Berklee Today

II-V or Not II-V? That Is the Question
Creating melody-driven chord progressions
by Wayne Naus '76

  Wayne Naus is a professor in the Harmony Department. He is the author of Beyond Functional Harmony published by Advance Music. For additional information on this subject and more, visit
  Photo by Nick Balkin

My students often asked me about the options for creating chord progressions to harmonize an original melody. Even for those who have a solid grasp of music theory, finding the right sequence of chords can sometimes be a hit-and-miss process. In traditional jazz and contemporary pop music, the chords of a harmonic progression generally function within a key and are placed next to each other in conformity with rules that govern key relationship, harmonic rhythm, chord function, melody, common chord patterns, and the intuition of the composer's ear.

There are many approaches to writing a tune. Sometimes the writer may come up with a melodic fragment and then continue developing while working out the chord progression. Sometimes a chord progression may come first, and the writer tailors the melody to it. Thinking in the traditional fashion using functional harmony for the progression strongly related to the key, cycle-5 root motion (where the root moves down a fifth) is common. Progressions with lots of II-V progressions are often found in bebop, jazz standards, and some pop tunes. Root motion up or down by step or in thirds is also prevalent in jazz and pop tunes.

For an exercise to stretch your mind a bit and find unique chord progressions, try writing an entire melody without consideration of the chord progression. This will result in a progression that is melody driven rather than key driven and lead you to chords that do not function within the key (i.e. nonfunctional harmonies).

The striking difference between a nonfunctional, melody-driven progression and a functional, key-driven progression is that the nonfunctional progression lacks the characteristic cycle-5 and II-V patterns associated with a functional chord progression. Consequently, a melodically driven progression can produce a much different harmonic color through the use of non-diatonic chords.

The first step in producing a melody-driven progression is to designate melody notes as tensions or chord tones. Once you determine the function of specific melody notes, choose a chord that fits the melody. It's helpful, but not required, to have an understanding of chord scale theory when assigning tensions to chords. The study of chord scale theory produces specific tensions that are assigned to chords to support the melody, support the function of the chord in the key, and support an anticipated resolution to a target chord.


Example 1 shows melody notes harmonized as both chord tones and tension notes. In bar 1, the melody note D functions as tension 9 on the chord and becomes part of the chord symbol. In bar 2, the melody note B functions as a #11 and supports the chord's function as a lydian IV chord. In bar 2, the E melody note functions as tension 13 on the G7 and helps the anticipated resolution to the C major chord.

For this exercise in constructing a melody-driven progression, let's set some arbitrary rules for what tensions will be available without regard for how a chord functions in relationship to a key (see "Tension Use" sidebar). Recall that in a strictly diatonic situation, the natural 9 is not an available tension on the III-7 chord. Similarly, the natural 11 is not available on the IV chord.

For this lesson, use the tension notes listed in the box for the most common chord types. Following these guidelines, we can create a nonfunctional, melody-driven progression.

The first step is to create a melody. Don't be concerned with what key the melody is in. It can contain diatonic or nondiatonic tones. Keep these three things in mind when writing your melody: (1) try to make the melody memorable; (2) harmonic phrases are usually two to four bars in length; (3) use repetition of your phrases.


  • Major 7th: 9, #11, 13
  • Minor 7th: 9, 11
  • Dominant 7th: 9, b9, #9, #11, b13, 13
  • Minor 7 b5: 11, b13
  • Diminished 7th: Any note a whole step above a chord tone

The second step involves designating specific melody notes as either tension notes or chord tones. These designations can be made randomly, but notes of longer duration work best as tensions.

For the third step, choose chords that will support the melody note as a tension or chord tone. Try to avoid typical chord patterns such as II-V progressions. I recommend that you start with major, minor, and dominant chords before harmonizing your melody with inversions, hybrids, or compound chords.

In example 2, when the melody note D is designated as a tension, it can be harmonized with a variety of chords. The chord you choose for each melody note can be any type of chord that fits with the melody. To find more possible harmonizations of a note, make a list of the ways a given note could function against chords rooted in the chromatic scale. For instance, the note D is the root for D major, D minor, D7, D-7, D-7b5, D sus4, D diminished, and D augmented. The note D is the major seventh of both an Eb maj7and Eb - (maj7) and is the seventh of E7, E-7, E-7 b5, and E sus 4 (see example 3). Write out all of the possibilities for each of the 12 chromatic tones as the root of a chord.

The fourth step involves adjusting adjacent chord relationships as you make harmonic choices for each note. Make sure your chord selections produce the right effect and give forward harmonic motion to your progression. Experiment with numerous chord choices and melodic tension function to arrive at the best progression for your melody.

In example 4, the melody is harmonized three ways to show possible chord choices and melodic tension possibilities. The number below each staff shows how the melody functions on each chord.

Example 5 is a tune I wrote using nonfunctional, melody-driven harmony. I hope this method will point you toward new ideas for your writing.