Minor 2-5-1 Progression – 5 Levels from Beginner to Pro
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Chord progressions are the backbone of musical composition. For jazz musicians, familiarity with common chord progressions is essential for learning songs quickly—both “by ear” and in written form. Moreover, a solid understanding of chord progressions enables working musicians to play hundreds of songs from memory. In today’s Quick Tip, Minor 2-5-1 Progression—5 Levels from Beginner to Pro, we’ll unpack the most important jazz progression for playing jazz standards in a minor key. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Minor 2-5-1 Progressions
- Basic Piano Chords for Minor 2-5-1 Progressions
- Source Scales for Minor 2-5-1 Progressions
- The Spice Notes: Extensions & Alterations
- Minor 2-5-1 Piano Voicings: Beginner to Pro
The minor 2-5-1 chord progression serves to establish the tonic for jazz tunes that are written in a minor key. For example, the first three chords of the jazz standard “Beautiful Love,” are a minor 2-5-1 progression in D minor. Other popular standards in minor keys that use this progression are “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” and “Blue Bossa,” both of which are in C minor.
“Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise”
Additional standards from the Great American Songbook in minor keys include “Summertime” by George Gershwin, “Yesterdays” by Jerome Kern, “Lullaby of Birdland” by George Shearing and “Solar” by Miles Davis. Furthermore, minor 2-5-1 progressions also occur in many standards written in a major key. For example, “Fly Me to the Moon” contains 2-5-1 progressions that emphasize C major and also its relative, A minor. Therefore, the ability to play minor 2-5-1 progressions is an essential skill for all jazz pianists.
A minor 2-5-1 progression (also: iiø-V7-i) is a common jazz chord progression which effectively establishes a minor key. For example, the chord sequence Dø7→G7→Cm identifies C minor as tonic. The numeric identifiers, which are often expressed as Roman numerals, represent the relationship of each chord to the tonal center. Thus, Dø7 is built on the 2nd tone of C minor. Likewise, G7 is built on the 5th tone of C minor. Lastly, Cm is built on the 1st tone.
When considering this example, you may begin to sense that minor 2-5-1’s are a bit more harmonically complex than major 2-5-1’s. In many ways, this is true, especially because minor 2-5-1’s typically draw on multiple forms of the minor scale (natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor).¹ In addition, the use of various extensions and alterations is commonplace on minor 2-5-1 ‘s.
“There are essentially three different minor scales used in tonal music, as opposed to just one major scale. Minor keys, then, are more problematic than major keys. Since there are different scales used in minor keys, diatonic seventh chords in minor do not fit so neatly as they do in major.”
—John Valerio, jazz pianist, composer and author
Even though the minor 2-5-1 progression can be intimidating at first, it is just as foundational to jazz composition as its major counterpart. Therefore, jazz piano students should eagerly embrace this complexity as an opportunity for developing greater fluency with the jazz language.
In the next section, we’ll simplify matters considerably by exploring the minor 2-5-1 progression with basic root position 7th chords. You may also wish to reference the major key companion lesson to this Quick Tip: 2-5-1 Chord Progression—5 Levels from Beginner to Pro.
The first step to understanding minor 2-5-1 chord progressions is to simply play the pertinent chords in their most essential form—as root position 7th chords. This section explores 4 different varieties of minor 2-5-1’s that you’ll encounter in jazz repertoire. Each example in this section is presented in C minor, which contains 3 flats (♭’s)—the notes B♭, E♭ and A♭. However, as we’ll soon see, we’ll also need to watch out for accidentals!
Our first example, Variation 1, is a Ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ in C minor in which the resolution chord is a minor 7th chord, in this case, Cm7 (C–E♭–G–B♭). This variation is featured in the tune “Blue Bossa” by Kenny Dorham. Try playing each chord with your right hand as shown in the demonstration. Afterward, repeat the progression with the same chords played an octave lower with the left hand.
Variation 1: IIø7–V7–Im7
Notice that the V7 chord, G7 (G–B♮–D–F), contains a B♮. That’s a clue that this particular chord does not come from the C natural minor scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭). If we were to use the natural minor scale exclusively, then the Ⅴ chord would be Gm7 (G–B♭–D–F). However, Ⅴm7 chords are not frequently used because they do not sufficiently emphasize the tonic chord. This is because they lack the leading tone—the note that is a half-step just below tonic. Instead, the dominant 7th chord sound, which comes from the harmonic minor scale (C–D–E♭–F-G–A♭–B♮) is the standard chord quality for Ⅴ chords. Therefore, in Variation 1, the Ⅱø7 and the Ⅰm7 chord come from natural minor while the Ⅴ7 chord comes from harmonic minor. (It should be noted, however, that the Ⅱø7 chord is found in the harmonic minor scale as well.)
Now, let’s examine another variation.
If you scan Variation 2 below, you’ll notice that the only difference is the resolution chord, which is now a minor 6th chord. In this case, we land on Cm6 (C–E♭–G–A♮). Although it is less common to see the Ⅰm6 specifically indicated on a lead sheet, this chord is commonly played in place of the minor tonic triad or the Ⅰm7 on tunes like “Beautiful Love” and “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” Try playing this Ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ in C minor with each hand.
Variation 2: IIø7–V7–Im6
If you are the inquisitive type, then you’ll want to understand where the A♮ comes from on the Cm6 chord. This combination of a minor 3rd and a major 6th occurs in two different scales: C Dorian (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♮–B♭) and C melodic minor (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♮–B♮). Therefore, in Variation 2, think of the Ⅱø7 and the V7 chord as coming from harmonic minor and the Ⅰm6 as coming from either Dorian or melodic minor.
Let’s check out another variation.
In the following Ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ in C minor, Variation 3, we examine yet another possible resolution chord—the minor-major 7th chord. In this case, that chord is Cm▵7 (C–E♭–G–B♮). This resolution has a particularly exotic sound that should be used sparingly. However, some tunes specifically call for this sound, such as “Solar” by Miles Davis and “Nica’s Dream” by Horace Silver. Try playing this Ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ in C minor with each hand using the root position 7th chords shown below.
Variation 3: IIø7–V7–Im▵7
Of all the minor 2-5-1 possibilities, Variation 3 is the most straightforward. This is because each of the chords are contained within the harmonic minor scale. Therefore, in Variation 3, the Ⅱø7, the V7 chord and the Ⅰm▵7 come from the harmonic minor scale.
Now, let’s examine one final variation.
Our last example, Variation 4, uses two different sounds for the tonic chord—Ⅰm7 and Ⅰm6. This approach is especially common when a minor tonic is prolonged. For example, many players use this type of movement on “Autumn Leaves” during the last two bars of the A section. Later in this lesson, when we examine minor 2-5-1 progressions in 5 levels, each example will use the Variation 4 format shown below. Try playing these chords in root position with each hand.
Variation 4: IIø7–V7–Im7–Im6
In Variation 4, C Dorian (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♮–B♭) fits both Cm7 (C–E♭–G–B♭) and Cm6 (C–E♭–G–A♮) while C harmonic minor (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭) fits both Dø7 (D–F–A♭–C) and G7 (G–B♮–D–F). Therefore, for Variation 4, think harmonic minor for the Ⅱø7 and the V7 and Dorian for the Ⅰm7 and Ⅰm6.
To master minor 2-5-1 progressions with 7th chords in all twelve minor keys, check out our course on Minor 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Int).
This section of today’s lesson presents a closer look and the three minor scale forms (natural, harmonic, melodic) and the 7th chords produced by each scale. While you eventually want to digest all of these chords, for now, it is sufficient to examine just the Ⅱ, the Ⅴ and the Ⅰ that come from each scale. You may want to bookmark this page for future reference.
The purpose of this section is to help you visualize why we need more than just one minor scale to play minor 2-5-1 progressions (with the exception of Variation 3 from the previous section).
So far, we have primarily examined minor 2-5-1 progressions using 7th chords (and an occasional 6th chord). These 4-note chords are an important first step. However, to play with a more quintessential jazz piano sound, we’ll want to build on this foundation by learning which chord extensions and alterations to use for each chord. Jonny calls these the “spice notes” because they add lots of flavor to your sound.
Spice Notes for the 2-Chord: 9th & 11th
On the Ⅱø7, the most common note to add is the 11th, which you can think of as a perfect 4th above the root. Remember, the Ⅱø7 in C minor is Dø7 (D–F–A♭–C). Therefore, a perfect 4th above the root of D is the note G. A second note that sounds great over the Ⅱø7 is the major 9th. Beware, this note is not is the key signature and requires an accidental. For Dø7, that note is E♮. This note comes from the D Locrian ♯2 Scale (D–E♮–F–G–A♭–B♭–C). We frequently think of Dm11(♭5) as a the polychord C/Dº. In other words, we can obtain this sound by combining a C major triad in the right hand over a D diminished triad in the left hand. We label this relationship UST ♭Ⅶ because it calls for a major upper structure triad on the ♭7 (minor 7th) above the root.
Spice Notes for the 5-Chord: ♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13
For the Ⅴ7 chord in a minor 2-5-1, we don’t typically use many chord extensions (9th, 11th, 13th), but we frequently use all four of the available chord alterations in various combinations. These notes are the ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. Alternatively, you may have learned them as ♭9, ♯9 ♭5 and ♯5.
The ♭9 and the♭13 are especially common on the V7 in minor 2-5-1’s because these alterations are already in the key signature. For G7, the ♭13 is the note E♭—a note found in all C three minor scales! Likewise, the ♭9 for G7 is the note A♭, which occurs in both the natural minor and harmonic minor scales. When we combine these altered notes together over G7, we get the polychord A♭m/G7 (see ♭Ⅱm UST below).
To create even more tension on the Ⅴ7 in a minor 2-5-1 progression, we can also use the ♯9 and the ♯11, even though these alterations introduce accidentals. However, these alterations are often paired with the naturally occurring alterations as follows: Ⅴ7(♭9♯11) and Ⅴ7(♯9♭13). These combinations create two additional upper structure triads—the UST ♭Ⅴ and the UST ♭Ⅵ . In C minor, these polychords are D♭/G7 for the G7(♭9♯11) and E♭/G7 for G7(♯9♭13).
For additional altered dominant combinations and examples, check out our course Coloring Dominant Chords With Upper Structures (Adv).
Spice Notes for the 1-Chord: 9th & 11th
For the Ⅰm7 chord, the chord extensions of the 9th and the 11th sound gorgeous. An easy way to find these “spice notes” is to think of them as the major 2nd and the perfect 4th above the root. For Cm7, these notes are D and F. In fact, we often think of Cm11 as the polychord B♭/Cm (see UST♭Ⅶ below).
The 9th is also frequently added to minor-major 7th chords and minor 6th chords. However, 11ths are less common for these chords. A minor-major 9th chord can be formed by playing a major triad built on the 5th. Therefore, we can express Cm▵9 as the polychord G/Cm (see UST Ⅴ below). When we add the 9th to Cm6, the chord symbol becomes Cm6/9. This can also be played with an upper structure shape, however the shape not a triad. Instead, it is an upper structure quartal shape comprised of two perfect 4th intervals stacked together, built up from the 6th. Therefore, the notes are C and E♭ in the left hand and the quartal stack A–D–G in the right hand.
Now that you know all the available “spice notes” for minor 2-5-1’s, you’re ready for the next section in which you’ll play this progression in 5 levels, from beginner to pro!
The following 5 examples from today’s lesson sheet demonstrate different ways that you can play minor 2-5-1 progressions with a professional jazz piano sound. The lesson sheet PDF and 4 included backing tracks are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily change the key of these examples using our Smart Sheet Music.
While Level 1 is designated as “beginner,” you should not interpret that to imply “amateur.” All of the levels are appropriate for professional playing. The levels simply indicate the approximate amount of experience required to play the voicings comfortably.
Our Level 1 example uses a 2+2 voicing approach, meaning that each hand plays two notes. These are open position voicings, a general term indicating that the voicings span a distance greater than one octave. The annotations indicate exactly which chord tones are being played in each hand.
Minor 2-5-1 Progression – Level 1
You may have noticed that some of these voicings do not contain the root of the chord as the lowest note. In fact, the Cm9 doesn’t contain the root at all! When playing in an ensemble, it is not necessary to always play the root of the chord on bottom because the bass player is already playing it. Omitting the root allows you the opportunity to replace it with a spice note for a more colorful sound. To hear how these voicings sound with a bass player, try playing along with one of the included backing tracks.
Now, let’s check out next level.
If you are a late beginner student, then you’ll enjoy playing the Level 2 example below. In this level, each voicing contains 4 or 5 notes each. In addition, this level connects the voicings in measure 1 with a simple melodic line.
Minor 2-5-1 Progression – Level 2
While this level includes a few different voicing techniques, the voicings in measure 2 are considered “stock” rootless voicings. These are 4-note, closed position rootless voicings for one hand that all jazz piano students eventually learn. If this level seems appropriate for you, then be sure to check out our course on Minor 2-5-1 Rootless Voicings (Int).
In addition to the Level 1 and 2 voicings, intermediate students should try out the Level 3 approach below. In this level, the notes are spread out even more for a bigger, brighter sound.
Minor 2-5-1 Progression – Level 3
So how do these voicings work? Well, the essential approach here is quartal spacing, a voicing technique that seeks to express harmonic sounds using primarily fourth intervals. This includes perfect fourths and augmented 4ths. For example, the first 4 notes of the Dø7 chord from the bottom up are A♭–D–G–C. In this stack, A♭ to D is and augmented 4th. Then, the remaining notes, D to G to C, are all a perfect 4th apart. Finally, the G on top is an octave doubling for a brighter sound.
For a deep dive on how to play minor 2-5-1’s with quartal shapes, check out our course on Minor 2-5-1 Four-Note Quartal Exercises (Adv).
Are you ready for the next level?
Sometimes, you want a really big sound that adds lots of energy to your playing. That’s exactly what our Level 4 example accomplishes. These voicings are comprised of 5 to 7 notes, and all of the right-hand voicings are based on an octaves +1 approach that helps your sound cut through the band.
Minor 2-5-1 Progression – Level 4
So, how does the octaves + 1 technique work? For starters, you can use Root–5th–Root or 5th–Root–5th for the octaves +1 structure on major, minor and dominant chords. For more color on major and dominant chords, you can also use one or more chord extensions, such as 9th–13th-9th or 13th-9th-13th (use the appropriate alterations for altered dominant chords). However, for minor chords, use 5th–9th–5th or 9th–5th-9th instead of the 13th. Other combinations are also possible, for example, the middle note can also be a 3rd above the bottom note or a 3rd below the top note. Then, the left hand simply plays a stock rootless voicing, or in some cases, just the guide tones (the 3rd and 7th).
Another technique that Jonny has applied on this Level 4 example is the addition of the A♭13 passing chord—a tritone substitution for D7…the V /V (pronounced “five of five”). To learn more about this technique, check out our courses on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Int, Adv).
Now, let’s check out one last level!
Finally, our Level 5 example demonstrates how to play a beautiful, advanced minor 2-5-1 progression using the drop 2 voicing technique. Drop 2 voicings contain 4 notes and generally span a 10th interval from the top note to the bottom note. This example also includes the root of each chord below the 4-note drop 2 voicings. (Be sure to notice that the left hand is written in the treble clef.)
Minor 2-5-1 Progression – Level 5
What a gorgeous piano sound. So, how does the Drop 2 technique work? Well, it’s actually based on a simple concept. You start with a 4-note, closed position voicing. Then, you take the 2nd note from the top and drop it down an octave, playing it with the left hand. The example below demonstrates the closed position voicings that our Level 5 example is based on. In each voicing, the 2nd note from the top is colored green, indicating that this is the note that must be dropped to create the drop 2 sound.
Closed Position Voicings for Drop 2
This Level 5 example also includes Dº(maj9) as a passing chord over the Dø7. This is an ornamental technique that uses neighbor notes. Notice the parallel 3rds that begin on the “and” of beat one—F and D, to E and C♯, back to F and D. The notes E and C♯ are each the lower neighbor note to a chord tone of Dø7.
Finally, did you notice that resolution chord in Level 5 is played with 4 different minor tonic sounds? That’s right, we have Cm▵9, Cm7, Cm9 and Cm6/9 all in one measure. Now that’s pretty cool!
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Minor 2-5-1 Progression—5 Levels from Beginner to Pro. You now have a good foundation for understanding and playing the minor 2-5-1 progressions that you’ll encounter over and over in jazz tunes.
If you enjoyed this lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Valerio John. Jazz Piano Concepts and Techniques. Hal Leonard Pub. Corp 1998, p 23.
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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