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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.


Contents


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.