— 2012 — Jan 31

The Backdoor ii-V Progression

by Anton Schwartz

If you play jazz music, you know how a standard ii-V-I progression works: a Dm7 chord followed by a G7 chord resolves to a C chord. We also hear a lot about the Tritone Substitution ii-V, in which the Dm7 and G7 resolve, instead, to the key of F. Well, there is another very common resolution of the ii-V progression. It is much more common among standards than the tritone sub version, but it gets surprisingly little discussion relative to the others. In it, the Dm and G7 resolve to the key of A. In other words, a iv7 chord leads to the VII7 chord, which resolves to the I chord. A good example of its use is in bars 3-5 of the Tadd Dameron standard, Lady Bird. Another is bars 4-5 of Misty.

The progression has sometimes been called the “Backdoor ii-V” or “Backdoor Turnaround.” Look among standards and you will find it’s pretty ubiquitous. I thought about it for awhile one night and here are some I came up with:

  • Blue Daniel
  • Dolphin Dance
  • For All We Know
  • Groovin’ High
  • Half Nelson (Lady Bird)
  • How Deep is the Ocean
  • I Could Write a Book
  • I Didn’t Know What Time It Was
  • I Should Care
  • I Want to Talk About You
  • I’ll Be Seeing You
  • Just Friends
  • My Foolish Heart
  • My Old Flame
  • Misty
  • Nostalgia In Times Square
  • Round Midnight
  • Silver’s Serenade
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow
  • Soultrane
  • Stardust
  • Stella By Starlight
  • Sweet & Lovely
  • Tea for Two
  • Till There Was You
  • Tenderly
  • When Sonny Gets Blue
  • Yardbird Suite

Plus a couple of pop songs:

  • In My Life (Beatles)
  • Just The Way You Are
  • You Are So Beautiful (Billy Preston)

As an exercise, see if you can find the backdoor turnaround in each of the songs. Play them—either a recorded version or on your instrument. Once you get a feeling for what it sounds like, you’ll come to identify the progression easily.

There are a couple common variants to the backdoor progression. In these songs it appears as IV – VII7 – I (i.e. with a major four chord instead of minor):

  • Cherokee
  • Donna Lee (Back Home Again in Indiana)
  • Hello Goodbye (Beatles)
  • How Long Has This Been Going On
  • Long Ago & Far Away
  • My Romance
  • Stella By Starlight
  • There Will Never Be Another You
  • The Feeling of Jazz

And in these, the turnaround resolves not to the I but to the very closely related iii chord:

  • Beatrice
  • Body & Soul
  • Darn That Dream
  • Days of Wine & Roses
  • Don’t Blame Me
  • Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye
  • How High The Moon / Ornithology
  • Joy Spring
  • My Shining Hour
  • The Best Thing for You
  • This Time the Dream’s on Me
  • All The Things You Are
  • I Fall In Love Too Easily

Once again, see if you can identify the backdoor progression in each song.

Why does the progression work? There are many ways of looking at it, but here are a few. For simplicity, let’s talk in the key of C, making the progression
Fm7 | B7 | C:

  • First, the B7 chord of the backdoor progression is very closely related to the G7 and D7 chords of the normal and tritone-sub ii-V progressions. If we voice each of the three chords with with a 9 and 13, they all use the same B diminished chord and whole-half diminished scale. And we may see the chordtones of the B7 as the 9 (B), 5 (D), 7 (F) and 9 (A) of G dominant.
  • The Fm7 chord of the backdoor progression functions much like the Dø7 chord, which leads to C in a minor ii-V progression. The Dø7 chord is effectively the relative minor of the Fm7 chord, since it is based a minor third down from the Fm7 and the 1-3-5 of the Fm7 are the 3-5-7 of Dø7. Differently put, an Fm6 chord is merely an inversion of a Dø7.
  • The backdoor progression leading to a major key is the tritone sub progression of the closely-related relative minor. Since Fm7B7 leads easily to Am, it should be no surprise that it also leads to Am’s relative major, C.

By the way, none of the lists of songs above are comprehensive – I’m sure there are lots of good examples I didn’t think of. Can you think of some? Leave a comment!

25 Responses

  1. Rick Koler says:

    Your blue background for this chord progression study guide fits my mood. As you may know Clare Fischer died thurdsday the 26th. He has been a consistant musical inspiration to me for over forty years. If you can ever find (or, if you already have) Clare Fischer on c.d. with Cal Tjader it is worth many repeat listenings. Here is an interview and performance on NPR with Marian McPartland and Clare Fischer: http://www.npr.org/blogs/ablogsupreme/2012/01/27/145990950

    • Thanks for the remembrance, Rick, and the link. I look forward to checking it out, especially because I love Clare Fisher’s solo playing so much.

  2. I came on your site looking for the tune “For All We Know.” While it seems like a simple question, I’m trying to find the best way to think about (meaning…play over) the flat-iii full diminished chord. The progression goes Eb – Gb full-dim 7, Fm

    Easy enough, in a sense, but how does that chord function? I first thought it was a sub for VI-dom7, which works…but, that leads me to play a C altered scale, which has no D natural. The melody is a D natural. I could also treat it as the vii chord of G-har minor, but I feel like there’s a stronger choice.

    Anyway, if you have a clear idea, I’m curious to hear what it is. You can email me directly, or post a comment.

    Any help would be appreciated!

  3. I mean, I guess Gb Ab A B C D Eb F is the best choice, but I really dig the sound of the G – nat.

    • John – to me the scale to use is the Gb diminished scale. Whole step – half step. That’s virtually always the case over a diminished chord. The tougher question is how to make sense of that chord. And it’s not because it’s a flat-3 dim7 chord as much as that it leads downward a half step to the next chord, Fm. When flat-3 dim7 chord leads upward to iii, as it often does (e.g.: Eb | Eo7 | Fm7 | Gbo7 | Gm7 ) you can think of it as a surrogate for D13b9. That chord uses the same scale since D half-whole = Gb whole-half. But in the old tunes it can often lead downward too, as it does in For All We Know, and there the story is more complicated. I’ve had that discussion with other players before, and I don’t think there’s any simple answer. But inasmuch as there’s any “correct” scale to use, the diminished scale is definitely the way to go.
      cheers!
      Anton

      • Berklee jazz saxophone says:

        Can’t you just think of that chord as a substitute for Gb7?

        • The Gbo7 shares the same root as the Gb7, which leads naturally down to Fm7. In theory you could think of it as a substitute for the Gb7… though I’m inclined not to, because it lacks both the third and the seventh of the Gb7, which are so central to what makes the Gb7 resolve down to F.

  4. Cool man, thanks. Yeah, it is kind of an odd one.

    Great playing, by the way.

  5. Hi Anton,
    Thanks for writing a post on one of my favorite chord progressions! I also would like to mention that this chord progression is all featured toward the end of All The Things You Are. Also, the Beatles used this progression quite a bit too.
    Great post and thanks!

    • Yes! No idea how I missed All the Things, but it certainly belongs in the last list so I just added it there. Thanks!
      I also added I Fall In Love Too Easily, which I hadn’t thought of until the other day.
      As for Beatles tunes… I mentioned In My Life but I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Got any others in mind?
      cheers,
      Anton

  6. Jason Bachman says:

    Could it be you by Cole Porter

  7. Hi. I never really thought about this progression at all before reading this post. I normally just think about conventional ii-V-Is. Is there a specific scale you can use over this, especially if it is a fast tempo? e.g. Fm7-Bb7-Cmaj7. You could use F minor pentatonic over the ii and V and this resolves to E minor pentatonic on the C maj 7. Being a piano player this could sound great with some McCoy Tyner-esque 4th voicings in the left hand :)

    • Good question, Marty!

      At a basic level, you can play over Fm7B7 leading to C just as you would if two chords were leading to E. F dorian and B mixolydian will work fine over the two chords, respectively.

      But on closer look, there are some important differences between the two contexts. For instance: the B altered chord/scale works great leading down a fifth to the key of E, as in a standard ii-V-I, but does not work well leading up to C in a backdoor progression. The B altered scale has neither the G (the root of G7) nor F (the seven of G7) that lead so strongly to C. By contrast B lydian dominant (B7#11) leads very nicely to C, much more naturally than it leads to E. Many of the songs listed imply lydian dominant for the dominant chord of the backdoor progression. Look at Lady Bird, for instance.

      As for your suggestion of using Fm pentatonic (over Fm7B7) to Em pentatonic (over C)… yes, that’s a great idea! The only catch is: by doing that you’re treating the B7 as a sus chord, and foregoing the nice resolution of E to D when Fm7 changes to B7. You’re also foregoing that E that’s the #11 of the B7#11. If your bandmates are playing a B7#11, as they well might, there’ll be a bit of a clash there between your E and their E. But that wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially at a fast tempo like you say, and if you’re just playing with bass & drums you can make sure it doesn’t happen. :)

  8. Aaron Garabedian says:

    What brought me here was my attempt at understanding the progression of a song I just love by the British chillout group Zero 7. They’re song “In The Waiting Line” features this Backdoor progression in C. C-Fm7-Bb-C maybe you could add that to your list? It’s jazzy without anything traditionally jazzy about it, instrument wise anyways. If you could, take a listen and tell me what you think!

    • Thanks, Aaron. The list only includes standards, so “In The Waiting Line” wouldn’t be an appropriate addition, but send me a link if you’d like me to check it out…

  9. Aaron Garabedian says:

    Ah totally understandable. Sure here you go!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tZlu4wP4pw

    I suppose its more bluesy than jazzy but both are pretty related right? The prior evolving into the latter?

  10. It Could Happen To You

    • Absolutely, Luigi! Though, technically, there is no ivm7 there (because it wouldn’t fit with the melody) – just the bVII7. Still, it has the feel of the backdoor progression.

  11. […] right before the CMaj7 Bb7 A7.  However, the Fmin7 Bb7 progression in bar 2 is best understood as a backdoor ii-V progression, not a tritone sub of […]

  12. […] are: down a half-step (as in the tritone substitution), up a whole step (see my post about the Back Door ii-V) or up a half-step (see my post about the common but nameless cadence used in the song […]

  13. Geoff Kidde says:

    Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” starts

    Cmaj7 Gm7 C7 Fm7 Bb13 Cmaj7

    Fm7 Bb13 Cmaj7
    is Back Door ii V . . .

  14. Benny says:

    What about Freddie Feeeloader?
    Bb7///
    Eb7/Bb7/
    F7,Eb7,Ab7/
    I’m guessing the Eb7 before the Ab7 works as a secondary dominant.

    Cheers, Benny

    • Interesting, Benny! I wouldn’t have thought of that one. Honestly, I think of it as two separate things—first the F7 to E7, and then the A7 interrupting the turnaround-in-progress. That’s partly because the F7 and E7 are a unit unto themselves (the V-IV of the blues) and partly because of the harmonic placement and rhythm of the IV and bVII (they inhabit different 2-bar sections and are different lengths, so they don’t function like a normal backdoor). Mostly this one strikes me as just a VII7-to-I… like, say, Killer Joe. But it makes for good discussion—thank you! Oh, and yes, I agree that the E7 is a secondary dominant leading to the A7.

      • Benny says:

        Ah, thanks for explaining that Anton! As ever, lucid and generous!

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