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Piano Lesson: II-V-I Progressions In C Major
by Peter Edvinsson
Let me give you some easy progressions that will help you in your improvisational piano playing!

What is a progression?

A progression is a set of chords played consecutively. Generally, successive chords in a chord progression share some notes, which provides harmonic and linear continuity to a passage.

What is a II-V-I progression?

Is is a chord progression with three chords built on the roots of the second, fifth and first note of a key.

The three roman numerals correspond to the digits 2, 5 and 1. In it's most basic form the numbers indicate the root of a triad. For example, the roman number I in C-major means a triad built from the note C. This triad consists of the notes C, E and G.

The Roman numeral II in the key of C-major tells you to play a triad built from the notes in the C-major scale beginning with the second note. The notes will be D, F and A.

The Roman numeral V indicates a triad built from the fifth step on the C-scale. The fifth note in the C-scale is G so the triad will include the notes G, B and D.

Piano tab notation

In order to demonstrate the chords I will use a notation suitable for articles sites. First we will look at the middle C. The note C on the middle of the piano keyboard, sometimes near the key hole of some pianos is called C4.

The number 4 indicates that it is the C on the fourth octave of the piano. Of course, there are piano keyboards with less keys and less octaves. In this case you have to think of C4 as middle C and nothing else.

Our first piano chord progression

We will start out by playing a progression with the triad chords built on the second, fifth and the first note of the C scale.

LH: D3 RH: D4 F4 A4 (Dm)

LH: G3 RH: G4 B4 D5 (G major)

LH: C3 RH: C4 E4 G4 (C major)

As you might guess LH means left hand and in the Dm chord D3 indicates that you play the note D3 on your piano or keyboard with your left hand at the same time as you play the right hand notes.

This II-V-I progression in C major is a little bit clumsy. You have to move your fingers a little to much in order to play the chords. We will adjust the G major chord a bit and play the progression in the following manner:

LH: D3 RH: D4 F4 A4 (Dm)

LH: G3 RH: B3 D4 G4 (G major)

LH: C3 RH: C4 E4 G4 (C major)

To make smooth transitions between the piano chords in the II-V-I progression you can change the chords even more. Let's change the Dm chord to Dm11 and G major to G7.

LH: D3 RH: C4 F4 G4 (Dm11)

LH: G3 RH: B3 F4 G4 (G7)

LH: C3 RH: C4 E4 G4 (C major)

We might as well change the C major chord to Cmaj7 in order to make the changes smoother.

LH: D3 RH: C4 F4 G4 (Dm11)

LH: G3 RH: B3 F4 G4 (G7)

LH: C3 RH: B3 E4 G4 (Cmaj7)

Finally we will introduce a substitute chord for G. Acually a so called tritone substitution.

This means that instead of a G chord we will use a chord with the root a tritone interval from G, that is three whole steps. Instead of G we will play Db+11.

LH: D3 RH: C4 F4 G4 (Dm11)

LH: Db3 RH: B3 F4 G4 (Db+11)

LH: C3 RH: B3 E4 G4 (Cmaj7)

This will make the chord changes even smoother, especially the bass notes, and maybe more interesting. You can use this formula, which in the key of C means to play Dm, G7 and C, to find many interesting variations on this theme.

It will be a great help for you in piano improvisation to have a working knowledge of the II-V-I progression with variations in different keys because this progression is used in a wide variety of music genres.

About the Author

Peter Edvinsson is a musician, composer and music teacher. Visit his site Capotasto Music and download your free piano sheet music and learn to play resources at

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