2-5-1 Chord Progression—5 Levels from Beginner to Pro
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The 2-5-1 chord progression is indispensable to the compositional fabric of the Great American Songbook. Therefore, an essential study topic for jazz piano students is how to play 2-5-1 progressions using conventional jazz piano voicings. Today’s Quick Tip explores this most important skill in 5 levels—from beginner to pro. You’ll learn:
- What is a 2-5-1 chord progression?
- Beginner: Chord Shells for 2-5-1
- Late Beginner: Extensions for 2-5-1
- Early Intermediate: Rootless Voicings for 2-5-1
- Late Intermediate: Quartal Voicings for 2-5-1
- Advanced: Upper Structures for 2-5-1
- Bonus: Altered Voicings for 2-5-1
This lesson will help you identify where your jazz voicing skills currently are and how to take your sound to the next level.
Intro to the 2-5-1 Chord Progression
There are certain sounds of the modern era that our ears recognize immediately, such as an ambulance siren approaching or a plane in the sky overhead. These sounds occur with such frequency that we might even tune them out. In a similar way, the ii-V-I chord progression underpins the harmonic tapestry of most jazz compositions, whether we notice it or not. Take a moment to listen to the opening of each of the jazz standards below. Each of these tunes begin with a 2-5-1 chord progression.
“I Fall In Love Too Easily”
“My Little Suede Shoes”
Additional jazz standards that begin with a 2-5-1 chord progression include “Autumn Leaves,” “Fools Rush In,” “Valse Hot” and dozens of others. Of course, not all jazz standards open with a 2-5-1 progression. However, this progression is so common that it can be found in the Real Book on nearly every page!
A 2-5-1 chord progression (aka: ii-V-I) is a common musical convention of three consecutive chords which effectively establish a key. For example, the chords Dm7→G7→Cmaj7 create a pleasing sound that identifies C major as a tonal center. The numeric identifiers in a 2-5-1 progression represent the relationship of each chord to the tonal center—aka the “tonic.”
Jazz music in particular contains prevalent use of 2-5-1 chord progressions as a foundational compositional device. However, examples of this common chord progression can be found in nearly all genres of popular music.
“The ii-V-I progression and its components makes up a high percentage of the harmonic landscape of jazz standards. Because the progression is so common, jazz musicians spend a lot of time practicing voicings and licks for ii-V-I progressions.” ¹
The Number System
In order to better understand what we mean by 2-5-1, let’s examine all of the 7th chords that naturally occur in C major. First, however, we must identify the notes of C Major Scale on which these chords are built.
C Major Scale
Next, we’ll build a 4-note chord on each note of the C major scale. These are called diatonic 7th chords, (Latin: dia – through, across; tonos – tone, tonal). This term quite literally identifies the following diatonic 7th chords all of the chords “through the tonality” of C major.
Diatonic 7th Chords in C Major
When we analyze chords numerically according to a key center, we gain a better understanding of their harmonic function. The number system allows us to describe how chords within a progression are related to one another. Using the diagram above, what numeric labels would you assign to the chord progression: Dm7→G7→Cmaj7? That’s right!…II→V→I.
When we write a harmonic analysis as IIm7→V7→Imaj7, we are further describing the quality of each chord. In other words, a minor 7th chord for the II, a dominant 7th chord for the V, and a major 7th chord for the I. These are the chord qualities that occur naturally in a 2-5-1 progression. However, 2-5-1 progressions frequently mix and match various chord qualities. In particular, the 2-chord may be a half diminished chord or a dominant 7th chord. The 1-chord can also be a major 6th chord, a minor 7th chord or a minor 6th chord. In addition, the 5-chord can be any of the altered dominant varieties.
Check out the following PWJ resources to master 2-5-1 progressions with 7th chords in all twelve major and minor keys:
2-5-1 Chord Progression: 5 Levels from Beginner to Pro
So far, we’ve explored what a 2-5-1 chord progression is and from where it comes. In addition, we’ve listened to several examples of 2-5-1 chord progressions in classic jazz recordings. Next, you’ll play classic jazz piano voicings for this essential chord progression. These voicings are presented in 5 progressive skill levels—from beginner to pro.
Before continuing, be sure to download the complete PDF lesson sheet and backing tracks that accompany this lesson. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this material into any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Chords vs. Voicings?
You might be wondering, “What’s the different between a chord and a voicing?” A chord voicing is specific selection and distribution of chord tones to achieve a desired sound for a particular musical style. Therefore, all voicings are chords, but not all chords are voicings. Consider the following example:
2-5-1 Exercise: Root Position Chords
This 2-5-1 progression uses root position chords with the notes stacked directly above the root. While this is certainly a 2-5-1 progression, it doesn’t really sound like jazz, does it? That’s because the chords aren’t voiced yet. However, this type of exercise is extremely valuable for at least two reasons:
- Root position chord progressions allow students to easily visualize which chords are being used with respect to the key.
- Root position chord progressions allow students to easily identify the relationship of each chord tone to the root (3rd, 5th, 7th, etc.).
Now, let’s check out some Level 1 chord voicings.
If you are a beginner jazz piano student, the first step to make your piano chords sound like jazz is to use chord shells instead of root position chords.
Chord shell is broad term that describes any 2 or 3 note voicing that supplies the essential tones needed to imply a given chord. In most cases, chord shells contain any combination of the root, 3rd and 7th. However, sometimes the 6th is used in a chord shell and occasionally the 5th is used as well, though less frequently.
Today’s lesson focuses a 3-note chord shells containing the Root+3rd+7th. In addition, we will also play Root+3rd+6th chord shells for C major 6. In order for you to understand how to apply these shells, we also need to introduced another term.
The term guide tones refers to the 3rd and 7th of the chord (or the 3rd and 6th in the case of a major 6th chord.)
Each of the following voicing examples contain the roots in the left hand and the guide tones in the right hand. Upon closer examination, you will notice that sometimes the guide tones are voiced 3/7 (3rd on bottom) and at other times they are voiced 7/3 (3rd on top). To distinguish between these two options, we’ll call the 7/3 construction inverted guided tones.
When selecting which jazz piano voicings to use for a given chord progression, one primary goal is to create smooth transitions from one chord to the next. We call this voicing leading. To achieve the best voicing leading on a 2-5-1 progression, it is necessary to alternate between guide tones (3/7) and inverted guide tones (7/3), or vice versa. This voicing solution creates strong voice leading by keeping the common tone in the same octave as you transition from ii→V→I. However, once you arrive on the 1-chord, you do not need to alternate between guide tones and inverted guide tones for Cmaj7→Cmaj6.
Now that we’ve explained how to think about voicing leading with chord shells on a 2-5-1 progression, let’s play two different voicing solutions.
Level 1 – Example 1
Level 1 – Example 2
Chord shells are presented here as Level 1 beginner voicings because they are a first step beyond root position chords, which inherently do not feature strong voice leading. However, professional jazz pianists also use chord shells as an important tool in their voicing arsenal. In fact, chord shells are perfect for piano/vocalists who want to accompany themselves while singing.
For a deep dive on chord shells, check out the following full-length courses:
- Chord Shells & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2)
Now, let’s check out the next level.
If you are a late beginner student, these Level 2 voicings are for you. In this step, we’ll play three-note voicings in the right hand for a fuller sound. These voicings follow the exact same voice-leading principles as in step 1. In fact, if you look closely at the right hand, you’ll see that these voicings are literally the guide tones plus one additional note. Sometimes, the additional note is the 5th of the chord. However, in other cases, we’ll add a chord extension. Chord extensions are notes beyond the 7th of the chord, such as the 9th, 11th or 13th. These tones add an especially pretty color to the chord voicing.
In Level 2-Example 1, the 5-chord is now G9 rather than G7. That’s because this chord includes the note A, which is the 9th scale tone above the root G. Similarly, Example 2 includes the 9th on the 2-chord and the 1-chord. Example 2 also features are particularly cool jazz piano voicing, called a major 6/9 voicing. This major chord voicing includes both the 6th and the 9th and is made from two perfect 4th intervals stacked on top of each other. Chord voicings that are built in 4ths like this are called quartal voicings. We’ll explore this topic further in Level 4.
Level 2 – Example 1
Level 2 – Example 2
The voicings in Example 2 sit nicely in the piano’s tenor register. Therefore, these voicings are also suitable for left hand comping when you have a bass player.
To learn more about voicing jazz piano chords with extensions, check out the following courses:
Well done! Are you ready for the next level?
In the mid to late 1950s, pianists Bill Evans, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly popularized the sound of rootless voicings. By omitting the root from the left-hand chord construction, they freed their fingers to include additional “color tones” or “pretty notes” as they are often called. Therefore, rootless voicings may contain three, four, or even five of the following chord tones—3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th.
Jazz pianists often use rootless voicings in the left hand when playing with a bassist. In addition, these voicings can be played in the right hand while the left hand plays roots. This section follows the latter description.
Rootless Constructions: A Voicings & B Voicings
In his classic text, The Jazz Language: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation, jazz pianist and educator Dan Haerle categorizes the most useful rootless voicings into two varieties: A voicings and B voicings. Haerle’s ‘A voicings’ are built up from the 3rd while ‘B voicings’ are built up from the 7th. In order to achieve strong voicing leading on 2-5-1 chord progressions, jazz pianists alternate between A voicings and B voicings (or vice versa) each time the root changes.
Rootless Voicing Chart by Chord Type
The following chart lists the rootless voicing formulas that jazz pianists commonly play on major 7th, dominant 7th and minor 7th chord symbols.
Now, let’s apply these voicings on a 2-5-1 chord progression in C major.
Level 3 – Example 1
Level 3 – Example 2
Great job! The following PWJ resources will help you master rootless voicings for 2-5-1 chord progressions in all major and minor keys:
- Rootless Voicings – Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
- Rootless Voicings – Chord Types on Minor 2-5-1 (Level 3)
Next, we’ll explore yet another way to voice a 2-5-1 chord progression.
What are quartal chord voicings?
A quartal voicing is any jazz piano chord voicing that uses stacks of two or more 4th intervals. Quartal voicings can be played in one hand with three notes or in two hands with four, five or even six notes. Ideally, quartal voicings seek to maximize perfect 4th intervals. However, it is common for some of the intervals to be a 3rd or augmented 4th depending on the chord type and melody note.
Quartal Voicings and The Pentatonic Scale
Some of the most widely used quartal voicings are those containing 5 notes, which are drawn from various pentatonic scales. Jazz pianists are able to build voicings containing primarily 4th intervals by skipping one pentatonic scale tone between each note in the voicing. In order to illustrate this concept, we’ll examine one chord type at a time.
(If you are less interested in how these voicings are constructed, you can skip to the 2-5-1 voicing examples for Level 4.)
Quartal Voicings for Minor 7th Chords
Minor 7th quartal voicings are built from the minor pentatonic scale. For example, a quartal voicing for Dm7 comes from the D minor pentatonic scale: D–F–G–A–C. Generally speaking, jazz pianists think of quartal voicings as being built downward from a given melody note. However, the process for building quartal voicings is the same whether you built them from the top down or from the bottom up. Starting from a given pentatonic scale tone, build the voicing downward (or upward) by skipping one scale tone between each note in the voicing. It should come as no surprise then that there are actually 5 possible quartal voicings for a Dm7 chord symbol—one for each scale tone as the melody note. The following diagram illustrates this voicing technique.
It worthy of noting that this voicing technique produces Bill Evan’s signature “So What” voicing that is featured prominently on the tune “So What” from Miles Davis’ legendary 1959 album, Kind of Blue. In the diagram above, the “So What” voicing is the second-to-last example with the note A in the melody. Bill Evans played this voicing an octave lower than shown here.
Quartal Voicings for Major 6/9 Chords
Major 6/9 quartal voicings are built from the major pentatonic scale. For example, a quartal voicing for C6/9 comes from the C major pentatonic scale: C–D–E–G–A. We’ll spread out the voicing so that there is one scale tone distance between each of the notes, just as in the previous example.
Quartal Voicings for Major 7th Chords
You might be wondering, “What if I need to play a major 7th sound instead of a major 6/9 sound?” Here’s some good news—it’s possible to play quartal voicings with a major 7th sound. However, these voicings draw on a different pentatonic scale. For example, a quartal voicing for C△7 uses the notes of the G major pentatonic scale: G–A–B–D–E. In fact, it’s important to notice that there is only a one-note difference between G major pentatonic and C major pentatonic. For example, this becomes obvious when the notes are re-ordered as follows:
- C Major Pentatonic: C–D–E–G–A
- G Major Pentatonic: B–D–E–G–A
Therefore, you can convert any C major 6/9 quartal voicing into a C△7 quartal voicing by replacing the note C with the note B instead. Check out the following example:
Quartal Voicings for Dominant 7th Chords
It is also possible to build quartal voicings for dominant 7th chords. However, constructing dominant 7th quartal voicings is not as formulaic as our previous examples. In particular, the most common dominant 7th quartal voicings don’t derive from a single pentatonic scale. In addition, it is more common that a dominant 7th quartal voicing will contain a “doubled note.”
The following example shows a G Mixolydian scale, which is the source scale for dominant 7th chords. This scale contains one “avoid note” or “weak note.” Specifically, the “avoid note” is the 4th scale tone…the note C. However, any of the other six notes can be used to build a G7 quartal voicing. The 3 most commonly used quartal voicings for G7 are included in the example with their corresponding voicing formula.
Now that you understand where quartal voicings come from, let’s play some modern sounding 2-5-1 chord progressions.
Level 4 – Example 1
Level 4 – Example 2
If you want to master the quartal sound, check out our Quartal Voicings Essentials (Level 3) course.
Now, let’s check out the final level.
In this section, will demonstrate how to play incredible sounding 2-5-1 progressions with chord alterations using upper structure triads.
What are chord alterations in jazz?
Chord alterations (aka “altered tones”) in jazz are a type of harmonic expression created by raising or lowering certain notes of a chord to create complex colors. The available alterations are ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13; however, the last two alterations can also be written enharmonically as ♭5 and ♯5. Chord alterations in jazz are most frequently applied to dominant 7th chords, either by the arranger of a song or at the performer’s discretion.
What are upper structures?
In jazz theory, upper structure triads (also “upper structures” or “polychords”) are any basic triad shape that functions as the top portion of a more complex chord voicing, usually an altered dominant.
The most common upper structures are major and minor triads that contain at least two chord extensions or alterations. Jazz pianists often play upper structure triads in the right hand against a two-or-three-note chord shell in the left hand. Although upper structures are harmonically advanced, they are not necessarily difficult to play.
The first example we’ll explore is G13(♭9). This chord symbol implies all the notes of G7 (G–B–D–F) plus the ♭9th (A♭) and the 13th (E). However, it is not necessary to include the 5th in our chord voicing. Therefore, we have the following notes: G–B–F–A♭–E. Jazz pianists often voice this chord as an E major triad (E–G♯–B) in the right hand over a Root+7th chord shell (G–F) in the left hand. In this example, the “upper structure” is the E major triad, which can be played in any inversion.
Level 5 – Example 1
Level 5 – Example 2
Jazz pianists memorize and reproduce upper structures by analyzing their relationship to the root of the chord. Therefore, in the examples above, the upper structure (E major) is a major triad on the major 6th above the root. This can be expressed in shorthand as VI/V7 (pronounced “major six over five-seven”).
For a deep dive on upper structure techniques, check out Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3).
Now, let’s explore two additional upper structures in our bonus section.
Once you understand how upper structures work, it becomes easy to quickly master additional complex sounds. In this section, you’ll master two additional altered dominant sounds—dominant 7(♯9♭13) and dominant 7(♭9♯11). While these chord symbols look like a mouthful, all we need to do is identify the ♭VI major triad and the ♭V major triad.
- Dominant 7(♯9♭13) = ♭VI/V7 = E♭ major / G7 shell
- Dominant 7(♭9♯11) = ♭V/V7 = D♭ major / G7 shell
The following examples illustrate how to apply these altered dominant sounds on a 2-5-1 chord progression using upper structure triads.
The Dominant 7(♯9♭13) Sound—aka “Fully Altered”
♭VI/V7- Example 1
♭VI/V7- Example 2
The Dominant 7(♭9♯11) Sound
♭V/V7- Example 1
♭V/V7- Example 2
To discover more about altered dominants and upper structures, check out the following courses:
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The 2-5-1 Chord Progression: 5 Levels from Beginner to Pro. As a result, you have gained a better understanding of the what a 2-5-1 progression is and how to apply various voicing techniques to achieve a professional sound…at every level!
If you enjoyed this lesson, why not continue to grow your jazz piano skills in one of our Jazz Piano Learning Tracks:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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