2-5-1 Chord Progression Crash Course: Everything You Need To Know

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The 2-5-1 chord progression is the most common (and maybe most important) harmonic building block used in jazz standards. Knowing what ii-V-I chord progressions are, how to identify them, and how to improvise over them are essential to studying jazz!

Luckily, we will do a deep dive into the ii-V-I chord progression so that you’ll come away from this article with everything you need to understand, identify, and improvise over this essential chord progression.

We will also review common substitutions jazz musicians use in place of 2-5-1 progressions to add variety, tension, and altered sounds to their chord comping.

Whether you play jazz piano, jazz guitar, or a non-chordal instrument, you’ll need to know how chord progressions work to truly understand harmonic and improvisational concepts.

If you want to dive deeper into the 2-5-1 chord progression, then you need to check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.

The Inner Circle helps musicians master all the key elements of jazz, from music theory to improvisation. With instrument-specific courses, jazz theory and improvisation workshops, invaluable masterclasses, and a full library of jazz standard deep dives updated monthly…

…You’ll have everything you need to take your jazz playing to the next level!

Come see what the Inner Circle has to offer.

Understanding Scale Degrees, Keys, and Diatonic Chords!

Before diving into ii-V-Is, let’s take a moment to refresh scale degrees, diatonic chords in major and minor keys, and the Roman numerals we use to label and identify them. This will help us set the foundation for understanding chord progressions later on.

If you are already familiar with these concepts, please use the table of contents to skip to later sections!

Understanding Major Scale Degrees

Each note in the major scale has a name and associated number. These names and numbers help us understand the function of each note in relationship to the parent key.

Here are the notes in the C major scale labeled with their Roman numeral and their scale degree names:

  • vii° Leading Tone (B)
  • VI. Submediant (A)
  • V. Dominant (G)
  • IV. Subdominant (F)
  • iii. Mediant (E)
  • ii. Supertonic (D)
  • I. Tonic (C)
C Major with Scale Degrees and Numerals Labeled

Understanding Minor Scale Degrees

C major and A minor are relative major and minor keys. The notes and chords in the key of C major are the same as those in the key of A minor.

The difference lies in what note gets counted as the tonic.

Additionally, the seventh scale degree in minor keys is not called the leading tone. Rather, it is the Subtonic. Otherwise, everything is the same.

  • VII. Subtonic (G)
  • VI. Submediant (F)
  • v. Dominant (E)
  • iv. Subdominant (D)
  • I. Mediant (C)
  • ii°. Supertonic (B)
  • i. Tonic (A)
A Minor with Scale Degrees and Numerals Labeled

Comparing Major Scale Degrees and Minor Scale Degrees

Comoparing major and minor scale degree names

Building Diatonic Chords From Major and Minor Scales

Diatonic chords in major and minor keys are built from the scale degrees of the major scale and the minor scale, respectively (though they are both the same scale sequence).

Chords in C Major

If we take a C major scale and stack a third and a fifth above each note in the scale, we’ll get all the diatonic chords (triads) in the key of C major. However, you can’t simply stack any third or fifth! You need to use the notes in the scale to construct your chords.

That’s what makes these chords diatonic chords.

Let’s start by building a C major triad. Triads are three-note chords that contain three pieces of musical information:

  • Some Kind of Fifth: G (perfect fifth), Gb (diminished 5th), or G# (augmented fifth)
  • Some Kind of Third: E (major third) or Eb (minor third)
  • A Root: C

In the key of C, the major chord built from this note is called the tonic chord. It’s the “home base” of the key. (C chord, key of C—makes sense!). We then add a major third (E) and a perfect fifth (G):

C major chord or the I Chord

When we do this from every scale degree in C major, we get all C major diatonic chords:

C major scale with diatonic chords labeled in Roman numerals and chord names
  • vii° chord, or a diminished chord built off the Leading Tone
  • vi chord, or a minor chord built off the Submediant
  • V Chord, or a major chord built off the Dominant
  • VI Chord, or a major chord built off the Subdominant
  • iii Chord, or a minor chord built off the Mediant
  • ii Chord, or a minor chord built off the Supertonic
  • I Chord, or the Tonic Chord

Chords in A minor:

Let’s do the same with the chords in A minor, starting with an A minor chord. To build our A minor chord, we’ll need a minor third (C) and a perfect fifth (E):

A minor chord or the i chord

When we do this with all the scale degrees, we get all the diatonic chords in A minor:

A minor scale with diatonic chords labeled with Roman numerals and chord names
  • VIII chord, or a major chord built off the Subtonic
  • VI chord, or a major chord built off the Submediant
  • v Chord, or a minor chord built off the Dominant
  • vi Chord, or a minor chord built off the Subdominant
  • III Chord, or a major chord built off the Mediant
  • ii° Chord, or a diminished chord built off the Supertonic
  • i Chord, or the Tonic Chord

*note that sometimes the v chord in minor keys is replaced with a V chord (major triad instead of a minor triad). This change gives the V-i cadence more tension and weight and exhibits stronger voice leading.

Check out these articles for more on major triads, minor triads, and diminished triads.

Understanding the Roman Numeral System

Musicians use Roman numerals to express any chord from a particular key quickly. Major chords are labeled with capital Roman numerals, and minor chords are labeled with lowercase numerals. The numbers you see correlate to the chord you’d build from a particular scale degree.

If you know the key, you should be able to look at any chord progression written in Roman numerals and play it.

Finally… The 2-5-1 Chord Progression

This finally brings us to the focus of this article—2-5-1 progressions, or ii-V-I progressions!

2-5-1 chord progression on the staff

The 2-5-1 chord progression above lets you know the harmonic function of each chord in the progression. This chord progression starts on the ii chord, moves to the V chord, and then resolves to the I chord.

This is the essence of the chord progression.

In the key of C, you’d start on a D- chord, move to a G chord, and resolve to a C chord.

  • ii chord = D-
  • V chord = G
  • I chord = C
ii-V-I in the Key of C with D-, G, and C chords

In the key of F, you’d start on a G- chord, move to a C chord, and resolve to an F chord.

  • ii chord = G-
  • V chord = C
  • I chord = F
ii-V-I in the Key of F with G-, C, and F chords

In the key of Bb, you’d start on a C- chord, move to an F chord, and then resolve to Bb.

  • ii chord = C-
  • V chord = F
  • I chord = Bb
ii-V-I in the Key of Bb with C-, F, and Bb chords

Another Way to Think of ii-V-I Chord Progressions (The Key to Understanding Jazz Chord Progressions)

Moving along the circle of 4ths gives you a ii-V-I sequence

Jazz harmony is notorious for moving in fourths.

The 2-5-1 progression is a perfect example of this concept. Pick any key on the circle of fifths as your starting point. In the image above, I chose D as the starting point.

If you move counterclockwise on the circle, you move in fourths instead of fifths (clockwise). If you start on D and move counterclockwise, you’ll hit G and C.

D to G to C = II-V-I (II because we are only looking at root notes)

Let’s try starting on a different key.

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Here, I picked C as the starting point. If we move counterclockwise, we’ll land on F and end on Bb. Another II-V-I! The circle of fifths reveals the harmonic progression most commonly used in jazz.

The ii-V-I Chord Progression is the Basic Building Block of Jazz Harmony

This basic harmonic concept is all over jazz standards.

Let’s explore a few jazz standards to demonstrate:

Autumn Leaves

Here are the first four bars of Autumn Leaves in G- (Though I have them labeled as if they were in Bb because it makes it easier to analyze the function of the chords in the chord progression).

Screenshot 2024 02 23 at 1.39.53 PM

This four bar phrase moves in the circle of fourths, starting on C-, moving to F7, resolving to Bb, then moving an additional fourth to Eb.

Here is the chord progression for the first four bars of Autumn Leaves shown on the circle of 5ths:

First four bars of the Autumn Leaves Chord Progression shown on the circle of fifths

For more on Autumn Leaves, check out this article breaking down Autumn Leaves chords.

All The Things You Are

The jazz standard All The Things You Are moves in exactly the same way as Autumn Leaves. The root of each chord moves up in fourths until the third-to-last bar (root movement: F – Db). Then it resets to D and moves up in fourths to C.

First 8 bars of the jazz standard All The Things You Are in Ab

Here it is on the circle of 5ths, starting at F (F-) and resolving to Db. I’ve also included the last three bars, which contain a ii-V-I chord progression to C major.

First 8 bars of the jazz standard All The Things You Are in Ab shown on the circle of 5ths

For more information, check out this harmonic analysis of All the Things You Are.

The Minor ii-V-i Chord Progression

2-5-1 chord progressions are not limited to major keys—they also work in minor keys. The principle is the same; however, the chord qualities change. Usually, a minor ii-V-i starts with a half-diminished chord for the ii. It then moves to an altered V chord before resolving to a minor chord.

Bars 5-8 of Autumn Leaves contain a basic example of a minor ii-V-i:

minor ii-V-i in Autumn Leaves

This is what that progression looks like on the circle of 5ths:

Bars 5-8 of the Autumn Leaves Chord Progression shown on the circle of fifths

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What’s Actually Happening in a ii-V-I Chord Progression

Now that we understand what 2-5-1 chord progressions are and why they are important in jazz music, let’s peer under the hood to discover what’s happening with the notes as we move through each chord.

Understanding how the chord tones change will help you better understand jazz harmony and make you a stronger improviser because you’ll know exactly what notes to target when playing over a 2-5-1 progression.

To start, let’s examine the notes in the ii chord, V chord, and I chord. We’ll use a ii-V-I chord progression in C major for this example.

Here is a root position 2-5-1 chord progression with the notes labeled:

Root position ii-V-I chord progression in C major

However, the voice leading is less clear when the chords are in root position. Let’s change the inversion on the G7 chord to bring it closer to the D-7 and Cmaj7 chords.

In the following ii-V-I, we’ve brought the G and the B up an octave to create a 2nd inversion dominant seventh chord. This change in the chord voicing will help us illustrate how the chord tones move through the chord progression.

ii-V-I chord progression with different chord voicings

Guide Tones

Guide tones help guide the movement of notes through a chord progression. Technically, the guide tones are the 3rd and 7th of a chord, but any note in a chord can move with good voice leading.

Check out how each note moves (or doesn’t move) in our 2-5-1 progression:

Color-coded guide tone analysis of a 2-5-1 chord progresison in C major

ii – V

When the minor chord switches to the dominant chord, the C (7th of D-7) moves to B (3rd of G7), the A (5th of D-7) moves to G (root of G7), and the F (3rd of D-7 and 7th of G7) and D (root of D-7 and 5th of G7) stay the same.

How Notes Voice Lead From Minor to Dominant Chord

V – I

Then, when the dominant chord resolves to major, the B (3rd of G7 and 7th of Cmaj7) stays the same. The G (root of G7 and 5th of Cmaj7) also remains the same. The F (7th of G7) moves to E (3rd of Cmaj7), and the D (5th of G7) moves to C (root of Cmaj7).

How Notes Voice Lead From Dominant Chord to Tonic Chord

Shell-Voicings

Shell Voicings are three-note voicings with only a root, a 3rd, and a 7th. Forgetting about extensions for a moment, you only need these three notes to understand the harmonic movement in any chord progression.

  • The root tells you where to place the chord in a key or tonal center
  • The 3rd tells you whether the chord is major or minor
  • The 7th tells you whether there is a major seventh interval or a minor seventh interval

The 5th isn’t always important when understanding voice leading in a progression. (However, there are instances where the 5th is very important because the chord is diminished or a half-diminished seventh chord).

Shell-Voicings In a ii-V-I Chord Progression:

Shell-Voicings In a ii-V-I Chord Progression:

Common 2-5-1 Chord Substitutions and Variations

Now that we understand 2-5-1 chord progressions, let’s break the rules like good jazz musicians and talk about common ii-V-I substitutions you’ll encounter in the wild. Some ii-V substitutions are written into jazz standards, while others are used by jazz musicians on the fly to add variety.

Here are some common ii-V-I chord progression substitutions and variations.

II7-V7-I

In this variation, the ii chord is replaced with a II7 chord. The jazz standard But Not For Me often opens with a II7 chord instead of a ii chord.

Firrst 8 bars of Vut Not For Me

The dominant II sound is common in jazz tunes. The scale you’d use to improvise over it is called the Lydian Dominant scale, and it’s the fourth mode of the melodic minor scale!

For more on the melodic minor scale, check out our guide to the melodic minor modes.

iv-bVII-I

The iv-bVII is another ii-V substitution that jazz musicians use frequently. In another key, a iv-bVII is just another ii-V, but we label it according to where it resolves. It plays with the iv – I cadence and will probably be recognizable to you.

This variation is used in tunes like I Should Care:

Chord chart for I Should Care

Mixed ii-Vs

It’s common for minor iiø-V chord progressions to resolve to major chords. This is another harmonic device written into many jazz tunes.

Here is one example from the jazz tune What Is This Thing Called Love:

Mixed ii-V in the jazz song What Is This Thing Called Love

There are many other ways jazz musicians vary chord progressions. For more on chord substitutions and the infamous tritone substitution, check out these articles on tritone substitutions and chord substitutions.

Improvising Over 2-5-1 Chord Progressions

Now it’s time to improvise over ii-V-I chord progressions! Don’t fear—you now know exactly how these chord progressions function! You’ll be set if you place the guide tones on downbeats, outline the changes, and resolve to the tonic chord.

Here are some jazz improv tips to help keep you on track.

  • Outline the Changes: Chord tones are your best friend—use arpeggios to outline the changes and place chord tones on the downbeats.
  • Learn Bebop Scales and Elements of Jazz Vocabulary: From enclosure figures to chromatic approach tones, there are many elements of the jazz language that you’ll need to understand to speak the language well. Check out the 20 Jazz Licks link in the next section for a deep dive into the fundamentals of jazz language.
  • Learn Jazz licks: Jazz licks help you get a practical handle on jazz vocabulary. Here is an article that will teach you 20 jazz licks. Also, check out our article on jazz guitar licks for even more licks. (Though the licks are played on guitar, most are jazz licks first and jazz guitar licks second.)
  • Apply these concepts to real jazz standards!

Want To Master Jazz Chord Progressions Like The 2-5-1? Join the Inner Circle

If you want to take your jazz playing to the next level, learn jazz standards, and master jazz vocabulary, then check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.

The Inner Circle Membership gives you access to over ten years of jazz education resources, from workshops and masterclasses to in-depth courses (even instrument-specific courses!) on every jazz topic.

Plus, you’ll gain access to our jazz standard library, where we have deep dives on many jazz standards (and add a new one each month!).

If you want to take your jazz chops to the next level, check out what the Inner Circle offers.

TAKE YOUR JAZZ PLAYING TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

We help musicians of all instruments start improvising confidently over jazz standards in just 30 days without mind-numbing hours of practice or the overwhelm.

TAKE YOUR JAZZ PLAYING TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

We help musicians of all instruments start improvising confidently over jazz standards in as little as 30 days without mind-numbing hours of practice or the overwhelm.

“Jazz music is the power of now. There is no script. It’s conversation. The emotion is given to you by musicians as they make split-second decisions to fulfill what they feel the moment requires.”
WYNTON MARSALIS

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For play-alongs and eBooks:

Because these are digital downloads, and not returnable, we have a strict no refund policy. All purchases are final and cannot be reversed. Please be sure that you fully understand the product you are purchasing and what is and what is not included. Of course, if you ever have any questions about a product feel free to contact usor visit our FAQ page.

For 30 Days to Better Jazz Playing eCourse

Please make sure you completely understand the product you are buying before purchasing.

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Text the keyword STOP, STOPALL, END, CANCEL, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT to the telephone number, long code, or short code that sends you our initial confirmation message to cancel. After texting STOP, STOPALL, END, CANCEL, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT to the telephone number, long code, or short code that sends you our initial confirmation message you will receive one additional message confirming that your request has been processed. If you change your preferences, it may take up to 48 hours for it to take effect. You acknowledge that our text message platform may not recognize and respond to unsubscribe requests that do not include the STOP, STOPALL, END, CANCEL, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT keyword commands and agree that Learn Jazz Standards and its service providers will have no liability for failing to honor such requests. If you unsubscribe from one of our text message programs, you may continue to receive text messages from Learn Jazz Standards through any other programs you have joined until you separately unsubscribe from those programs.

Help or Support

Text the keyword HELP to the telephone number, long code, or short code that sends you our initial confirmation message to receive a text with information on how to unsubscribe.

No Warranty

TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT ALLOWED BY APPLICABLE LAW, YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT THE MESSAGING PROGRAM IS PROVIDED ON AN “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” BASIS WITHOUT WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, WHETHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED.

Limitation of Liability

TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT ALLOWED BY APPLICABLE LAW, YOU AGREE THAT IN NO EVENT SHALL EITHER OF Learn Jazz Standards OR ANY PARTY ACTING ON BEHALF OF Learn Jazz Standards BE LIABLE FOR: (A) ANY CLAIMS, PROCEEDINGS, LIABILITIES, OBLIGATIONS, DAMAGES, LOSSES OR COSTS IN AN AGGREGATE AMOUNT EXCEEDING THE GREATER OF THE AMOUNT YOU PAID TO Learn Jazz Standards HEREUNDER OR $100.00; OR (B) ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, CONSEQUENTIAL, SPECIAL, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE OR ANY OTHER DAMAGES. YOU AGREE EVEN IF Learn Jazz Standards HAS BEEN TOLD OF POSSIBLE DAMAGE OR LOSS ARISING OR RESULTING FROM OR IN ANY WAY RELATING TO YOUR USE OF THE Learn Jazz Standards MESSAGING PROGRAM. Learn Jazz Standards AND ITS REPRESENTATIVES ARE NOT LIABLE FOR THE ACTS OR OMISSIONS OF THIRD PARTIES, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO DELAYS OR NON-DELIVERY IN THE TRANSMISSION OF MESSAGES.

Indemnity

To the maximum extent allowed by applicable law, you agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless Learn Jazz Standards, its directors, officers, employees, servants, agents, representatives, independent contractors and affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, liabilities, actions, causes of action, costs, expenses, including reasonable attorneys’ fees, judgments or penalties of any kind or nature arising from or in relation to the these Messaging Terms or your receipt of text messages from Learn Jazz Standards or its service providers.

Dispute Resolution

  1. General. Any dispute or claim arising out of or in any way related to these Messaging Terms or your receipt of text messages from Learn Jazz Standards or its service providers whether based in contract, tort, statute, fraud, misrepresentation, or any other legal theory, and regardless of when a dispute or claim arises will be resolved by binding arbitration. YOU UNDERSTAND AND AGREE THAT, BY AGREEING TO THESE MESSAGING TERMS, YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards ARE EACH WAIVING THE RIGHT TO A TRIAL BY JURY OR TO PARTICIPATE IN A CLASS ACTION AND THAT THESE MESSAGING TERMS SHALL BE SUBJECT TO AND GOVERNED BY ARBITRATION.
  2. Exceptions. Notwithstanding subsection (a) above, nothing in these Messaging Terms will be deemed to waive, preclude, or otherwise limit the right of you or Learn Jazz Standards to: (i) bring an individual action in small claims court; (ii) pursue an enforcement action through the applicable federal, state, or local agency if that action is available; (iii) seek injunctive relief in aid of arbitration from a court of competent jurisdiction; or (iv) file suit in a court of law to address an intellectual property infringement claim.
  3. Arbitrator. Any arbitration between you and Learn Jazz Standards will be governed by the JAMS, under the Optional Expedited Arbitration Procedures then in effect for JAMS, except as provided herein. JAMS may be contacted at www.jamsadr.com. The arbitrator has exclusive authority to resolve any dispute relating to the interpretation, applicability, or enforceability of this binding arbitration agreement.
  4. No Class Actions. YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards AGREE THAT EACH MAY BRING CLAIMS AGAINST THE OTHER ONLY IN AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND NOT AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING. Further, unless both you and Learn Jazz Standards agree otherwise in a signed writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a representative or class proceeding. You agree that, by agreeing to these Messaging Terms, you and Learn Jazz Standards are each waiving the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action, collective action, private attorney general action, or other representative proceeding of any kind.
  5. No Class Actions. YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards AGREE THAT EACH MAY BRING CLAIMS AGAINST THE OTHER ONLY IN AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND NOT AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING. Further, unless both you and Learn Jazz Standards agree otherwise in a signed writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a representative or class proceeding.
  6. Modifications to this Arbitration Provision. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in these Messaging Terms, if Learn Jazz Standards makes any future change to this arbitration provision, you may reject the change by sending us written notice within 30 days of the change to Learn Jazz Standards’s contact information provided in the “Contact Us” section below, in which case this arbitration provision, as in effect immediately prior to the changes you rejected, will continue to govern any disputes between you and Learn Jazz Standards.
  7. Enforceability. If any provision of these Messaging Terms is found to be unenforceable, the applicable provision shall be deemed stricken and the remainder of these Messaging Terms shall remain in full force and effect.

Changes to the Messaging Terms

We reserve the right to change these Messaging Terms or cancel the messaging program at any time. By using and accepting messages from Learn Jazz Standards after we make changes to the Messaging Terms, you are accepting the Messaging Terms with those changes. Please check these Messaging Terms regularly.

Entire Agreement/Severability

These Messaging Terms, together with any amendments and any additional agreements you may enter into with us in connection herewith, will constitute the entire agreement between you and Learn Jazz Standards concerning the Messaging Program.

Contact

Please contact us with any inquiries or concerns at [email protected]

OUR PROVEN PROCESS FOR LEARNING JAZZ STANDARDS LIKE A PRO

Get our FREE eGuide “Learn Jazz Standards the Smart Way” and follow the 5 simple steps for crushing it with jazz standards.

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OUR PROVEN PROCESS FOR LEARNING JAZZ THEORY LIKE A PRO

Get our FREE “Jazz Theory Made Easy Fast Track Guide” and follow the 4 simple steps that make learning jazz theory easy.

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OUR PROVEN PROCESS FOR IMPROVISING JAZZ SOLOS LIKE A PRO

Get our FREE “Jazz Improv Made Easy Fast Track Guide” and follow the 3 simple steps for improvising amazing jazz solos.

Jazz Improv Made Easy Fast Track Guide Ebook Cover

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "2-5-1 Chord Progression Crash Course: Everything You Need To Know" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "2-5-1 Chord Progression Crash Course: Everything You Need To Know" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "2-5-1 Chord Progression Crash Course: Everything You Need To Know" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart