The Major II V I Progression

The Major II V I chord progression.

What is it? and Why and how it works?

Here is the C major scale with chords built on it:

If you build chords upwards from each note of the major scale starting from the 1st note, in this case C E G or 1 3 5 you will have chord I, building from the 2nd note D F A or 1 3 5 is chord II and so on…

Some of the chords that are formed from the notes of the major scale are major and others are minor.

These chords can be arranged in various orders and the II V I progression is one of many orders that can be used to create tension and release chordally.

A II V I in the key of C Major is :

- Dmin
V - Gmaj
I - Cmaj

If you play those chords successively you will undoubtedly have heard them before in some shape or form. Film music composers of the 1930s and 1940s wrote songs for the stars to sing in popular films which were rampant with these type of chord progressions. These songs were adopted by many jazz musicians and subsequently became known as standards where the jazz musician would take the chord progressions and play the melody on their particular instrument that the star of the movie would have sung, then proceed to solo over the chord progression.

In the basic chord formation page there was some information about chord embellishment where notes were added to the basic 3 note chord (triad) in order to “beef up” the chord. We are now going to apply that method to the chords which make up the II V I progression.

- Dmin7
V - G7
I - Cmaj7

Because these chords are derived from the C major scale and even though notes have been added to the triads, the added notes belong to the scale, therefore the chords are diatonic, for example :

Cmaj7 the notes are C E G B, all those notes belong to the C major scale, so the chord is diatonic. If, however we take a G7#9, (a potential substitution for the G7 chord) the notes are G B D F A#, all those notes except for the A# belong to the C major scale, but because the A# is present, the chord would be categorised as a non diatonic chord in relation to the C major scale, and therefore a II V I in the key of C. This is important to understand because we are going to be combining diatonic and non diatonic harmony in the formation of chords to be used in the II V I chord progression and, this is where tension and release comes into practice.

For example, in the diatonic, playing the following chords Dmin7, G7 and Cmaj7, you could use just the C major scale to improvise with because all the notes used to form those chords reside in the C major scale, or as was mentioned in the major scale modes, you could apply the relative mode to the chord, Dmin7 - D dorian mode, G7 - G mixolydian mode and Cmaj7 - C ionian mode. However, even doing that, you are still using diatonic notes exclusively.

So, lets look at the diatonic integrated with non diatonic example:

- Dmin9 diatonic D Dorian mode
V - G7#9 non diatonic G Altered scale
I - Cmaj7 diatonic C Major scale (Ionian)

You will notice from above, the chord G7#9 is substituted for the G7 chord, the reason for this is because the V chord has a strong impulse towards the I chord. As a result of this strong impulse or this tension if you like, even more tension is applied by altering the V chord, eg. G7 often becomes G7b9, #9, 13b9 and 7#5 and the scale that corresponds to these type of altered chords is the altered scale which is the 7th mode of the jazz melodic minor.

It is a good idea to practise and become familiar with the sound of the altered scale as the usage of this scale resolving to the major in a II V I chord progression is the first step to getting that jazz kind of sound.

Just as there is tension and release notes in scales, there is tension and release between chords; the technical name for the type of chord progression we are dealing with at this point is a cadence. Cadences are practices that create tension and release within chord progressions.

Here are some II V I examples:

II V I Example 1

II V I Example 2

There are many jazz tunes that utilise the II V I chord progression and a good understanding of how they work is essential in order to improvise idiomatically.