The "II - V7 - I" Chord Progression

In a previous class we established the foundation for chord prediction by learning the primary chords for each key. I hope you internalized that and committed each "family of chords" to memory. (It is re-printed below for those who missed that lesson).

Now that you know "the fam," today I would like to introduce you to the "cousin" chords. These are chords that don't occur near as often as the primary chords, but much more often than "neighbor" chords, and way more often than "stranger" chords.

The most likely cousin-chord to show up in any key is the II chord. In other words, after the I, IV, and V chords, the II chord is the next most likely to be used. It might show up in one of several forms--it might be a major chord, it might be a minor chord, it might be a 7th chord--but however it shows up, it is far and away the most likely chord to occur after I, IV, or V.

So in the key of C, that means that some form of the D chord is the 4th most likely chord to occur. Maybe D7, maybe Dm7, maybe just D, but whatever the form, it is like the cousin that likes to show up at dinner time to eat with the fam.

And when it does occur, you can then predict with uncanny accuracy which chord will come after it -- the V chord. And after that, the I chord. So if you were a betting person, your odds would go sky high at that point for that succession of chords to occur. In musical terms, this progression is known as the II - V -- I chord progression. And it happens over and over and over and over again in countless songs.

So let's get it down cold. If it happens so much, it's worth your time to master it both intellectually and hand-wise (in other words, understand it and be able to play it).

Here's the II, V, I progression in all keys:

Key of C: D G C

Key of F: G C F

Key of G: A D G

Key of D: E A D

Key of E: F# B E

Key of A: B E A

Key of Gb: Ab Db Gb

Key of Db: Eb Ab Db

Key of Eb: F Bb Eb

Key of Ab: Bb Eb Ab

Key of B: C# F# B

Key of Bb: C F Bb

Remember your Circle of Major Keys? Let me show them in the order in which they appear on the left-hand buttons of an accordion with "C" being the key chord (the one indented or marked in someway as to be identifiable):

Db  Ab  Eb  Bb  F  C  G  D  A  E  B  F#

Now note that this II - V7 - I chord progression is easily identified by looking at the two chords above the key chord. In the Key of C, move up two to a "D" and then down one to the "G" and then back to the "C". It's that way for all of the keys.

One additional point, you may recognize this progression as one that is used at the end of a song to smoothly return you back to the beginning of the song to play it again. This sequence is normaly II7 - V7 - I, for example:

  • key of C: Dm7 - G7 - C;
  • key of F: Gm7 - C7 - F;
  • key of Bb: Cm7 - F7 - Bb.

You must surely recognize those progressions. Now, in order to determine whether to play minor 7th or not, simply look to the notes in the scale. In the C scale there are no sharps or flats, so "D7" would be played as Dm7 -- using an "F" rather than F# -- followed by the G7. In the key of F, there is one flat, Bb , so the G would become Gm7 (G-Bb-D-F) playing Bb instead of B, and C would be C7 (C-E-G-Bb).

Let's take one more example, for a song in the key of D, the II-V7-I would be E-A-D. The key of D has two sharps, F# and C#. Therefore, the E would be Em7 (E-G-B-D -- can't use G# since it's not in the scale) and the A would be A7 (A-C#-E-G).

It certainly doesn't hurt to practice these chord progressions because you will encounter them all the time. Below is a modification of the table above with the actual 7th chords written out. -- Joe Waters

Key of C: Dm7 - G7 - C (#'s or b's in Key)

Key of G: Am7 - D7 - G (F#)

Key of F: Gm7 - C7 - F (1 flat - Bb)

Key of D: Em7 - A7 - D (F#,C #)

Key of Bb: Cm7 - F7 - Bb (Bb,Eb)

Key of A: Bm7 - E7 - A (F#,C #,G#)

Key of Eb: Fm7 - Bb7 - Eb (Bb, Eb, Ab)

Key of E: F#m7 - B7 - E (F #,C#,G#,D#)

Key of Ab: Bbm7 - Eb7-Ab (Bb,Eb,Ab,Db)

Key of B: C#m7 - F#7 - B (F#,C#,G#,D#,A#)

Key of Db: Ebm7 - Ab7 - Db (Bb,Eb,Ab,Db,Gb)

Key of F#: G#m7 - C#7 - F# (F#,C#,G#,D#,A#,E#)

And here's what the progression looks like in the keys of C, F, and Bb:

I hope you noticed something about this progression as you were thinking or playing through it. I hope you noticed that each chord is a 4th higher than the previous chord. In other words, in the Key of C, after the D chord is used, you go up a 4th (4 scale notes -- in terms of traditional harmony it is a "perfect 4th") to G. Then after the G chord is used, you go up a 4th to C to complete the cycle. If you didn't notice that, go back and play through these again.

Next issue we'll meet another cousin, and see where she fits it to the scheme of things as far as chord prediction is concerned.

This page updated on October 26, 2013.