ii V7 – I – Chord Progression

The Chord Progression  ii  V7  I   is the most common chord progression in Western Civilization Music.  This is huge!

In the key of C major the progression  ii  V7  I  is   Dm7   G7  Cmaj7

Notice the circle of 5ths movement in this series of chords.

I always teach my students, that the chord progression “ ii V7  I” is analogous to the word “ the” in the English language.  It is in every song.  Not just jazz either.  You see the  ii V7 I progression in Beethoven, Chopin and all the great classical composers.  It is just harder to see in classical pieces because they typically don’t write in the chord symbol above the notes.  But you can take it to the bank that these master composers knew of the strong tendency for chords to move by circle of 5ths.

Some songs are made up almost entirely of   “ ii  V7  I”.  Some examples are:

Satin Doll
Misty
When Sunny Get’s Blue

Some Classical pieces that use “ ii V7 I” quite a bit are:

Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb Major
Tchaikovsky’s  Romeo And Juliet ( Ballet )
CPE Bach’s  Solfeggietto in C minor

One of the most important drills a student can practice and conceptualize is his or her ii V7 I’s !

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7 Diatonic Chords

Each Scale or Key has 7 different notes.  The key of C Major consists of  C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.  We can build a chord on each of these 7 tones of the C Major scale.

We do this by starting on any note of the scale and adding the note 2 letter names above the starting note.

So in the key of C Major , we start on the “ C “ note/key and add the “ E” note/key and the “ G” note/key and come up with the C major triad.  This is the so called  “ I chord” in the key of C Major.

Then we build a chord in the second note of the C major scale.  Starting on a “ D” key we add the “ F” and “A “ keys.  This gives us a D minor chord so we say “ the ii chord in the key of C major” is D minor.

This is a hard concept to teach by just using text, but suffice it to say that each of the 7 chords in any major key have a unique quality or chord type.  The “ I chord is always major”, the “ ii chord is always minor “, etc..

Once you know the type of chord built on the 7  notes of a scale you are quickly on your way to analyzing songs for what is called “ Roman Numerals”.

When you analyze a song for Roman Numerals, you begin to see that many many songs use the pattern   I , vi, ii V7.   Of course , by practicing  and mastering the 7 diatonic chord drill you will  know that the I chord is major , ii is minor , V is dominant and therefore by remembering the pattern, I , vi, ii, V7,  you actually get the quality, i.e. major, minor , dominant , or diminished  of each chord!

This above mentioned chord pattern is in hundreds if not thousands of songs

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Circle Of 5ths

Circle Of 5ths 

The first question I ask a new student is “ What is the circle of 5ths and why is important?”

Most students, no matter how long they have taken lessons, do not answer correctly!

The most common misconception is that the circle of 5ths describes the order of the major scales.  For example, C major has zero sharps and zero flats, and by going up a 5th to a “G” major scale this gives us the scale with 1 sharp.  Similarly , if we go up another interval of a 5th we get the D major scale which has 2 sharps in it.  This is a “ cute trick” to remember the number of sharps in a particular scale but has absolutely nothing to do with the “ True Circle Of 5ths”.

The True Circle of 5ths describes chord movement downward by 5th.  The chords in 80 -95%  of all Western Civilization Music move downward by 5th.  This concept is so powerful, that if I only had 1 lesson to teach you, the concept of the circle of 5ths would be my top priority.  Yet, most classical piano teachers don’t know this concept and therefore don’t teach it to their students.  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

I was fortunate enough to study with a jazz teach who did know this concept and it’s importance.  Now I make a living playing and teaching piano, not because of my traditional lessons , which I quite 3 times between age 6 and 16 because I wasn’t getting Beatles, Boogie Woogie, Blues etc.., but because of my jazz teachers, Alan Swain and Tony Caramia.

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Advanced Chord Voicings

What I call “ advanced chords”, are chords that use beautiful colors like 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, but are fully contained within an octave span. These “ advanced chords” are usually played with the left hand but aren’t exclusive to the left hand.

Obviously, if we are playing a 9th or 13th  chord,  all within the left hand,  and not spanning more than an octave, then we must omit some of the “ less important” notes of the chord.
Those “ less important” notes are the root note and the 5th of the respective chord/s.

This “Advanced chord “ voicing is very useful in playing with a bass and drummer.  It frees up the right hand to improvise while the left hand plays all the important and colorful notes of a complex chord.  These advanced voicings are not exclusive to a trio setting.  I use them when playing solo piano when I play a “ boom-chick” bass part or if I want to solo, improvise , or just play a different sound.

There are approximately 10 of these so called  “ Advanced Voicings” that I teach my students.  The voicings are used and taught only by professionals.  They are harder to visualize on the piano than a root position voicing, but are well worth the extra effort because of the phenomenal modern sound.

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4 Note Chords

Definition:

4 Note chords are simply triads with one note added.  The 4 note chord , Cmaj7, would be played  (  C, E, G, and B ).  By the addition of just 1 more note to the triad we get a much more colorful chord.

There are basically 7 different types of 4-note chords.  Like triads, we can build 4-note chords on any of the 12 different keys on the piano.  Thus there are 84 four-note chords,  (12 different keys multiplied by 7 different types).

4 Note chords are either 6th or 7th chords.   The following chords are 4-note chords:
C6 , Cm6 , Cmaj7, C7, Cm7 , Cm ( maj7), C dim 7.   Each chord just adds one note to the basic triad.  So in the case of C6 , we just add the note “ A” to the C major triad ( C,E,G).

When playing a 4-note chord in the left hand, the total span of the chord will always be smaller than an octave.  This enables even a small-handed student to play rich sounding 4-note chords.

4 note chords played entirely in the left hand are a very pretty sound.  However, there are limitations to this 4 note left hand chord.   Sometimes the chord can get in the way of the melody note which is played in the right hand.  To alleviate this overlapping of hands the student may try playing the chord down an octave on the piano.  This will sometimes work,  but will more than likely make the chord sound to “ muddy”.  There is a solution to this “ muddy’ 4-note left hand chord.  The answer is to “ Open “ up the chord.  By this we mean to transfer the 3rd of the chord from the left hand into the right hand .  This will make the chord sound “ clear” and “ un-muddy”.  We will explain this so called “ Open Position”  under the hyperlink  “ 5 , or more, – note chords”.

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What are Lead Sheets?

Definition:

A Lead Sheet is a song with a one-note melody written in the treble clef and a chord symbol above the melody.  You can think of a lead sheet as a “skeleton” of the song. It shows the melody and the basic chord structure.  The more you understand chords and harmonic substitutions, fills etc.. the more you can fill in this “ skeleton” .

The chord symbol written above the melody line indicates the chord to play in the left hand.  The lead sheet is a very important tool for playing quickly.  The 2 main advantages to playing songs in the form of a lead sheet are:

1.  You are using , in a very practical way, the chords that you have been taught, ( I never teach chord drills with out a practical application ).

2.  The student is getting a very big sound within the first month of lessons. Think of the months and years it takes to play 4 notes simultaneously when studying piano the “ traditional way”.  With a Lead Sheet, the student is playing songs they know and love and getting a full, rich sound without having to “ read “  a bass clef, full of 3 seemingly arbitrary notes.

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What are Piano Triads?

A Triad, as the word suggests, is a group of 3 notes usually played simultaneously.  When all 3 notes are struck together this is called a “ block chord”.  When struck non-simultaneously the chord is said to be “ arpeggiated” or sometimes referred to as a “ broken chord”.

I teach triads to all my students the very first lesson.  When first learning their triads, I have my students play the chords in what is called “close position”.  “ Close Position” means the notes are as “close” to each other as possible.  In other words they are not spread out beyond an octave.

When a student learns his or her 60 triads, ( 5 types of triads multiplied by 12 different keys on the piano), they are ready to play songs in the form of what is called a “ lead sheet”.

Major chords are indicated by a capital letter by itself.  A minor chord is indicated my a small “ m “ in the chord symbol.  For example a C minor chord would be written as Cm.
Augmented chords are indicated by a “ + “ symbol and suspended 4th chords are written like  C sus 4.  The last type of triad is called “ diminished”.  This chord is written 2 ways: either C dim   or  C o.

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What are Piano CHORDS?

Definition:

A chord is 3 or more notes played together.  Sometimes the notes are not struck simultaneously.  This is what is called a “ broken chord”.

Importance:

All Western Civilization music, from Bach to Beethoven to Brubeck, is based on chords, and  makes use of chords in a very predictable way.

If a piece of music is a musical story then chords are the words.  When you understand chords you begin to see that all music is just the rearranging or manipulation of the particular notes of chords!

Without knowledge of chords, the notes of Beethoven’s piano composition, titled Fur Elise, are just dots or notes on a page.  But to the jazz pianist those same 100 dots/notes on the page are simply 4 or 5 chords being “ broken up “ or arpeggiated.  So who is going to remember and memorize music quicker:  the traditional student who has to remember 100 seemingly arbitrary notes , or the jazz piano student who has to remember 5 chords !

In a nutshell this is why millions of students have attempted to play piano and failed. They failed because they were not taught chords but were merely taught the written notes/dots on a page.  When you know chords you can identify the patterns in music with great ease and the music begins to make sense.

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