Burton Cummings

Adding Colour to Chord Progressions With a Major II-Chord

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If you take a major scale and build chords above each note of the scale, you know that some of those chords will be major, some minor, and one diminished. For example, take a C major scale and do that, and you wind up with these chords:

I — ii — iii — IV — V — vi — viiº

C — Dm — Em — F — G — Am — Bdim

When you create these chords (also called triads because each one is a 3-note chord) the kind of chord they are (major, minor, etc.) stays the same regardless of the key: the I chord is always major, the ii-chord is always minor, etc.

If you then write a song in C major, the majority of the chords you use will be one of those seven chords listed above. But as you likely know, you can throw other chords into your progressions that don’t come from that list, and those are often the ones that can add a bit of interest to an otherwise predictable progression.

One chord you might want to try experimenting with is to change the ii-chord by making it major. This means changing the F in the D minor chord (d-f-a) to F# (d-f#-a). That one alteration makes a rather noticeable change in the sound of your progression. Listen to the following progression which uses a standard minor ii-chord, and then compare it to the next progression which changes the ii-chord to a major chord (II)

C – Dm – F – G7 – C (with a standard minor ii-chord)

C – D – F – G7 – C (with a major II-chord)

As you can hear, that sort of straight substitution of a minor ii for a major II, then moving on to a IV-chord, works quite well. If you decide to make that kind of change in your own progression, you might need to change a melody note from F to F#, so watch carefully for that.

There are two other ways you can use a major II-chord:

1. Move from the tonic chord (I) up to II, then back again, keeping the bass on the tonic.

There is an interesting “floating” sort of sound that comes from playing a I chord, moving up to the II (but keeping the bass on I), then moving back to I. If you want to hear it in action, listen to the verse of Burton Cumming’s “I Will Play a Rhapsody.” It sounds ethereal when used this way, because the major sound of the chord we expect to be minor makes the key of the song pleasantly ambiguous.

2. Use it as a secondary dominant chord.

Often when you change a chord that’s normally minor to being major, it works well to follow that chord with the one whose bass note is 4 notes higher. If you’re thinking in C major, that means playing a D major chord, then following it with G, something like: C  D  G7  C. I don’t want to get too much into the deeper theory of this, but that makes the ii-chord a so-called “secondary dominant” of the G7 chord, and the Roman numerals would look like this: I  V/V  V7  I.

Listen (C  D  G7  C):

You can create a nice version of that progression by inverting the major II-chord and the V-chord that it goes to: I  V4-2/V  V6  I

Listen (C  D/C  G7/B  C):

Any time you change a ii-chord you are creating what is called an altered chord, and those kinds of chords go a long way to making chord progressions more interesting and perhaps even a little less predictable.

If you’re interesting in altering other chords in this way, check out this blog post I did last year about the various ways to manipulate a iii-chord: “Using the iii-Chord (and All Its Alternate Spellings)

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Chord Progression FormulasCreate your own progressions using simple formulas. “Chord Progression Formulas” shows you how.

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , .


  1. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why the II Major chord in Daydream Believer by the Monkees works so well (3rd of the IIm instead of b3, #4 to the tonic instead of 4…what???) This explains it nicely, the secondary dominant explanation is exactly what it is – leading to the D (IV). I suppose it adds a touch of Lydian flavour to the song as well.

    Thanks, you’ve calmed my nerves for the day!

  2. Does it work with minor scale chords as well? For example, if I have this chord progression: Dmin9 – EbMaj9 – GMaj7 – Gmin7, the second chord EbMaj9 should be a ii Diminished considering D as the i (root) and should be minor usually right? In this case does it works even if is major? Many thanks

  3. Hi Gary,

    I have a question regarding the follow-up chord from the major II. You mention playing the base note that’s four notes higher, which would be G in the key of C. How is G four notes higher than D? I’m counting 5 (D#, E, F, F#, G). Thanks!

    Ethan Fink

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