How to Play 2 – 5 – 1 Chord Progression

Published Categorized as Chords

Numbers, numbers, as far as the musical eye can see! I’m willing to bet that if I asked all present to raise their hands if they’d ever heard of a 2-5-1 chord progression, the whole digital room would be full of arms outstretched. I am also willing to wager that the room would continue thus even if I asked those who know what it means to put their hands down. What exactly do the numbers mean, and why is music so innately tied to mathematics? Hopefully by the end of this here article you will be hearing numbers as well as seeing them!

2 – 5 – 1, You Wonder?

Like numerical values and representation, this sequence is a vital building block, in this instance for music. Whether through composition, improvisation, or purely from a theoretical perspective, you would be hard pressed to find an avenue of Western music that does not at some point or other resort to this tried and tested trope of chord sequencing.

From the earliest examples of Western classical music, through to Romantic, Contemporary Classical, Musicals, Jazz, Blues, Rock, Pop, Reggae, and everything in between! Its versatility lies in the musical currency it exchanges, rudimentary and essential to Western music, it can hardly help being so adaptable to almost every musical circumstance.

This chord sequence, entwined with the power of resolution on the First degree of the key, is an essential piece of musical understanding, and a guaranteed way to return from a shred-bent excursion.

So, What Does 2 – 5 – 1 Chord Progression Mean?

This is best illustrated with the example of the C Major Scale, being the theoretical centre of tonality in the Western music tradition. Each scale being comprised of seven scale degrees before looping back on itself in the 8th, the numbers present themselves to us readily:

IIIIIIIVVVIVII
CDEFGAB

Replacing letters with numbers enables us to talk about harmony in the abstract, regardless of whichever key we might be referring to, hence the 2 – 5 – 1 chord progression finds itself in all number of different harmonic and musical circumstances. This same system of abstraction can be used in mapping out the diatonic chords inherent in the C Major Scale, as seen below:

IiiiiiIVVvivii
CDmEmFGAmBdim

Notice how the numerals are lowercase for minor or diminished chords and uppercase for major chords! This surely tells us how vital major tonality is in the Western tradition, how important it is to return home to the first degree of the key, the I.

Now that we have reduced the theory to its bare numeric essentials, we can see the ii-V-I chord progression for what it is: a foundational sequence from the 2nd to the 5th to the 1st of a diatonic set. Its simplicity and inbuilt trajectory towards the homely tonal centre of a song and/or key make it an incredibly common device throughout popular music, especially in the West.

Can you think of any songs that have felt as though they’re directing you somewhere with their chords?

What Exactly Does This Mean on a Guitar?

There isn’t a whole lot of difference, quite frankly. Though much of Western harmony is founded on the principles of keyboard instruments, this maps fluidly onto the fretboard of the guitar.

In fact, what can seem daunting, the ever-stretching expanse of similar-looking frets, works to the guitarist’s advantage, as in many other circumstances. The sameness that can make distinguishing the notes on the fretboard difficult at first renders transposing to different keys elementary, able as a guitarist is to move up and down the neck with ease, modulating in a matter of milliseconds.

The ii-V-I at its Most Basic

Returning to the example of C Major, we can begin to play and hear aloud the sound of the ii-V-I sequence, and to familiarise ourselves with it in its most simple form. Even those unfamiliar with barre chords will be able to play the three simple chords outlined below:

iiVI
DmGC

Do take a moment to play this sequence through a few times until comfortable, and perhaps try modulating it to another key for a challenge. Can you think of any other ii-V-I sequences that you can play with standard guitar chords (no barring)? (Hint: begin with an E minor…)

Levelling up

As with many other aspects and techniques in music, it is in the implementation that personality and character reveal themselves. When using a ii-V-I chord sequence, it can simply be used as it is, tacked onto the end of another chord sequence or excursion to bring it back home.

However, it is in the added flair that the tool really blooms. In jazz and contemporary classical, chord extensions instil in the relative sequences specific harmonic characters and tools through which to emotively tell stories and express feelings, simply through note choices. Taking our tried example above and adding such flair might look something like this:

ii7VI
Dm7G9Cmaj7

The extension of these chords increases the cross-pollination of their harmonic qualities, exercised by their leading tones. The G in the Dm7 here, for example, communicates with the B in the following G chord; so, too, the minor third F in the D becomes the 7th of the G chord, as though they were meant to be coupled in this way.

And we can follow this logic from the G right through to the fabled tonic resolution on the Cmaj7: the 9th B assumes the role of the 7th in the latter chord, and the tonic G in the former becomes the 5th in the latter. (The flattening of the 3rd F in the former to the 3rd E is the icing on the cake.)

It feels almost fated, no? That these chords should so perfectly accompany each other in this very order is pure mathematical bliss, and yet, as it’s captured in music, there is still an abstract something that goes beyond these inadequate logical descriptions, that causes us to feel inside our minds and hearts the resolution so coldly laid out with mere logic. This something goes some extra way to explaining the endless presence of this simple, effective musical shortcut in all manner of musical styles, genres, and socio-geographical contexts.

Modulation

While the ii-V-I sequence is innately heading towards home, it is often used to modulate, to direct towards another home. Here a composer will be using the seemingly subhuman power of the sequence, as outlined above, to force the listening and/or performing ear towards another chosen tonal centre.

The easiest way to go about this is simply to insert a ii-V-I chord progression in this new key at the end of a sequence of the previous key. Below, by way of example, we modulate from C major to G Major in the space of 8 bars:

Tonal CentreCCCCGGGGGGCC
Scale DegreeIiiiviIViiVIiiiviIViiV
ChordCEbmAbmFAmDGBbmEbmCDmGm
Duration (bars)1111/21/41/41111/21/41/4

There are innumerable examples of this throughout Western musical history, often so subtly and so adeptly integrated that they might not be so obvious, unless actively searching. Some instances, however, are a little more on the nose, especially in the jazz tradition, and particularly in the song attached below (see 0:23 – 0:31; and throughout):

The sheer frequency of unresolving, back-to-back ii-V’s seems at once both a tongue-in-cheek nod to their less than equitable share of harmonic capital in the genre, as well as a way of braggadociously exhibiting one’s skills, improvising over the ever-modulating horizon of chord changes, the eternal triangle of the song’s title:

In the original piece, the soloists play brass and horn instruments: already not in the key of a piano, and with a layout that means having to change the shape of one’s hands constantly to accommodate for the harmonic changes served up every two bars. These issues aren’t present on a guitar, so becoming familiar with these kind of chord changes is a guaranteed way to impress!

Final Tones

From antiquity upwards, the ii-V-I chord progression has found a place in almost every walk of music in the Western tradition, and, owing to colonial expansion, has found a place for good or bad in the lap of nearly every corner of the world.

Its importance can’t be denied, as a building block, and as founding harmonic principle whose components reveal both the hands that constructed its logic and the pure sound beneath that drove those logics to their present conclusion. Much like mathematics, we are pressed to ask whether we came to invent it, or whether it invented us.

No matter the answer, it is a byway of music that we would be significantly altered without, that still sees ceaseless applications in music in general, and on the guitar in particular.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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