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I'm looking to learn how to better analyze music I am listening to, and I'm having problems identifying ii-V-I progressions, especially when they're the basis for improvisation. What are some hints or signs I can look for in the music to help me identify the progression?

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6 Answers 6

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If you are going to hear a ii-V-I sequence in a traditional sounding blues that you're likely to hear in Chicago blues music, rock and roll, folk blues from the South, a blues in country music, or from rhythm and blues, you can be reasonably sure that you will not hear it during the first 8 measures of the 12 bar blues form. When blues musicians are being traditional, the harmonic moves for the first 8 bars are pretty much prescribed and do not include the latitude to play a ii-V-I during the early 2/3rds of the form.

Also, when a ii-V-I sequence appears in the last 4 measures of a traditional blues, it's most likely that you will hear a ii-V-I-V turnaround which is designed to propel the music forward into the next repetition of the form, rather than a ii-V-I cadence, which acts as punctuated point of rest within a larger harmonic sequence.

In a blues there's little chance to rest. Harmonically, blues sequences move forward, with drive.

When musicians think of ii-V-I sequences they usually are thinking of a family of ii-V-I cadences, not a ii-V-I turnaround.

In a major sounding classical or European descended folk piece, the goal chord that the music keeps coming back to and frequently starts with, usually called the tonic chord, is a major triad or a major variant with a larger number of tones added to embellish the basic sound of the major triad.

Click here to listen to this chord family

In a minor sounding piece, the goal chord will be some form of minor chord, frequently a minor triad, a minor 7th chord or another minor variant.

Click here to listen to this chord family

In a traditional blues the tonic chord is going to be a dominant 7th chord (see and listen), a chord that was felt to be maximally dissonant in early classical practice.

In European classical music it was considered an act of cruelty to end a piece with a dominant 7th hanging. In the theory for that music, a dominant 7th stated a question musically that could not be left hanging without an answer. You could not raise tension with dissonance at the end of piece without releasing it as you ended. A composer would be raising hell with the listener's expectations if they ended a piece in that manner.

Blues tunes intentionally start and end with harmony that is dissonant by the standards of classical music theory, and rarely relieve the tension evoked by that harmony.

Let's call the blues tonic chord a I7 chord. The first 8 bars of a blues alternate between playing the I7 tonic chord, and a IV7, a dominant 7th chord built on a root a perfect 5th below the tonic. If a C7 were the blues tonic, F7 would be the IV7 chord that alternates with it.

The two stereotypical blues patterns that play during the first 8 bars of the form would be

I7-I7-I7-I7-IV7-IV7-I7-I7

click here to hear this sequence performed

or

I7-IV7-I7-I7-IV7-IV7-I7-I7

click here to hear this sequence performed

Lyrically, blues are AAB forms. A blues singer will sing a provocative or otherwise interesting statement during the first four measure stanza of the song. They will repeat that statement during the second four measure stanza with a similar melody to what was sung first with whatever accommodations that are forced by the presence of the two measures of IV7 that begin this second stanza.

In the B stanza, the last four measures, the singer makes a surprising, humorous or otherwise snappy answer to complete the statement that was repeated during the two A stanzas. It's during this last four measure section that the harmony is permitted to do surprising, unpredictable things to match the singers attitude and this is where you might hear a ii-V-I sequence played.

The usual major ii-V-I would have a root motion that moves down a perfect fifth from a iimi7 chord to a V7 chord and then down another perfect fifth to to a IMA triad (or else to a I6, a IMA7, a IMA9 or a I6(add 9) chord).

click here to perform this sequence

A typical minor ii-V-i would move from a iimi7(b5) to V7(b9) or V7Alt to a i mi or other i mi variant, such as a imi6, a imi(MA7) or a i mi9.

click here to perform this sequence

Since the blues tonic is a dominant 7th chord, a blues ii-V-I will most likely move from iimi7 to V7 to I7, quite a different sound than the major or minor ii-V-I sequences. A I7 puts a progression into motion, and does not bring it to a point of rest.

click here to perform this sequence

Since the I7 is a propulsive chord that causes a sense of motion to occur at the end of the blues sequence, the sequence that it is a part of at the end of a blues form, is usually called a turnaround, a short harmonic sequence that loops back and prepares for the next repetition of the entire progression.

click here to hear performance of this turnaround

And actually, at the end of a traditional blues tune, you are much more likely to hear a IV7-V7-I7-V7 (listen) or a V7-IV7-I7-V7 turnaround (listen) during the ending rather than a iimi7-V7-I7-V7.

The reason for that is that iimi7 is best heard as a substitute for the IVMA7 sound in the commonly used I-IVMA7-V7-I sequence (three tones out of 4 tones are shared between these chords) making it easier to hear that they can stand in for each other.

click here to hear this sequence performed

Jazz musicians, especially Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and their musical descendants, experimented extensively with chord substitutions and it's going to be in their music where you will hear more frequent use of ii-V-I sequences in all of the nooks and crannies of the blues form.

Jazz players for the sake of new sensation allow themselves to use ii-V and ii-V-I substitutes during the first 8 measures of the form. They stretch the form far enough that at the outer fringes of the harmonic transformations they attempt, you have to listen a bit to figure out if they've retained enough elements of a blues for their song to still merit that appellation.

Here's a link to a performance of the chord sequence of Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove", which ends with a iimi7-V7-I7-V7 turnaround.

Here's a link to a performance of the harmony of Dizzy Gillespie's "Birks's Works". "Birk's Works" is a minor blues, which substitutes a mi7 chord for the more usual I7 tonic chord. It uses minor ii-V-I sequences in measures 2 through 3 and measures 4 through 5. A minor ii-V-i sequence ends the form in the final three measures.

Here's a link to Charlie Parker's "Blues For Alice", a blues which, via chord substitution, stretches the blues form about as far as it can go before it snaps and turns into a different kind of musical object.

It starts with a I6 chord substituting for the nearly obligatory I7 tonic chord, and then runs a bVmi7-VII7-iiimi7-VI7-iimi7-V7 across measures 2 through 4 to arrive at Bb6, the IV chord in measure 5 of the form.

The entire B section, the last four measures is an incomplete iimi7-V7 in measures 9 and 10, followed by a double timed iiimi7-VI7-iimi7-V7 in measures 11 and 12 to turnback to the I6 at the beginning of the form.

Parker is taking serious liberties here.

The harmonic moves that must be conserved from the traditional 12 bar form to produce a chord sequence with a blues feeling seem to be these:

Most frequently, blues start with a I7 chord (extremely rarely a substitute would serve). If that doesn't happen, it's nearly obligatory to play I7 (or rarely a different form of I) in measure 4, the end of the first A stanza and the IV7 (or rarely an altered form of IV) in measure 5. In measure 7, where the transition from IV7 back to I7 usually takes place, it's necessary to start the measure with with whatever serves as the I chord.

As long as a logical path runs through the harmony that allows one to visit these waypoints at the right instants in the form, most listeners are willing to grant that what they are hearing is a blues.

I've come to my conclusions about how far one may stretch blues harmony and still recognize the result as a blues by examining the 90 chord progressions that are listed in the Blues Tunes index of the SongTrellis site, a compendium that lists mostly blues songs with a jazz heritage:

Blues Tune index at SongTrellis

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It boils down to two things:

  1. Repetition - listening to ii-v's over and over until you can hear them. Some of the links here will do that. Make an mp3. Loop it. Listen to it daily. Remember, that in the "olden days" of the jazz era, the guys whose names we all know were playing 5-7 nights a week for 4-5 hours each night. So just imagine how much ear training that is.

  2. Memorization - There are only 12 ii-v's. To recognize them in sheet music it just takes a little flash-card memorization. Just like times tables. Here are all of them - http://bassoridiculoso.blogspot.com/2011/08/daily-licking-040-all-ii-v-arpeggios.html

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Could be helpful to hear ii-V-I examples?

Here's a link that will play you a random Major ii-V-I.

Here's notation for a specific Major ii-V-I harvested from that link:if EMBED tags were allowed I would have included a player for the music

This one will play a random minor ii-V-I

Here's notation for one of the minor ii-V-i's generated by the previous link: harvested from previous link

Every time you refresh those pages that launch, a different ii-V-I should play for you. The type of the goal chord will also vary, so that you can hear what happens when different members of the major and minor chord families are the goal of the sequence.

I have a largish reply nearly ready which explains why you're unlikely to hear a ii-V-I sequence in a blues unless you listen to jazz musicians who take harmonic liberties with the form.

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The simplest thing you could do to solve this problem is to ignore the second chord entirely, trying to hear the ii-I root motion. When your ear gets better, and you can better hear what a fourth sounds like, then I'd suggest just listening to the root motion to determine what the progression is.

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Start out by learning the characteristic sound of a V-I progression. Play only the guide tones (3rd and 7th) and note how the 7th of the V moves down a half step to become the 3rd of the I. Then do the same for the ii-V, noticing how the 7th of the ii moves down a half step to become the 3rd of the V. Then put them together. There are many possible alterations and substitutions for the V, but almost all* of them will maintain these guide tones, and as such this is the best way to learn.

Also note the change in interval of the guide tones: perfect 5th, tritone, perfect 5th. The tritone is the characteristic sound of dominant chords and distinguishes them from "passive" chords (minor and major chords with a perfect 5th between guide tones).

Using root movement alone, as previously suggested, will not be as reliable due to tritone substitutions.

* Except for sus chords. The most common V substitution, the tritone (bII7), is common precisely because it keeps the same guide tones.

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One way would be to use intervals. ii-V is a perfect fourth (and sounds like the beginning of the Wedding March), and V-I is a perfect fifth (and sounds like the beginning of Bach's Minuet in G1). If you can identify these intervals well, you just need to listen for whether they happen in order plus whether the final note is the tonic. (I assume you can identify the tonic, since you are attempting something more advanced.)

1: I believe this was discovered to actually be by Chopin but I can't find a reference.

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