If you want to play jazz piano, you have to understand the 2-5-1 progression. This simple progression is the building block of jazz music. You can also find it in some classical music and pop music.
In this beginner lesson, we’ll explain what the 2-5-1 progression is in simple terms and teach you ways to incorporate it into your own playing. While it’s best to have a basic understanding of chords and scales before you start this lesson, we’ll explain everything from scratch and use as little technical language as possible.
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First, let’s break down the 2-5-1 chord progression. What do these numbers mean? To answer this question, let’s review diatonic chords.
In a nutshell, diatonic chords are chords that occur naturally in a scale.
Let’s take C major. Here’s a C major scale. Notice that we’ve assigned a number to each note of the scale:
Now, let’s build chords on top of these notes. We’ll stick to triads for now (aka snowman chords).
Try playing all these chords. You’ll notice that some chords sound major and some chords sound minor.
That’s why we switched to numbering these chords with Roman numerals. This way, we can use uppercase letters to represent major chords and lowercase letters to represent minor chords.
These chord qualities (quality = major, minor, diminished etc.) are the same across all major keys. Which means a viio chord in A major or D-flat major must be a diminished chord, and a ii chord in D major or F-sharp major must be a minor chord.
So, we can use Roman numerals to represent chord progressions in any key. Here are some common chord progressions:
Yup, that’s our 2-5-1 progression! Here it is written in standard notation. As you can see, it’s built on the second, fifth, and first notes of a given major scale.
But wait…we can make the 2-5-1 progression sound jazzier.
There’s a very easy way to do this: add a seventh to our triads. This creates major and minor seven chords. Here’s an example in C major:
Seventh chords like these sound “jazzy” because the extra note adds tension without being too crunchy.
One way to get familiar with the 2-5-1 is to recognize it by ear. Here are some songs that use this handy progression.
The Maroon 5 song “Sunday Morning” is a fantastic introduction to the 2-5-1 chord progression because it uses 2-5-1s over and over (and in C major too!). This gives the song its relaxed, jazzy sound. We have a tutorial on this song here.
You can find the 2-5-1 in classical music, often as a way to end a longer progression. For example, here’s a section of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major. (Robert Hutchinson does a phenomenal job of explaining this progression here, the larger of which is the Circle of Fifths progression.)
And finally, the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” is an excellent example of the 2-5-1 progression and how it’s used in jazz. Take a look at the chord chart here. You’ll notice that it’s chock full of 2-5-1s:
Bm – Em7 – A7: 2-5-1 targeting A
Em7 – A7 – Dmaj7: 2-5-1 targeting D
A7 – Dmaj7 – Gmaj7: 2-5-1 targeting G
Gmaj7 – C#dim – F#7: 2-5-1 targeting F#
C#dim – F#7 – Bm: 2-5-1 targeting B
Now, each little 2-5-1 doesn’t match the ii7-V7-I7 qualities perfectly, but they’re built roughly on the right root notes.
The chord structure in “Autumn Leaves” makes it an absolute jazz classic and is the first standard that many jazz students play.
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Using the principle we saw in “Autumn Leaves,” we can throw mini 2-5-1 chord progressions into songs to make them sound “jazzy.” This is an easy way to reharmonize a piece and will instantly elevate a performance from basic to sophisticated.
In our Piano Bench episode, Kevin Castro demonstrates using 2-5-1s in major keys with an example from “Happy Birthday.”
The beginning of “Happy Birthday” is rather simple. All we do is bop between the I and V chords. In C major, that’s the C and G major chords.
Now, let’s chuck a 2-5 in there with the last C chord as the “target”:
Notice how the simple 2-5 movement makes the song sound richer. Techniques like these are how jazz musicians reharmonize songs on the spot to make them unique. It’s an impressive trick to pull off at a party 😉
We can use the same principle and throw 2-5-1s in minor keys songs. But, we first need to review our diatonic minor chords.
We’ll use the A minor scale as an example, with just one change: we’ll raise the seventh note of the scale, G, to G# when we play the V chord. This helps it resolve better.
Notice that minor key diatonic chords have different qualities than major key diatonic chords.
So, when working with minor songs, our 2-5-1 progression is:
Ideally, you want to be able to spontaneously throw 2-5-1s into whatever music you’re playing. For example, if there is an Fmaj7 coming up, you can chuck a Gm7 (ii7) and a C7 (V7) in front of it to jazz up the sound.
Getting to this level requires practice.
Kevin practiced 2-5-1s before for three months until he got to this point. What he did was practice 2-5-1s in every key.
For example, start on C major (Dm7-G7-Cmaj7). Then, use that last C chord to move into B-flat major (Cm7-F7-Bbmaj7). Keep going and you’ll cycle through six keys.
Then, start a half-step above (C#) and do a 2-5-1 there (C#m7-F#7-Bmaj7). Move to Bm7-E7-Amaj7 and keep cycling, and you’ll cover all the other keys. Practice this in both major and minor keys.
Try not to rely on written notation when you practice 2-5-1s. It’s best to “calculate” the 2-5-1s yourself so you understand the concept.
However, having a cheat sheet can help in the beginning stages—if you want to double-check that you’re playing the right chord, for example. So, here are ALL the 2-5-1s in major and minor keys! Just try not to depend on this, okay? 😉
|Target Note (Key)||ii7||V7||I7|
|Target Note (Key)||iiø7||V7||i7|
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