Practical Chord Progressions: ii (The Supertonic or “Magnetic Tunnel Chord”)

We started out in the comfort of home, and have now moved on to explore the more shadowy sides of the neighborhood. In today’s exercise, we are going to add another to our arsenal of shadow chords, the ii (called the “supertonic” by theorists, though you probably won’t run across this term too often).

In our last exercise, we focused on the special relationship between the vi and the I, imagining them as harmonic twins, one shadow, one light. Today, we will focus on the relationship between the ii and the V.

I initially described the V chord as the “magnet chord“, so called because of its strong pull toward the I. There are a variety of ways one can harness this magnetic power. Last time, we saw how you can divert that energy to the vi, resulting in a sense of surprise. But there are other ways.

Today, we will experiment with extending the range of that magnetic pull, creating what I’m calling a kind of “magnetic tunnel”. This tunnel pulls you along with a certain sense of inevitability back to our home chord. And you build it by throwing the ii into the mix.

If you haven’t already, you will probably encounter the ii-V-i progression in your studies. This little idea forms the backbone of a great deal of jazz music. It opens up possibilities for extensions and elaborations of simpler chord progressions, for modulations to distant keys, and for a stronger sense of finality when returning to the I. We will be looking at this last effect.

As we’ve done in the past, let’s review the chords we have in the mix, sticking with the key of C major. We’ve brought in what I’ve been calling:

  1. the home chord (I: C major),
  2. the magnet chord (V: G major),
  3. the neighborhood chord (IV: F major), and
  4. the shadowy twin chord (vi: A minor).

These aren’t official names, but I hope they can provide one more way to sort through the chords as we add more of them.

Today we’re adding what I’m calling the “magnetic tunnel chord”, or the ii. In the key of C, this is D minor.

Ok, now for the exercise! First, follow our standard practice and get yourself comfortable on the I, singing bits of melody and establishing a sense of home.

Now you’re going to explore the neighborhood in a new way. Visualize this move as entering a tunnel that wraps around the neighborhood and ultimately leads back home.

Ready? Go to the ii and see where your melody takes you.

Once you’ve got a feel for it, move to the V. Focus on the way this two-chord progression (ii-V) builds an even stronger pull toward the I than the V on its own. Revel in that tension.

Now return home. Try this progression a few times until you can feel the tension build and release. Play with the tension; there’s a lot of power in it.

By this time, you should have a handle on the idea of the magnetic tunnel. The most important aspect is the fact that it builds an expectation that is fulfilled when you hit the I. This produces a sense of relief, comfort, and perhaps finality.

Now imagine you’re in a tunnel headed home, but when you get to the end of it find yourself in a foreign environment. Instead of the familiar house you expected to see, you find an old creaky mansion bathed in cobwebs and shadows. That would be interesting, to say the least.

Your surprise is a function of your expectations, right? Well, we can use this principle in our songwriting.

So follow the exercise again. Start on the I, move to the ii, and then the V. Build that sense of expectation for the I. You can do this by hitting the I at first and going through the process a second time.

But now it’s time for a curveball. Move from the V to the vi instead! Now you’ve transported us to that mysterious, and unexpected location: the shadow side.

This move is called a “deceptive cadence”. “Cadence” is a technical term for a chord progression that ends with a sense of finality. The V-I is the most common cadence. The V-vi is called a “deceptive” cadence because it takes us somewhere we didn’t expect, right when we thought our expectations were going to be realized.

Experiment with these ideas! We’ve already got some important ones in the mix: the harmonic home, expectations, tension, release, and surprise. These are the building blocks of great music.

When you’ve successfully built your own magnetic tunnel of chords, submit it to the site and take the rest of us on a small journey around the harmonic neighborhood.

Next: iii (The Moody Chord)

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John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

2 thoughts on “Practical Chord Progressions: ii (The Supertonic or “Magnetic Tunnel Chord”)”

  1. You are truly amazing man. For a while I had been struggling to right a song and because of your clear and imaginative explanations I am able to write again. Thank you so much for the service you are doing to fellow song writers. Increadible!

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