ii-V-I Progression

ii-V-I Progression

Your Key to Better Jazz Piano Playing

When you want to learn how to play your favorite selections from the American Popular Songbook (music by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, etc.), you’ll need a system that will help you succeed.

Most piano students realize that only by understanding how to use chords like the ones printed above the melody line in a fakebook, will they be able to personalize the way they play their special songs.

Here’s How You Can Get Started Learning to Use these Chords

For every key in music, there are three important chords that combine to create its essence. This core harmonic progression is what I call the DNA of a key. The chord built on the second note or degree of the scale, identified by the Roman numeral ii, is the pre-dominant chord. This prepares your ear for moving toward a resolution or conclusion.

Next comes the chord built on the fifth scale degree, Roman numeral V. This is the most powerful chord in the key aptly called the dominant. This harmonic building block does the job of drawing or pulling your ear toward the place of resolution. “Where is that?” You ask. It’s none other than the chord that is built on the first note of the scale, Roman numeral I. Known as the tonic because it is the tone of the key; this is the chord of resolution. After hearing and playing the pre-dominant (ii) followed by the dominant (V), arriving on this home chord will make you feel settled.

Example No. 1 – Demonstrates ii-V-I in the keys of C Major and Eb Major. The first two measures of each system present the four-note harmonies as Block Chords. If you’re new playing major 7ths, 6ths, minor 7ths, and four-note dominant 7ths, you can start here. To add a bit of rhythm to your accompaniment pattern, you can then make use of the Um-Pah approach which is shown in the second half of each system.

Getting to Know You (Richard Rodgers) is a terrific song to help you practice and become familiar with these four-note chords (it’s in the key of C Major). At the Ed Mascari Piano Studios we’ve used this song to introduce these same chords to our piano students for many years. It has worked for them every time! For more practice of these patterns in the key of G Major, try How High the Moon (Morgan Lewis).

Converting the Four-Note Chords to the 10th System

Once you develop some skill with the chords shown above, you be ready and anxious to make your piano playing sound fuller. In order to do this, you’ll want to change the way that you play your ii – V – I chords.

Example No. 2 – Shows how the same harmonies work in the 10th System. Notice that root and fifth of each chord are now played one octave lower than they were in the Block Chord version. The third of each chord is still in the same place as before, but the distance from the root to the third is now 10 letter names: thus the term 10th.

This is called a system because only the ii chord and the I chord are actually 10ths. The V chord uses only its root and seventh. Likewise, the I chord in the second half of the measure works equally well with just its root and sixth. The missing chord tones for each harmony can be seen in the right hand parts. Notice how much fuller the ii – V – I progression sounds when it’s played using the 10th System.

Applying the 10th System to Your Favorite Standards

Now that you know an excellent way to play ii – V – I chord progressions, go through your favorite song and pick out all of the ii – V’s and ii – V – I’s that you can find. Keep in mind though, that some of these may be hidden among the chord names that you see at the top of each staff in your fakebook. For help with how to uncover these disguised progressions, take a look at my theory lesson, How to Arrange a Song in 12 Easy Steps.

Once you have identified all of these core progressions for a given standard tune, you’ll be able to learn them quickly because they all follow the same formula. As an added bonus, you’ll know more and more ii – V – I progressions that you can easily use for playing your other songs.

Here are some examples of songs that work beautifully with the 10th system accompaniment: Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned, Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow, George Gershwin’s Love Is Here to Stay, and Richard Rodgers’ My Romance.

9th Voicings – a Rich Addition to Your Accompaniment Arsenal

By now you’re probably ready for another accompaniment pattern that will give your playing some variety. Whether it’s a medium swing number like The Surrey with the Fringe on Top (Richard Rodgers) or a ballad such as Moonlight in Vermont (Karl Suessdorf), the 9th Voicings will provide you with an additional rich resource to use for your left hand accompaniment. Often, I find that the bridge of a song is best place to introduce the 9th Voicings.

Example No. 3 – Now you can see and hear the 9th Voicings. The ii – V – I pattern is again something that you can learn in one key and little by little become more comfortable with this material in other keys. You may be wondering why this example adds a third key (G major) as well as using the terms A Style and B Style 9th voicings.

The A Style 9th Voicings are used for the ii – V – I chords for the keys that occur in the first half of the octave (C Major, Db Major, D Major, Eb Major, E Major and F Major). The ii chord is voiced by playing the root on the first beat and then 3rd – 5th – 7th – 9th on the 2nd beat. To get the V chord, you simply lower the 7th by one half step.

The B Style 9th Voicings are used for the ii – V – I chords for the keys that occur in the second half of the octave (Gb Major, G Major, Ab Major, A Major, Bb Major and B Major). The ii chord is voiced by playing the root on the first beat and then 7th – 9th – 3rd – 5th on the 2nd beat. To get the V chord, you simply lower the 7th by one half step.


Notice that the I chord is voiced differently in the B style Voicing. On the 2nd beat you play 6th – 9th – 3rd – 5th, on the third beat you use the A Voicing 3rd – 5th – 7th – 9th, and then instead of playing a bass note on the fourth beat, you repeat the 6th – 9th – 3rd – 5th B Voicing.

Walking Bass Lines – Making Your ii-V-I Chords Swing

Whether you’re listening to a live recording of the Oscar Peterson Trio at Chicago’s London House, a solo piano CD by Boston’s own Dave McKenna or the up tempo version of Misty made famous by jazz organist Richard “Groove” Holmes, you’ll feel the music swinging. This is mainly due to the walking bass lines.

Example No. 4 – Shows you the formula that you can use to turn your ii – V – I progressions into walking bass lines. Although it’s possible to create walking lines for the ii – V – I’s by using the same two beats per chord pattern that we used in Examples 1, 2 & 3 (Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll does work this way), it works much better to spread out the harmonic pattern that it is used in Example 4. This gives your bass lines more room to breathe so to speak.

Here’s how the quarter note walking pattern works:

  • For the ii chord use: root, 2nd, 3rd, then a chromatic passing note.
  • For the V chord play: root, then the root one octave lower, flat 3rd , natural 3rd
  • For the I chord use: root, 3rd, 4th, and then move up chromatically (by half steps) until you get to the root an octave higher than where you started.

Keep this in mind when you listen to and play Example 4. Here are a few songs that will help you to get some practice creating and playing your own walking bass lines: Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma), Have You Met Miss Jones and This Can’t Be Love (Richard Rodgers).

If you really want to energize your ii – V – I bass lines, combine them with the bass line tool for Turn-Arounds discussed in the Walking Bass, Audio Music Theory Lesson.

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