VII. Jazz

ii–V–I

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • ii7–V7–Imaj7 in major, or iiø7–V7–iin minor, is a fundamentally important progression in traditional jazz.
  • The progression can be identified through a combination of by fifths plus its distinctive sequence of ( in major, or in minor).
  • Because this progression is so important to jazz, the concept of applied chords can expand to include applied subdominant chords—i.e., the ii chord.
  • Incomplete ii–V–Is, i.e., ii–Vs, can also be identified because the combination of root motion and quality is so distinctive.

 Chapter Spotify Playlist

Example 1 shows final cadences from four jazz tunes. Look at the harmonies—a pattern should be apparent (you can listen to the tunes through the chapter Spotify playlist linked above).

Notation and lead sheet symbols. Afternoon in Paris: Dm7, G7, Cmaj7. All the Things You Are: B♭m7, E♭7, A♭maj7. My Funny Valentine: Fm7, B♭7, E♭6. Joy Spring: Gm7, C7, F.
Example 1. Afternoon in Paris,” “All the Things You Are,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Joy Spring” all share similar harmonic progressions at their final cadences: ii–V–I.

All the examples end in . But the similarities don’t end there: each PAC is preceded by the ii chord. So we have three chords, each related to the next by fifth.

This ii–V–I progression is one of the most important progressions in jazz music. You can find it reliably at cadences, but also as a building block that occurs throughout a tune. When the progression occurs in a major key, as in the snippets in Example 1, the chord qualities of these chords are m7–7–maj7. When the tune is in minor, the shift in mode changes the quality of the harmonies to ø7–7–min7 (the V chord is major whether you are in a major or a minor key). Both of these progressions and a typical voice leading pattern are summarized in Example 2.


Example 2. Prototypical harmonies and voice leadings in ii–V–I progressions, in both major and minor modes.

ii–V–I as schema

 is a useful concept in music theory, used in many ways within this book (pop harmony, for one). Put simply, schemas are common patterns our brains can recognize, even when variations are altering a specific presentation of that schema.

The ii–V–I progression is an example of a schema. It happens so frequently that informed listeners can recognize the schema in many formats. Some examples of alterations are given in Example 3. In “Misty,” the maj7 chord is replaced with a 6 chord (this occurred in “My Funny Valentine” in Example 2 also). In “Prelude to a Kiss,” the typically dominant-quality V chord is replaced with an augmented chord (the minor 7th is preserved). The V chord is altered in “A Night in Tunisia,” but this time, the fifth is lowered instead of raised.

notation
Example 3. The ii–V–I is still recognizable, even if alterations occur.

Applied ii–Vs

An important marker of is the chord’s . This is most obvious in the case of the dominant seventh , which shares a namesake with dominant function: the dominant chord. Fully-diminished chords also have dominant function.

The compositional technique of  capitalizes on the relationship between quality and function by taking dominant chords out of their key, and dropping them into a new key. The applied dominant chords retain their function as dominant chords even when applied to a chord other than I (this concept is fully explained in the Applied Chords chapter).

The omnipresence of ii–V–I as a schema in jazz means that, in this style, we can have not only applied dominants, but applied ii chords as well. In other words, the entire ii–V–I progression can be used in keys other than the tonic key to another chord. The association between these chord qualities and root motions is so strong that a ii–V progression need not even resolve to its I chord to create the effect of a ii–V.

Take the rest of the A section of “Afternoon in Paris” as an example (Example 4). Not only does it end with a ii–V–I progression, but it begins with two other ii–V–Is: one tonicizing B♭ major, which is ♭VII in the key of C, immediately followed by another in A♭ major, which is ♭VI in the key of C.

Chord symbols over measures. Cm7 F7 B♭maj7 is bracketed as tonicizing B♭. B♭m7 E♭7 A♭maj7 is bracketed as tonicizing A♭.
Example 4. Afternoon in Paris” by John Lewis uses ii–V–I progressions in different keys in sequence.

ii–V space

By relating all possible ii–V–I motions together, we can come up with a space in which these progressions operate, and visualize how the ii–V–Is in “Afternoon in Paris” are related. This idea comes from Michael McClimon (2017), and his “ii–V space” is reproduced in Example 5. The space is arranged as the circle of fifths (note the letter names at the end of each progression), with each chord in the circle preceded by a ii–V.

visual diagram described in-text
Example 5. McClimon’s ii–V space relates ii–V progressions of keys related by fifth.

Each arrow indicates a type of transformation from the first chord to the chord at the other end of the arrow. There are four different variations of arrows in Example 5, and each signifies a different transformation. The two solid arrows have to do with root motion: the black arrows connect chords within a ii–V–I schema, while the gray arrows show the circle-of-5ths relationships. The dashed arrows show changes to chord quality. The larger dashes indicate that the chord is the same, except the seventh has been lowered. So each larger-dashed arrow connects a maj7 chord to a (dom)7 chord with the same root. The smaller dashes show that the chord is the same, but the third has been lowered: each smaller-dashed arrow connects a 7 chord to a m7 chord with the same root.

diagram
Example 6. “Afternoon in Paris” transforms Imaj7 chords into minor seventh chords, thus changing their function: they become ii7 chords.

Example 6 traces the progressions in “Afternoon in Paris” that were annotated in Example 4. Notice how the space helps illustrate the logic of the progression: by transforming the preceding Imaj7 chords into ii7 chords, it forces a modulation down by whole step.

Understanding a piece through the ii–V schema

The logic of a chromatic progression like the one in Lee Morgan’s “Ceora” becomes more intelligible when viewed through this lens. An analysis originally by McClimon is explained in the video below.

Example 7.Ceora” by Lee Morgan is entirely composed of ii–V–Is.

Turnarounds

A particularly common version of applied ii–Vs comes in what is called the . In the broadest sense, a turnaround is a progression that serves to loop back to the original tonic chord, and the typical progression that achieves this is I–vi–ii–V–I. Using the concept of applied chords, we can substitute a V7/ii for the vi chord, since they share the same root. But we can also precede that V7 with its ii chord—effectively, a ii/ii (two of two). Thus, the ii chord of the turnaround is tonicized with its own ii–V–(I) progression. This tonicized version of the turnaround is a very common variant (Example 8).

Example 8. The schema has diatonic and chromatic variants.

Further reading
Assignments
  • ii–V–I worksheet (.pdf, .docx). Worksheet playlist Note that these lead sheets are not public domain and thus cannot be posted here; however, the lead sheets are not difficult to find if you search the internet or ask around.
  • Composing with ii–V–I worksheet (.pdf, .mscz, .musicxml). This functions as a preparatory assignment for the Tin Pan Alley AABA Composition.

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Open Music Theory by Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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