The Backdoor ii-V Progression
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 . Well, there is another very common resolution of the ii-V progression, sometimes called the “Backdoor ii-V” or “Backdoor Turnaround” or “Backdoor 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.
I thought about it for awhile one night and here are some jazz standards I came up with that use it:
- 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
- Morning Dance
- My Foolish Heart
- My Old Flame
- A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
- Nobody Else But Me
- Nostalgia In Times Square
- One For My Baby
- Round Midnight
- Silver’s Serenade
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow
- Stella By Starlight
- Sweet & Lovely
- Tea for Two
- Till There Was You
- When in Rome
- When Sonny Gets Blue
- Yardbird Suite
Plus a couple of pop songs:
- In My Life (Beatles)
- Just The Way You Are (Billy Joel)
- 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):
- Águas de Março (Waters of March)
- Come Fly With Me
- Donna Lee (Back Home Again in Indiana)
- Happier Than The Morning Sun (Stevie Wonder)
- Hello Goodbye (Beatles)
- Higher Ground (Stevie Wonder)
- How Long Has This Been Going On
- I Thought About You
- I Want a Little Girl
- Layla (Eric Clapton)
- Long Ago & Far Away
- My Romance
- Stella By Starlight
- That’s the Way of the World
- There Will Never Be Another You
- The Feeling of Jazz
- We Are Family (Sister Sledge)
And in these, the turnaround resolves not to the I but to the very closely related iii chord:
- All The Things You Are
- Body & Soul
- Darn That Dream
- Days of Wine & Roses
- Don’t Blame Me
- Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye
- Girl from Ipanema
- How High The Moon / Ornithology
- I Fall In Love Too Easily
- Ill Wind
- Joy Spring
- Line for Lyons
- My Shining Hour
- On a Clear Day
- The Best Thing for You
- This Time the Dream’s on Me
Once again, see if you can identify the backdoor progression in each song.
Why does the backdoor progression work?
There are many ways of looking at the backdoor progression, 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 Fm7–B7 leads easily to Am, it should be no surprise that it also leads to Am’s relative major, C.
An audio comparison
As part of my post entitled “Jazz Harmony — You Have the Answers” I take a look at Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird and imagine, with audio, what it might have sounded like had he used a standard ii-V in bars 3-4 instead of a backdoor. You may find the comparison an interesting listen in light of this post.
Improvising over the Backdoor Progression
Normal ii-V-I progressions have a flow to them. Constructing a great phrase over a ii-V-I is not the same as being able to play modally over each of the 3 chords individually. So too, backdoor progressions have a flow that needs to be respected. Luckily, if you have melodic ideas you like that work well over standard ii-V’s, it’s pretty easy to make them work over a backdoor. Here’s a sheet of some examples which I’ll refer to below.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The first two bars of a backdoor are much the same as a normal iim7-V7… just transposed up a minor third to become ivm7-VII7). So we can start by transposing our ii-V-I phrase up a minor third. Sometimes that is all we need (e.g. example 2). But in general, when we transpose up a minor third, our ii-V-I will resolve to III instead of I, so the final note may need changing.
Avoid Dark Dominants
The altered dominant sound resolves very powerfully down a fifth, but does not tend to resolve up a step. For that reason, it is a poor choice to use for the dominant chord in a backdoor progression. In general, a dark dominant chord which contains a ♯9 or (especially) a 13 should be brightened if it is to be used in a backdoor progression. This is what we do in examples 4, 5 and 6, substituting the bright 9, p5 and 13 (from out of the bright Lydian Dominant scale) for the dark notes.
A Bluesy Approach
The backdoor progression lends itself very well to a blues-based sound, which requires a very different approach to constructing phrases.
Key to appropriating the blues over chord progressions are these principles:
- Always use a scale relative to the tonic, not to each passing chord.
- The primary tools are major & minor pentatonic scales and their respective blues scales…
major blues scale = major pentatonic + the minor 3rd
minor blues scale = minor pentatonic + the flat 5 *
* We say “minor blues scale” for clarity, but it’s usually called just the “blues scale”
- Pick your scales to match the overall sound of the chords.
With that in mind, observe that:
- The major pentatonic scale fits perfectly over the final I chord. Say, for instance we’re in C; then we can use C major pentatonic.
- The notes of the minor pentatonic scale all fit within the scales for iv7 and VII7.
If we’re in C we can use F Dorian for Fm7 and B Mixolydian for B7, and those are each the same notes as the E major scale. Since C minor pentatonic is the same notes as the E major pentatonic, it fits within E major, so it fits perfectly over the two chords.
So our recipe is simple and powerful:
Think in the tonic (I) key and play minor-bluesy over the first two chords and major-bluesy when you resolve.
Note that this approach misses out on some important notes. The C blues scale doesn’t include the A that is the 3rd of Fm7 and the 7th of B7. This would be a concern if we were playing swing or bebop, but not in the blues idiom; the C blues scale hits the tonal center of the Fm7 and B7 chords, and that’s all that’s important.
None of the song lists 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!
Thank you to the people who have made suggestions below that I’ve added to the list! Steve, Duffy, Kostas, Geoff and Aaron – much obliged!
In another blog post I discuss a different progression in which a ii-V sequence resolves upward not a whole step up but a half step. Check it out here if you like: A Nameless ii-V Cadence.
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.
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!
This is an ancient thread, but if I found it, I assume others will. In the progression IMaj7 – biii dim7 – iim7 — V7, what you’ve got is a I-iim7-V7 with a chromatic passing chord added to make it interesting. The dim chord works because – in C major – the Eb leads down to the D, and the Gb leads down to the F – a double chromatic pull. But what you’ve got is similar to a playing the tonic chord while you do a moving bass in your left hand. The chord is still the tonic, regardless of what’s going on in the bass. So you have choices.
Either 1. Treat the dim chord as if it wasn’t there, and just stay away from the two non-diatonic chord tones. Or 2. play the diatonic note of the major scale, but sub in the non-diatonic root and third of the dim chord. Both of these choices are what the original song writers did in their melodies. Most dim chords support diatonic melodies (ignoring the non-diatonic tones in the chord) or else the melody does hit the non-diatonic tones in the dim chord, but don’t use any other altered tones.
While using a dim scale over such dim chords won’t be ‘wrong,’ the song wasn’t written for such a sound. The dim chord was used by the songwriter for the chromatic bass line, and the melody was usually kept away from the chromatic root. I’d same dim scales and arpeggios for dominant chords.
I respectfully disagree, Mark. What you’re pointing out is not a feature of diminished chords but of well-written melodies. The classic songs of Tin Pan Alley make a habit of creating hummable, diatonic melodies and harmonizing them with more involved chord changes. Put differently, they take complex harmonies but choose notes over them that are overwhelmingly diatonic to the prevailing tonal center. An example: My Romance. A gorgeous set of chord changes that move around quite a lot, with not just scale tones but chord tones that go far from the harmonic “home”… and yet the entire melody is 100% diatonic to B major. The chords are major, minor, and various flavor of dominant (altered, Lydian dominant, etc.). I wouldn’t restrict improvisation to the B-diatonic notes and chord tones unless I were trying to come up with a particularly hummable solo, just as I wouldn’t limit use of the diminished scale over diminished chords except with that same goal in mind.
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.
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.
Cool man, thanks. Yeah, it is kind of an odd one.
Great playing, by the way.
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?
Could it be you by Cole Porter
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 Fm7–B7 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 Fm7–B7) 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. :)
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…
This chord progression is soooo smotoh! If you your band jam to this then I’m sure it would make an awesome upload. As a classically trained pianist to grade 5 I’ve always struggled with gospel, jazz open’ chords, but your tutorials have given me the confidence to explore keep at it! Many thanks
Ah totally understandable. Sure here you go!
I suppose its more bluesy than jazzy but both are pretty related right? The prior evolving into the latter?
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.
I always think of an isolated dominant 7 as having an implied ii before it. Voila, problem solved!
[…] 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 […]
i like how the last chord in the progression aparpes to be a G diminished, but with the F added to it, it resembles a Bb minor, which in many songs leads back to the 1, which is F. I really like this piece of music. (:
[…] 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 […]
Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” starts
Cmaj7 Gm7 C7 Fm7 Bb13 Cmaj7
Fm7 Bb13 Cmaj7
is Back Door ii V . . .
Exactly, Geoff. Great example!!
What about Freddie Feeeloader?
I’m guessing the Eb7 before the Ab7 works as a secondary dominant.
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.
Ah, thanks for explaining that Anton! As ever, lucid and generous!
What about “Four” (bars 7 – 8 ) ?
Excellent example, Kostas! Absolutely. I just added it to the list – thank you!
And Gerrry Mulligan’s “Line for Lyons” (2nd bar of A).
Perfect! Added. Thank you, Kostas.
I came across this site when I was looking for info about “Silver’s Serenade”.
I see it listed as a composition that has the backdoor turnaround, but I am having trouble identifying that progression in the piece.
The closest I found is the turnaround at the end: Am – D7 – Em, basically a ii-V-vi.
That’s doesn’t take us into a new key so it seems like the backdoor turnaround doesn’t apply here.
Am I missing something?
You’ve got it, flip. Just think of that progression at the end as iv-bVII7-i instead of ii-V-vi. Or a ii-V7 that resolves up a whole step upward from the dominant chord. That’s exactly what a backdoor turnaround is.
In “Moonlight in Vermont” the A section has the following changes
|Eb6 C-7|F-7 Bb7|Eb6 C-7|Db9 |F-7 Bb7|Eb6 |
Basically, Eb6 is the I (tonic), and the first 2.5 bars are are a I-VI-II-V-I.
Then it repeats with a Db9 chord inserted in the middle– I-VI-(Db9)-II-V-I. I am wondering if that should be considered a variant of a backdoor progression? Basically a I-VI-II-bVII-V-I progression.
Thank you for your blog!
What a great question, Tim. I think most people would say it’s not a backdoor because the bVII7 doesn’t resolve to the tonic, nor is it prepared by a iv or IV chord. But I agree that that Db9 does share the feel of a backdoor, and it does work its way soon back to the tonic, though there’s an intervening ii-V7. Seems to me you’ve seen both sides of the picture and that the actual verdict is irrelevant. But if I learn any more on the matter I’ll let you know! Thanks, Tim.
IMHO almost any occurrence of bVII with the important dom7 is a variant on the backdoor; it’s signaling an immediate race to the tonic, even if you arrive through another cadence.
In this case of Moonlight, the bVII7 (9th but not an important distinction) sets off the final trip to the tonic, and the ii7 – V7sus in between is just a pit stop to finish the melody. Just how I see it.
The Db9 supports the Cb dotted half note in the melody. I hear that Cb as a shift to a minor sound, which might equally well be supported by the IV minor chord, or Abmin. So I’d say that in this case, the bVII7 is just a sub for the IV minor. Notice that the Db9 is held for a whole measure, which takes it out of the progression that leads into it.
That’s the Way of the World by Earth Wind and Fire
Totally!! I love that song. Thank you, Duffy! I’ll add it to the list right now. It uses a IV major rather than ivm7, but it definitely deserves mention.
RIP Maurice White.
I’d analyze this progression a little differently. The old progression is IV – IVm – I. It works because (for example) in C you have an A-Ab-G chromatic movement that pulls you from the IV chord to the tonic. Now the bVII is just the IVm with the bVII note in the bass (Fm – Bb7). Again, in C the Ab leads to the G in the C major chord. In the specific case above (Fm7-Bb7) you’re just making a iim7-V7 out of the Bb7, which is a standard jazz substitution for every dominant chord in sight. So in the general case, songwriters first used the FMaj-Fmin-CMaj progression as a way to color the movement from IV to I, then the substituted the Bb7 for the Fmin, and then, when that became a cliche, they were able to even drop the FMaj, stick a iim7 chord in front of the bVII, and get the same effect, while filling every last tune with ii-Vs, so that jazz guys could use all their same tricks to get through the tunes.
[…] http://antonjazz.com/2012/01/backdoor-ii-v-progression/ […]
I’m a writer of literary fiction and a (kind of) amateur Jazz pianist. I’m sure your info is great but much above my pay grade. I’m also old so I dig the sounds of 50’s and 60’s jazz ( bebop and not.) I especially love Garner and believe he is under appreciated for reasons having little or nothing to do with his ability to swing melodically.
I’ve taken quite a few lessons with Vinnie Martucci (a Berkley grad) that have been helpful.
All that technical stuff blows my mind, but Garner played much of it without ever learning the names or terminology.
Isn’t all that info kind of after the fact? Why not let your ears take you wherever they they want? I think it’s far easier to play sounds and not theory.
I’d appreciate hearing whatever you might care to answer.
Thanks for the great question, Joseph. There are a few people who have achieved Errol Garner’s level of greatness without learning music theory. Stan Getz comes to mind as well. They are a rare exception in the jazz world, and they seem to have some things in common. One is that they started playing when they were extremely young—often obsessively. Garner started piano when he was 3 years old; Getz quit school at age 14 to be a professional musician. Another is that their music reflects the concepts at a deep level, even though they never learned the language to discuss them. It seems to be similar to learning a spoken language: it’s possible to learn to speak perfectly and fluently without studying it if you start early enough. But most people require grammar and vocabulary lessons. ALL people require them past a certain young age. Likewise, most people require music theory to achieve rich fluency with musical expression, and nobody who hasn’t immersed themselves passionately and deeply in music as a young child seems to have any shot without the theory. Most of the greats who we think of as intuitive masters of personal expression (John Coltrane comes to mind) studied theory intensely to get there.
Great post! I’ve usually associated these with the lydian dominant because the #4/b5 fits with the “home” chord.
What about the bridge of I’ll remember April? There the backdoor resolves to the b3 MAJOR. So it seems to have moved to a new key centre. Would you still play it as a backdoor?
Good question, Matthew. Yes, that ii-V is a simple modulation to bIII. Similar to other songs that modulate there (Green Dolphin Street comes to mind—last 4 bars of the song’s 1st half.) One tell is that the song stays in bIII once it gets there, undermining the feeling of I as home—in contrast to all the examples above of iii as a surrogate for I. Another is that resolution occurs in the middle of a 4-bar phrase, not at the beginning, unlike almost all the backdoor examples I list. Lastly, the proof is in the pudding: if you try an altered chord over that dominant chord it sounds good—better than a Lydian dominant. So it’s got to be a modulation.
I think such analyses tend to overcomplicate this progression, the way the progression is most often used. Basically, the flat-VII7 chord is just another way of expressing IV minor, in other words, a minor plagal cadence, which often resolves to the parallel major tonality in popular tunes. Often, this dominant chord follows a IV major chord, so the basic progression is IV major-IV minor-I major