The tonic chord, or the “one chord” of the key, is a harmonic home base. It is a point of rest. It is where the music feels finished or resolved.
This resolved sound often comes at the end of the music, but also happens at various points throughout the music like the beginning or end of a section like a verse or chorus.
Getting to Tonic
Many popular chord progressions are about getting back to the tonic to create a resolution. Some of these progressions are called cadences. For example, V-I is called an authentic cadence, or IV-I a plagal cadence.
Other progressions are called turnarounds. A turnaround is a sequence of chords which brings you back around to the beginning of some repeated song form like the 12-bar blues.
We previously explored the I-vi-ii-V progression. It is a common turnaround used to bring you back to the tonic. Some songs are nothing but a repeated turnaround the whole way through.
The most powerful sounding harmonic resolution, or cadence, is thought to be the V, or dominant, leading back to the tonic. The dominant-to-tonic cadence is called an authentic cadence. Turnarounds often set you up for this authentic cadence. That is, turnarounds often lead you to the V which then leads to the tonic.
One such turnaround is the ii-V-I progression.
The ii-V-i Progression
Whether in a major key (ii-V-I) or minor key (ii-V-i) the “two-five-one” progression is very common. When I asked you play the diatonic chords in diatonic fourths, this ii-V-i is the end of that sequence. You might notice the ii-V-i is part of the I-vi-ii-V turnaround which ends on ii-V leading back to the I.
The minor key ii-V-i progression is made up of a diminished triad (ii°), major triad (V) and a minor triad (i). In many styles, this progression uses seventh chords: half-diminished 7th (iiØ7), dominant 7th (V7), and minor 7th (i7).
In the key of A minor the progression would be Bm7♭5 – E7 – Am7.
It's also common to find the V chord with altered or added notes like E7#5 (E G# B# D)* or E7♭9 (E G# B D F). We will discuss those chords in future lessons.
[*Yes, B# is correct. B# is another name for C. But, the fifth of an E chord is B and therefore a sharp 5 is B#. C would be a flat 6th. Most people will write C however. I guess they're nicer than I am. Or, I might be trying to teach you a way to think about chords.]
Styles and the Minor Key ii-V-i
While the major ii-V-I progression is very common in most styles of music, the minor ii-V-i seems to be popular in some styles more than others. The minor ii-V-i shows up frequently in jazz and Latin music, but less frequently in other styles like rock.
It doesn't necessarily need to be this way, but the minor ii-V-i does have a problematic chord: the diminished ii chord.
The flatted fifth of the ii chord creates a problem for some styles. For instance, a big part of the rock sound is distorted guitars playing power chords. A power chord is made up of two notes—the root and fifth (plus any octaves of those notes) played at the same time. The power chord is a very pure sound and sounds great when played with distortion.
When you play a root and flatted fifth at the same time, it loses that pure sound; it becomes more dissonant. That harsh dissonance is magnified when you add distortion. So, a chord with a flatted fifth can really stick out. Listen to the difference in this example:
You can probably imagine using a flatted 5th might be too dissonant for some songs. It's not impossible to use these diminished chords in rock, but they are a little more challenging to fit in, and that's part of why you hear them less often. And, when you do hear them, they're usually not in the context of a minor ii-V-i.
The moody, dark sound of the minor ii-V-i really works in ballads and more lush-sounding songs. It's quite common in minor key Classical, jazz, Latin and Afro-Cuban music.
Minor ii-V-i Songs and Exercises
See the song examples page for insight into the sound of this minor ii-V-i progression in actual songs. It is rarely the only progression in a song, but it shows up often to lead you to the tonic in a minor key.
I've included a few exercises emphasizing the minor ii-V-i progression applying the minor key diatonic chord shapes for you to practice and to help you hear it.