Why is a 2-5-1 progression so often associated with jazz? Is there something inherent in this progression that makes it sound jazzy? Or rather, is it just that jazz people started to use it, experience and re-experience it, and lean on it until it just became part of what jazz is?
"Is there something inherent in this progression that makes it sound jazzy?" Given its very high popularity in the centuries before jazz came into being, we can infer that there is not. Jazz music using this progression sounds jazzy for some other reason.– phoogJan 17, 2022 at 0:35
1@phoog, that feels like a big simplification. Also I think "very high popularity" is an overstatement and overlooks the fact that the ii-V-I is more prevalent in jazz than other music. Jazz musicians have had unique reasons for deploying the ii-V-I as frequently as they do, and these reasons relate to unique historical and musical elements in jazz. It ranges from the strong heterophony of jazz (which goes back to the spirituals of enslaved West African people) to the cultural reasons why Bird and other bebop musicians wanted to make their improvisations as harmonically complex as possible.– jdjazzJan 18, 2022 at 7:12
To understand the prevalence of the ii-V-I in jazz, there are three good places to look: ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and blues.
Ragtime was characterized by something called the "Ragtime Progression":
| (V7/V/V/V) | V7/V/V | V7/V | V7 | I |
or more simply:
| III7 | VI7 | II7 | V7 | I |
In the key of C major, this progression is:
| E7 | A7 | D7 | G7 | C |
The first line illustrates the "centripetal" movement around the circle of fourths. In other words, each chord serves a dominant (V) function which leads to the next V chord. But even beyond this, the ragtime progression was interesting to people like Scott Joplin because of the possibility it opened for chromatic movement in the voice-leading, in the melodies, etc. Ragtime composers were so interested in exploring those possibilities that the III7-VI7-II7-V7-I progression became a hallmark of ragtime.
Tin Pan Alley
Then in the early 1900s, songwriters like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin came onto the scene. Their music was often referred to as Tin Pan Alley, and their songs were so influential that they form something called the Great American Songbook. These songs are still played with impressive frequency today in jazz. As it turns out, these composers were heavily influenced by ragtime:
The first generation of Tin Pan Alley composers was obsessed with ragtime and its musical and commercial possibilities. They were also interested in repackaging the instrumental ragtime compositions that Scott Joplin and his colleagues had developed as the foundation for their own novelty songs. The decade of Tin Pan Alley's rise, the 1910s, might be usefully marked off by the debut of Irving Berlin's “Alexander Ragtime Band” in 1911 on one end, and George and Ira Gershwin's “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” in 1918. (p. 3 of http://www.lfpl.org/mylibraryu/pdf/Session_Two_Materials.pdf)
Given the massive influence of these Tin Pan Alley composers and the endurance of their songs, the II-V-I progression would forever become an integral part of jazz harmony. But in part because Tin Pan Alley composers often wrote for musicals, their music followed specific forms like AABA, AAB, AB, etc. which each letter (A and B) marking different sections. For variety, these composers used different sections to modulate to different keys. This had two effects: (1) the prevalence of the ii-V-I grew because it's perhaps the easiest/most natural way to modulate, and (2) the ii-V-I became preferred over the II-V-I, partly because the ii-V-I was entirely diatonic and helped establish the new tonal center more quickly.
Blues (and Bebop)
There's a second unique lineage that also explains the prevalence of the ii-V-I. The core 12-bar structure that evolved from blues is something like this (in C):
| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |
| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
| G7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
As jazz musicians began using the blues progression, many sought ways to increase its complexity while preserving its original structure. This was especially true of the bebop musicians. People like Charlie Parker were known for adding chords into a song as a way to enable more complex melodies and improvisations. The easiest ways to add in extra chords are: (1) add the V7 chord in front of any "orphaned" I chords, and (2) add the ii chord in front of any "orphaned" V7 chords. The result is an explosion of ii-V and ii-V-I progressions in bebop music. For example, many bebop musicians have taken the blues structure above and modified it this way:
| C7 | Bø E7alt | Amin D7 | Gmin C7 |
| F7 | F7 | C7 | Emin A7 |
| Dmin | G7 | C7 A7 | Dmin G7 |
All we've done here is add additional V7 chords and ii chords. This procedure of adding ii-V7 chords quickly spilled over into many other songs that didn't have the blues structure. And this simply increased the prevalence of the ii-V-I even more.
You should also look at classical music, where this is a classic progression that can trace its roots back to the Renaissance. My inclination is that the progression is a fundamental building block of (Western European) harmony, which is one of the fundamental sources of jazz. Jan 17, 2022 at 8:01
@phoog, I'd be very interested in reading an answer about that connection, if you or someone else were to put it together. I wouldn't think the 2-5-1 is as prevalent in classical as it is as jazz, and I'd guess this is due to the particular motivation behind its usage in jazz. But I don't know enough about classical to do that analysis. I'd be really interested in the motivations/ intended function behind its usage in classical music. For ex, in jazz, back-cycling was deployed specifically to achieve greater complexity and to add more chord changes. Jan 17, 2022 at 14:29
I hadn't ever heard that the 2-5-1 was used in classical music for the same purpose of creating greater harmonic complexity, but then I haven't heard any particular reason why the 2-5-1 was foundational in classical. Anyway, your comment makes me very interested in understanding the full origin, and I do hope someone puts that answer together. (Although maybe we're deviating a little from the question, which I think is trying to understand the specific prevalence/connection to jazz, rather than a complete history of the 2-5-1.) Jan 17, 2022 at 14:32
1Well in general bass lines moving by fourths and fifths arose in the renaissance as four-part harmony developed because it helps with both voicing and voice leading. You can have sequences that make several steps around the circle of fifths, more than just ii-V-I. I should try to come up with some examples to compare to (and contrast with) songs like "Try to Remember" from the Fantasticks or "So In Love" from Kiss Me, Kate. Or "Fathers and Sons" from Working, or... Jan 17, 2022 at 18:33
1But they also liked to move around by thirds (e.g., in minor, III-V-i, which gives a nice chromatic line of, e.g. in D minor, C-C#-D). In the baroque, as harmony became more standardized, you tend to get less of that, also a preference for ii6-V-I (where ii6 is a ii chord in 1st inversion) so the bass line is e.g. FGC rather than DGC, similar to IV-V-I) or even ii(6/5)-V-I, where the first chord might be called a IVadd6 chord in a lead sheet. Later, secondary dominants became increasingly popular, so II-V-I or rather (V/V)-V-I. Jan 17, 2022 at 18:34
One reason the ii V7 I progression is associated with jazz is that jazz developed alongside the music of the Great American Songbook. The tunes in the Great American Songbook are written using ii V7 I progressions and move through different keys.
Jazz musicians started improvising over these tunes, and then began writing new heads over the existing progressions. For example, many jazz tunes (such as Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and Sonny Rollins' Oleo) are written over the changes to "I got Rhythm" and the Miles Davis tune "Dig" is written over the changes to "Sweet Georgia Brown." There are many such examples. They also took the ii V7 I concept and re-wrote the blues progression to make use of it. It probably made things more interesting for the musicians and the audience.
As a consequence, many jazz tunes written in the 30's 40's and 50's utilized the ii V7 I progression.
Notably, many modal tunes do not utilize the ii V7 I progression. Miles Davis' tune "So What" is a good example of this. So at a certain point jazz musicians began to move away from the ii V7 I progression. The resulting sound is arguably more open and free, but is also more challenging for players to create truly interesting solos over modal tunes.
At any rate, the ii V7 I progression continues to be a very important element of jazz.
2Notably, many modal tunes do not utilize the ii V7 I progression : We needn't look to the rise of modal jazz to find numerous jazz tunes that are not grounded in ii V7 I: Jazz players from the start have used blues forms that are based in I-IV-V...etc, not ii V7 I. Jan 11, 2018 at 3:35
3Let's not forget in all of this that the jazz tradition developed in a world steeped the European common harmonic practice, in which the progression
iii-vi-ii7-V7-Iwas a venerable practice. Yes, jazz, & its antecedents & offshoots, are different beasts from European art music, but the fact that there was much parallel development & cross-influence cannot be ignored. Jan 12, 2018 at 3:46
@DeanRansevycz, agreed; this is certainly part of the explanation. I think another part of the explanation lies in the question: why did jazz so heavily utilize that particular practice instead of a different practice in Western classical music? Jan 12, 2018 at 20:37
@DeanRansevycz more than parallel development and cross influence, European musical elements were among the fundamental building blocks of jazz. Of course there was also parallel development and cross influence, but that is most obvious in terms of rhythm and harmonic color than in terms of the choice of underlying harmonic progression. Jan 17, 2022 at 8:07
@phoog, I don't think it's that clear cut. While some European influence existed, the enslaved West African people brought their musical traditions with them. This covered the full gamut: harmonic structure, rhythmic structure, melodic structure, instrumentation, and cultural associations. The strong emphasis on a single melodic line shaped a lot of the music (and the trajectory of jazz), and this probably didn't come from European influence, which I think was heavily homophonic. Jan 18, 2022 at 5:58
Not specifically jazz, but a lot of music seems to work along the lines of ' a chord, up a fourth, up another fourth'. Often that last harmony is the tonic, thus - ii - V - I
What @Tim answered.
In addition, and by no means a contradiction:
ii-V7-I follows the circle of 5ths : F-Bb-Eb is ii-V7-I, etc. So ii-V7-I facilitates logical, systematic, fluid movement in melodies and improvisation, as you work through circle of 5ths. (Sometimes it's referred to as the Circle of 4ths, particularly when moving up the scale counter-clockwise - the flat direction.)
Listen to how jazz soloists so often build their solos in ii-V7-I tunes - you'll hear that an important component in the musical motion comes from climbing up and down through the notes connecting the scales of the Circle, lingering a bit and exploring the new scale/chord, and then moving on to the next one. That makes the music flow in an engaging and pleasing manner.
At the root of it all in terms of jazz's history is that the jazz repertoire in its early days was comprised to a large extent of popular tunes - tin pan ally, vaudeville/show tunes, etc - generally known today as
Standards. Those tunes were used as the framework for jazz improvisation, and those tunes made ample use of the ii-V7-I progression, for the reasons stated - it sounds good, and works well theoretically speaking. Thus ii-V7-I became integral to the jazz lexicon.
2Weren't you ever told at school never to copy someone else's work?!! And the ii is more likely, but not always, going to be Fm - it fits diatonically, too.– TimSep 30, 2017 at 9:51
1@pro - circle of fourths as the intervals are in fact perfect fourth certainly. But it is most commonly known as the circle of fifths , thus my language. From my illustration it is clear we are moving in the flat direction. I added a parenthetic remark to the answer now, reflecting your comment. Jan 11, 2018 at 3:23
1@pro, I'm also familiar with the way Stinkfoot has described it. The circle of fifths is a circle, and you can move around the circle in either direction. The intervals F to Bb to Eb are fifths if you go down in pitch rather than up. Jan 12, 2018 at 0:48
1@jdjazz - if you go down in pitch rather than up - Good point. And since in that case we're going counter-clockwise , we should be going down in pitch rather than up, if we treat it like a clock - so it is always the circle of 5ths . Jan 12, 2018 at 0:58
1@pro, I think the two approaches ("circle of fourths" and "counterclockwise around the circle of fifths") are both used. Figuring out which one a beginner will better understand depends on how they were taught. Neither is objectively right or wrong. It's not totally correct that "the intervals are in fact perfect fourths." The intervals are fifths if the pitches descend. Is C to G a fifth or a fourth? Well, C4 to G4 is a fifth, but C4 to G3 is a fourth. There is logic in both approaches, and I do think both approaches are taught to new students. Jan 12, 2018 at 20:47
To answer the question, it is important to go back to some basic ideas. The invention of Jazz. Basicly, it's an improvisational platform. The 2-5-1 progression incorporates the strongest cadence i.e. the 5-1 and allows for relatively easy modulation and returns between keys. It serves as a means of letting several musicians employing a variety of melodic, rythmic, and harmonic tecniques; communicate an contribute to changing ideas while staying together to create unique whole greater than the sum of the parts. Simualarly, the 1-4-5 progression does the same for blues or jazz blues, & rock. PAUL
That's rather an opinion-based question! It's not specifically associated with jazz. A whole lot of popular music makes great use of ii, V, I or an even more expanded 'cycle of 5ths' sequence. (And the rest of it is based on the Blues ;-)
A whole lot of later-period jazz ignores 'functional' harmony altogether and noodles around modally on progressions like Am9, Gm9 repeated continually.
Instruction books on jazz improvisation do tend to overdose on ii, V, I sequences in all the keys, maybe because it IS such a common pattern in mainstream songs.
5This seems to be a comment more than an answer. Jan 11, 2018 at 16:44
Well, sometimes the answer to a question IS just that the question is based on a false premise!– LaurenceJan 16, 2022 at 23:58
I dunno, I'm a working jazz musician and you definitely have to fight the ii V I fatigue, to really WORK to not get sucked into the monotony of decorating ANOTHER ii V I in a vaguely original way, 8 times per chorus per song... or more. I agree, it's not just jazz that uses the progression, but as a day-to-day working jazz musician ii-V-I's have an inordinately overbearing presence, that at points feel like they will be the majority of your life as a musician. Thus if you want to get all those bill-paying gigs you have to associate heavily with them, I think it's reasonable to ask 'why?' ;)– OwenMJan 17, 2022 at 23:59