressions!

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