There are so many ways to learn an instrument. For piano, you often hear of multiple different methods of teaching. There is the Suzuki method, Bastien piano basics, Music Tree, and some students simply learn by watching other piano players play in church, thus learning to “play by ear”. Any method can teach a beginning piano player the basics needed to learn the instrument; however, once you have your basics, one of the most effective ways to sky-rocket your understanding of music theory and piano voicings is to simply learn the 2-5-1 progression.
Allow me to explain:
When I was going through my musical journey at a young age, I had learned to play some classical music, but I always had a huge hunger to learn to improvise like all the “jazz cats”. From Duke Ellington to Herbie Hancock to gospel piano players such as Aaron Lindsay, I knew that to solo like them I had to know how to play all those fancy chords they use. How could I learn to solo like them if I didn’t even know how to play fancy chords?! I wanted to know how to play a Cm#9#5. How about a G13? What in the world is a C6/9? It all seemed so overwhelming to me. It was not until I came across the understanding of the glorious 2-5-1 progression that I realized how I could finally learn how to play almost any chord.
The 2-5-1 progression is simply the 2nd chord of a key going to the 5th chord of a key and resolving back on the tonic chord, the “one”. Now one might say, “well that’s simple”, in the key of C, it’s D minor to G major to C major. However, we are going to alter each chord into a beautiful voicing by playing Dm9 to G13 to C6/9. Once we get to the one, that becomes the two! The C6/9 that we just ended on now becomes Cm9(the ‘two’ of Bb Major) leading to the “five” which is F13 and resolving on the Bb6/9. And the cycle simply continues. As a teenager, I’d sit for hours slowly playing this long cycle of 2-5-1’s. With each chord I would say the name of the chord out loud “D minor nine…G thirteen…C six nine”.
Why is this progression so helpful in understanding theory? The 2-5-1 is played in practically every style of music over and over. Once you learn the 2-5-1 in every key while saying the names of the chords out loud, you begin to understand exactly WHY a chord is a ‘minor 9’ or a ‘13’. At that point, being able to understand the 2-5-1 progression, you can now further alter the chord and maybe add a “sharp 5” to it!
I will save getting more technical for another day, but for now, understand that learning the 2-5-1 progression will open up your mind to musical theory, structure, chord voicing understanding and simply give you many more ways to practice. Once you learn this progression, you can play it with your left hand while practice soloing with your right hand. Or maybe you want to practice how to walk bass with your left hand, simply walk the bass with your left hand and play the chords with your right hand. How about learning how to play a cool salsa groove? Play the 2-5-1 in your right hand while playing the salsa bass line in your left. I could literally go all day. Learn the 2-5-1 and I promise that your realm of understanding in music theory will explode.