— 2013 — Jan 11

A nameless ii-V cadence

by Anton Schwartz

We’re all familiar with the standard ii-V-I progression, which plays such a central role in jazz harmony. At some point we all learn about the variant called the tritone substitution, where a Dm7-G7 sequence resolves not to the conventional Cmaj but instead to Fmaj. Another variant, which I presented in a previous post is called the “Backdoor ii-V” progression, in which Dm7-G7 resolves to Amaj. This time we consider yet another: one that, as far as I know, has no name. In it, Dm7-G7 resolves chromatically upward to Amaj.

This sequence isn’t quite as ubiquitous as the others, but it is still pretty common. If you get to know what it sounds like, you’ll recognize it frequently. Notice it, for starters, in bars 2-3 of the melody of I Remember You (Bm7→E7→Fmaj7). Play that for yourself a few times. Then see if you can hear where it appears in these songs:

  • Whispering
  • Groovin’ High (same changes as Whispering)
  • There Will Never Be Another You
  • Meditation
  • I Remember You
  • The Song is You
  • Almost like Being in Love
  • Like Someone in Love
  • It Could Happen to You
  • But Beautiful
  • Pensativa
  • You Do Something to Me
  • Remember
  • On a Slow Boat to China
  • Limbo

Observe how often in these songs the melody note held over the sequence is the leading tone of the tonic—that is, a B if the sequence is Fm7→B7→Cmaj. This note, the major third of the G7 chord, is perhaps the most obvious note choice to lead to C major (hence the name leading tone)… but by using Fm7-B7 instead of G7, the B becomes the eleven of a m7 chord—an elegant and sublime sound.

The Role of the Common Tone Diminished

So… why does this chord sequence work? In many of the cases, the dominant chord that moves up a semitone to resolve to the root can be seen as a common tone diminished chord. A common tone diminished chord (CTD) is a diminished chord that resolves to a major chord whose root is one of the diminished chord tones. For instance, listen to the first two chords of the song “Spring Is Here” (not the verse of the song but the better-known chorus):


The Common Tone Diminished Chord in “Spring is Here”

This is what you are hearing:

Spring is Here

The CTD is more common in classical music than in today’s jazz. For instance, listen to the beginning passage of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker. Here is the notated passage.

But many of the jazz standards that we play with ii-V sequences were originally written with CTD instead. Listen, for instance, to the original Jimmy Dorsey recording of “I Remember You”. The chord changes are Gmaj7 | G°7 | Gmaj7. These days, most players would play F7 or Cm7F7 instead of the G°7. The F7 is a very natural substitution for G°7, since a F79 is the same as a G°7 over an F root. That is, the G°7 chord tones make up the 9, 3, 5 and m7 of the F7. And, as we noted above, so often the melody note over the G°7 is an F.

For a similar example, listen to the original recording of You Do Something To Me.

In fact, we can take many of the tunes listed above and replace #ivm7→VII7→I with i°7→I for a variation that sounds a bit more old-fashioned. Try it with “There Will Never Be Another You” (5 bars before the end), “Whispering” (bar 3) or “Slow Boat To China” (bar 4).

Conversely, we could take the CTD of “Spring is Here” and replace it with our ii7-V7 sequence. That is, instead of beginning the song with E°7E, we use Am7→D7E. With the leading tone of E in the melody, just like so many of the examples we listed above, it makes for a beautiful substitution. Try it!

But what do we call it?

Any suggestions for a good name for the chord sequence?
Maybe “Whispering ii-V”? Or “ii-V from below”?
If you have a good idea, please leave it as a comment!

Big Gratitude to Joe Gilman

Big thanks to the brilliant Joe Gilman for his terrific conversations about this subject, and for turning me on to the connection to common tone diminished.

16 Responses

  1. CM says:

    I’m enjoying your blog very much, and got to playing with this progression, trying to understand what it was doing. And one thing that came out after a while is that it almost felt like a deceptive cadence, except with a major bVI substituting for the minor I that might have been expected (instead of the minor VI for major I). I was playing it Dm7 G7 followed by G-C-Eb, with either a C bass or an Ab bass.

    Anyway thank you for these interesting articles.

    • Yes, Cherilyn! Differently stated: If a backdoor ii-V is a cadence that leads to the parallel major (VI) of the normal destination’s relative minor (vi), then a “Whispering ii-V” is a cadence that leads to the relative major (VI) of the normal destination’s parallel minor (i). Thanks for pointing that out!

  2. Josh says:

    I’ve always thought of it as a deceptive cadence in a minor key too. But I’m a little confused as to your idea of substituting #ivm7-VII7 for V. That is, it makes sense as a reharm, but if you’re thinking superimposition, wouldn’t it clash with the b7 of the V?
    PS: another similar concept that works a little better as a superimposition is a III7b9 for V.

    • Exactly, Josh. The progression makes a great reharm of a V chord when the third is in the melody… or a great device to use in writing a new song. But I’m not suggesting a soloist superimpose it when the rhythm section is playing a V chord; that would clash big time! Rather, I’m suggesting that we as soloists be able to identify it by its sound and by its written appearance, the way we can a standard ii-V, so we’ll be able to improvise more authentically over it.

  3. Greg says:

    This is probably implied in the article and comments, but this resolution was taught to me as a functional substitution. The idea is that the I, III and VI (or Cmaj7, Emin7 and Amin7) are all tonic function chords. In a functional substitution, the II-V doesn’t resolve as expected. It resolves instead to one of the other tonic chords.

    I learned Dmin7-G7-Amin7 as a deceptive cadence too, but this functional term helped me decipher other surprises. With F#min7-B7-Cmaj7, the resolution steers around the usual II-V to Emin7. It replaces Emin7 with Cmaj7.

    If you combine functional substitution with tritone substitution, it fits progressions like Fmin7-Bb7-Cmaj7. In this key, Fmin7-Bb7 could work as a tritone-sub II-V resolving to Amin7, but it resolves instead up to another tonic chord, CMaj7.

    I’m sure there are other possibilities and other ways to describe it, but this one helped me (thanks to Hummie Mann and Tim Huling).

    Thanks for the articles. They’re great. I’m looking forward to seeing your band again some time soon.

    • Yes, Greg—thank you. I think you and Cherilyn are saying very similar things, but I couldn’t agree more with your added emphasis on the importance of the iii chord. The relationship between a major chord and the minor chord a minor third below (the “relative minor”) gets talked about everywhere, but the important relationship with the minor chord a major third higher doesn’t even have a decent name. (I keep a list of blog posts I mean to write when I have the time, and that one’s been on it for a long time!)

      • Vik says:

        I’m not sure if I correctly understand your concern about the lack of a proper name for min 3-rd/Maj 3-rd relationships between any two chords but in general terms aren’t they called ‘Mediant’ relationships? When the third is diatonic to the key the relationship is called ‘Diatonic mediant’ and otherwise it’s a ‘Chromatic mediant’. Of course at least one chord is assigned to a current key. This term is quite common but I’m not quite sure whether it applies to any chord qualities. However I assume when the second chord becomes chromatic it’s quality is less important in the context of the key but I would be careful to make a strong statement since I’m not an expert.

  4. I’m not sure cadences need names but I guess I think of this a sort of a tritone-subbed plagal cadence if you want to get all nomenclatury about it. The dominant chord in this cadence seems to function sort of like the IV chord in a plagal cadence, really like a IV7 chord in a bluesy plagal cadence. But substituted a tritone away. And as jazz players we always seem to want a running start at any dominant chord from some variety of m7 chord a fourth below. So when I ask myself how I could have thought up this cadence starting from someplace super familiar in all of western music, these are the steps of evolution that make up my answer:

    1. Plagal cadence: Bb – Fmaj
    2. Partly bluesified: Bb7 – Fmaj
    3. Tritone sub: E7 – Fmaj
    4. Optional intermediate chimaera if you like suspended chords: Esus – E7 – Fmaj
    5. Unnamed cadence nirvana: Bm7 – E7 – Fmaj

    The other thing that comes to mind is the common jazz resolution from the tonic diminished major 7 chord to the tonic major 7 — the way lots of people play the third bar of the A section of “Star Eyes,” for example (and there are many others). Another way to name that diminished major 7 chord is a sharp-9 voicing of a dominant chord a half-step below, with a tonic bass pedal tone (so in Star Eyes it’s D7#9/Eb resolving to Ebmaj). From there it’s small steps to re-root that Eb diminished major 7 (aka D7#9/Eb) to have D in the bass so then it’s just a dominant chord. Stick some flavor of Am7 in front of it like we always do, and there you are.

  5. Didier Leclaire says:

    Somethings else came to my mind after reading the reply’s. Since we’re basically using a II-V that would usually lead to Cmaj, to bring us to Cm7 (or, a substitution, Abmaj), I had to think about how I’ve always liked the sound of a II-V that should lead to a minor chord, actually leads to a major7 chord. So in this case, Ddim – G7alt – Cmaj.

    I have no idea if there’s a name for that theory or not, I just did it once and I liked it, but just assuming we’re doing this, logically you can use the functional substitutions and tritone substitution on that as well. Although, in this key, I’d find Cmaj the prettiest one.
    But you could do
    Ddim – G7alt – Am7
    Ddim – G7alt – Em7
    Or you could do
    Ddim7 – G7alt – F#maj
    Ddim7 – G7alt – A#m7
    Ddim7 – G7alt – D#m7.

    I kinda like how you can end that one with a Am7 or an A#m7, or Em7 and D#m7.

  6. Angelo Reyes says:

    Bm7-E7-Fmaj7?…Lydian #2 progression. min5, dominant7, maj1.

    • Thanks, Angelo. But I’m afraid I’m not following what you mean. Say it in a sentence?

  7. […] We can define a dominant chord as a chord that contains a major third and a minor seventh. Those two notes create a certain dissonance. A dynamic use of a dominant chord is one where that tension is part of a cadence—where the tension gives rise to resolution to a different chord. The most common resolution is to a chord down a fifth (e.g. G7→C). Some other common resolutions 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 “Whispering”). […]

  8. Sarah says:

    these are the times i wish i could read sheet music, usually when leianrng chords i list each note (low to high) like these:C C E GDm D F ABm B D F#i’m still only slightly confused, the only music theory i know is the kind i taught myself so i’m a bit uneducated in this mattercould someone

    • Then this post is not the right place to start, Sarah. I applaud your interest and suggest you begin with an introductory book. Mark Levine’s “The Jazz Piano Book” is a classic – or there are many others. Wishing you fun & success!

      • ralph judson says:

        back door to harmonic minor rj

        • In a back door ii-V the dominant chord resolves up a whole step. How do you see that going on here?

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