music theory online : chords & cadenceslesson 22
Dr. Brian Blood

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I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy .. in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry and music.
John Adams (1735-1826) 2nd President, United States

Cadences :: Perfect Cadence :: Plagal Cadence :: Imperfect Cadence :: Interrupted/Deceptive Cadence :: The 'Six Four' Cadence
Feminine Endings :: Antecedent & Consequent :: Summary of Cadences

Cadences :: top

Key words:
harmonic cadence
melodic cadence
rhythmic cadence
textural cadence
form & cadence


In her article entitled Cadence in Music, Catherine Schmidt-Jones writes about those things that produce a feeling of cadence:

harmonyin most Western and Western-influenced music (including jazz and "world" musics), harmony is by far the most important signal of cadence. The most fundamental "rule" of the major-minor harmony system is that music ends on the tonic. A tonal piece of music will almost certainly end on the tonic, although individual phrases or sections may end on a different chord (the dominant is a popular choice). But again, you cannot just throw in a tonic chord and expect it to sound like an ending; the music must "lead up to" the ending and make it feel inevitable (just as a good story makes the ending feel inevitable, even if it's a surprise). So the term cadence, in tonal music, usually refers to the ending chord plus the chord or two immediately before it that led up to it. There are lots of different terms for the most common tonal cadences; you will find the most common terms below. Some (but not all) modal musics also use harmony to indicate cadence
some writers describe a cadence as a point when the underlying tension in a moving line of music relaxes but this is quite simplistic as sometimes a cadence can derive its 'effect' from relaxation postponed
melodyin the major/minor tradition, the melody will normally end on some note of the tonic chord triad, and a melody ending on the tonic will give a stronger (more final-sounding) cadence than one ending on the third or fifth of the chord. In some modal musics, the melody plays the most important role in the cadence. Like a scale, each mode also has a home note, where the melody is expected to end. A mode often also has a formula that the melody usually uses to arrive at the ending note. For example, it may be typical of one mode to go to the final note from the note one whole tone below it; whereas in another mode the penultimate note may be a minor third above the final note. (Or a mode may have more than one possible melodic cadence, or its typical cadence may be more complex.)
rhythmchanges in the rhythm, a break or pause in the rhythm, or a slowing of or pause in the harmonic rhythm are also often found at a cadence
texturechanges in the texture of the music also often accompany a cadence. For example, the music may momentarily switch from harmony to unison or from counterpoint to a simpler block-chord homophony
formsince cadences mark off phrases and sections, form and cadence are very closely connected, and the overall architecture of a piece of music will often indicate where the next cadence is going to be - every eight measures for a certain type of dance, for example. (When you listen to a piece of music, you actually expect and listen for these regularly-spaced cadences, at least subconsciously.)



Harmonic Cadence

The harmonic cadence (English), turnround (jazz), cadencia armónica (Spanish), cadenza armonica (Italian), cadence harmonique (French) or Schlusskadenz (German) is one type of cadence.

We have already described how, by writing in a certain way, composers will give a piece a strong sense of key. When describing triads and chords, we mentioned that some triads and some chords are more 'stable' than others. 'Unstable' chords and triads want to resolve to more stable ones. The most 'stable' chord will be the tonic chord and so any sequence ending with the tonic chord will seem to have reached a 'completion' while those ending on other chords will seem still to be unresolved.

This is the fundamental difference between the perfect authentic, imperfect authentic and plagal cadences (which all end on the tonic chord) and the interrupted or deceptive cadence which does not.

[My thanks to Bob Winslow of Tampa, Florida for helping to improve an earlier version of this and some later sections]

Readers who are new to the discussion of harmony, intervals, chords, cadences, etc. should be aware that we follow below a common convention used in the description of cadences which shows how they might be played on a keyboard instrument. We separate the chords into the notes played with the right hand (the upper staff) and those played with the left hand (the lower staff). The reader should be aware too that this separation is for the convenience of the player. In every case, the chords are made up of the note or notes to be played with the left hand and the note or notes to be played with the right hand. It is a mistake to construct a description based only on the notes played with one hand and to ignore any note or notes played with the other.

Perfect Cadence :: top

Key word:
perfect cadence
full close

Perfect Cadence

also Cadenza perfetta (Italian), Hauptschluss (German), Cadence parfaite (French)

Let us look at the fundamentals of a perfect cadence, also called the full close.

The perfect cadence gets its power from two particular note sequences.

  • the bass line moves from the dominant (fifth) to the tonic (key note) - in C major or C minor, from G to C;
  • if the bass moves down from dominant to tonic the effect is stronger than when the bass moves up from dominant to tonic;
  • if the bass moves up from dominant to tonic and then drops an octave to the lower tonic, the effect is strengthened again;
  • the treble line, or at least a treble line, moves from the leading note to the tonic - in C major or C minor, from B natural to C;
  • the effect is strongest if the 'leading note' to 'tonic' movement is part of the melody.

    To summarize, the perfect cadence is always authentic - it uses a VI or Vi progression, where both triads are in root position, and the tonic note of the scale is in the highest part. This is the most decisive cadence and the I (i) chord is felt to be very conclusive. Its strongest version is in the extended cadence IVIcVI, which is commonly used as the final ending in long pieces of music. The perfect cadence can be seen as analogous to a full-stop.

    Writers notate this sequence VI or Vi.

    To listen to these four perfect cadences press the play button displayed below.

    Perfect Cadences

    There is a second sequence of chords that incorporates both the features we mentioned above and uses a dominant 7th in place of the dominant chord above. These cadences are called 'leading note (or tone) imperfect authentic cadences'. Adding the 7th makes the dominant, which otherwise is only slightly unstable and therefore only weakly drawn towards the tonic, more dissonant and in greater need of resolution - in other words, the dominant 7th chord is more 'unstable' than the dominant chord.

    In the key of C major or C minor, the dominant 7th is the minor 7th in the key of G major, F natural. The F natural wants to resolve to E in C major or to E flat in C minor.

    To listen to these four perfect cadences using the dominant 7th press the play button displayed below.

    Perfect Cadences with Dominant 7th

    Writers notate this sequence V7I.

    When the perfect cadence ends a piece of music both the dominant and tonic chords should be in root position. Note that we don't say must as some writers of theory books do. Composers like to break the rules! However the chord sequence is generally most effective when both chords are in root position.

    When the cadence occurs in the middle of a piece, there is no need to use it in its 'strongest' form. Either chord may be inverted - even both - whether the dominant has a 7th or not. Notes in both chords can be doubled although it is better not to double the 7th in the dominant chord. Cadences like these are called 'imperfect authentic cadences': the triads are not in root position (inverted imperfect authentic cadence), and/or the tonic is not in the highest part (root position imperfect authentic cadence). Note in each case the final chord is the tonic. When the tonic note is not in the highest part, it slightly weakens the decisiveness of the conclusion.

    When the V is inverted, it weakens the decisiveness and strength of the progression.

    When the I (i) is inverted, it weakens the conclusiveness of the tonic to a much greater degree. Although the key centre is strongly established by this progression, it does not provide a proper sense of conclusion because the inversions of the triads are not, in themselves, stable entities. Such a cadence is often used where a perfect cadence would seem overly emphatic - it does not check the flow of the music too severely. This type of cadence is perhaps analogous to a comma.

  • Plagal Cadence :: top

    Key word:
    plagal cadence
    amen cadence

    Plagal Cadence

    also Amen cadence, Cadenza plagale (Italian), Plagal Kadenz (German), Cadence plaine (French)

    The plagal or church cadence replaces the dominant, or dominant 7th chord, with a subdominant chord, that is a chord on the 4th. The effect is weaker than in the perfect cadence but was popular in music of the sixteenth century. Certainly, both the perfect and plagal cadences, give a feeling of closure when used at the end of pieces of music. The absence of the leading note in the subdominant chord makes it weaker than the dominant chord as a preparation for the tonic chord.

    The plagal cadence is usually defined as one whose penult is IV and whose final is I (or whose penult is iv and whose final is i).

    Some theorists have widened its definition to include cadences whose penult is on the subdominant (flat) side of the tonic e.g. iiI.

    Under this wider definition the term is best used to describe cadences in which the penult contains the tonic degree. The only triads which contain the tonic degree (except for I and i) are IV, iv, VI and vi. The vi triad is not found as the penult in any effective cadence and so it can be ignored.

    This gives the following endings: IVI, ivi, ivI, IVi, VIi.

    All of these cadences have a penult which can also harmonise the tonic note.

    However, the traditional definition is written as either IVI or ivi depending on the context.

    The plagal cadence is sometimes called the Amen cadence because of its use at the end of hymns.

    To listen to these four examples of plagal cadences press the play button displayed below.

    Plagal Cadences

    Imperfect Cadence :: top

    Key word:
    imperfect cadence

    Imperfect Cadence

    also Half cadence, Cadenza imperfetta (Italian), Halbschluss (German), unvollkommene Schluss (German), Cadence imparfaite (French)

    Both the perfect and plagal cadence end on the tonic chord. Similarly, the imperfect authentic cadences also end on tonic chords. The latter should not be confused with the half, open or imperfect cadence which always ends on the dominant chord and which can be approached from any other chord, the most common being I, II, IV or VI.

    We give examples of a number of imperfect cadences below.

    To listen to these four imperfect cadences press the play button displayed below.

    Imperfect Cadences

    Interrupted/Deceptive Cadence :: top

    Key word:
    interrupted cadence
    deceptive cadence

    Interrupted/Deceptive Cadence

    also Cadenza finta (Italian), Cadenza sfuggita (Italian), Cadenza d'inganno (Italian), Unterbrochener Schluss (German), Trugschluss (German), Cadence interrompue (French), Cadence trompeuse (French)

    The expectation that a dominant chord moves to a tonic chord, thus producing a perfect cadence, is very strong. For this reason, if a dominant chord is followed by any other chord, the feeling is one of 'interruption'. So an interrupted cadence is a dominant chord followed by any chord except the tonic.

    Sometimes the term 'deceptive' is used to describe these progressions. The two terms, 'deceptive' and 'interrupted' are generally considered to be synonymous, but to make a distinction between them, we give a clearer definition for two similar, but different, types of cadential progression. These cadences are the same as the authentic, except that instead of resolving from V to I (i) they resolve to another chord. The effect of this progression is dependent on the chord to which they resolve.


    Deceptive Cadence

    When V resolves to vi it sounds like a very effective resolution because vi is able to function as a genuine tonic - i.e. as a chord of rest and resolution. In this way this cadence is genuinely deceptive - the ear is expecting something, but it is given something else which has such a similar function that it is not easily detected - the ear is fooled.

    There are other chords which may be deemed to be deceptive finals - IVb and I7 are good examples.

    The IV is usually used in its first inversion and sounds similar to vi.

    I7 sounds like I but it has a different function - as a dominant seventh it cannot function as an effective tonic (in common practice tonal harmony) and seeks resolution to a triad a fifth below.

    Due to their similarity to genuine tonics both these chords have been introduced deceptively. Any other chords which bear similarity to the genuine tonics of I, i and vi, can be introduced deceptively.


    Interrupted Cadence

    When the V chord resolves to a chord which bears no relation to a true tonic, the cadence can be described as interrupted. It sounds like a normal cadence, but it suddenly changes tack and instead of resolving it moves to a completely different place. The cadence has been interrupted.

    There is no distinction made between the interrupted and deceptive cadences in conventional music theory; they are simply synonyms and either will be chosen at the behest of the author.

    We give some examples below.

    To listen to these four interrupted cadences press the play button displayed below.

    Interrupted Cadences

    The 'Six-Four' Cadence :: top

    Key word:
    six-four cadence

    The 'Six-Four' Cadence

    There are clearly a considerable number of possible cadences not included in the four discussed above. The 'six-four' cadence, or VIIV cadence, is interesting and we illustrate it below.

    To listen to a 'six-four' cadence press the play button displayed below.

    Six-Four Cadence

    Feminine Endings :: top

    Key word:
    feminine endings

    Feminine Endings

    Cadences are normally found where the second chord is rhythmically stronger than the first. When the first chord is stronger than the second, the cadence is called 'feminine'. Music from the period of Haydn and Mozart used the progression IcV, i.e. second inversion tonic chord to dominant chord, so often that one might call it 'characteristic' and is sometimes called a 'half' cadence. It should be noted that this pattern produces two chords with the same bass note in both chords.

    To listen to a feminine ending press the play button displayed below.

    Feminine Ending

    Antecedent & Consequent :: top

    Key words:

    Antecedent & Consequent

    When discussing music in terms of phrases (we discussed phrases in lesson 21) one meets two particular terms, antecedent and consequent. Sometimes these are called respectively 'question' and 'answer' and occur one after the other.

    The antecedent, or 'questioning' phrase is the first musical statement. It usually ends with a half cadence, the feminine ending we discussed above, or an imperfect cadence. The phrase pauses momentarily on the half cadence or imperfect cadence, but it has the need to continue so the musical thought can be completed.

    The completion is provided by the consequent phrase, an 'answering' phrase. It occurs after the antecedent phrase. The consequent phrase usually ends with a perfect cadence (authentic or plagal).

    Summary of Cadences :: top

    Key word:
    chart of harmonic cadences

    Summary of Cadences

    There are a number of chord progressions that sound particularly effective (although in some circumstances there are exceptions).

    We summarize these in the table below:

    present chordpossible following chord
    Iany chord
    iiIV, V, vii°
    iiiii, IV, vi
    IVI, iii, V, vii°
    viii, IV, V, I
    vii°I, iii

    A number of progressions are associated with harmonic cadences and these are set out in the table below.

    cadences, a progression of chords at the end of, or the end of a section in a musical work - terminology here is inconsistent both within England and the U.S., as it is between the two:
    perfect authentic cadence
    authentic cadence
    full close
    final cadence
    full close cadence
    complete cadence
    whole cadence
    this cadence is not perfect unless the melody ends on the tonic and both chords are in root position
    authenticfor example, VI
    true plagal
    church cadence
    amen cadence
    Greek cadence
    complete cadence
    this cadence is not authentic because the initial chord is neither V nor viiofor example, IVI
    plagal cadence
    see note below about 'half' and 'half-close'
    this not authentic because the initial chord is neither V nor viiofor example, IIVI
    mixed cadence
    there are two other uses made of this term, both superfluous, as the cadences can be better described using terms elsewhere in this table
     the sequence, VVIVI
    imperfect authentic cadence
    imperfect cadence
    authenticfor example, VI like the perfect authentic cadence but where one of the chords is inverted or the uppermost note in the final I chord is not the tonic
    dominant cadence
    half close cadence
    half cadence
    half close
    false cadence
    'half close' and 'half' are sometimes applied to 'plagal' cadences which are authentic but in which the chord is not in root position, or the melody does not end on the tonic
    not authenticfor example:
    interrupted cadence
    irregular cadence
    deceptive cadence
    avoided cadence
    broken cadence
    evaded cadence
    false cadence
    false close
    surprise cadence
    abrupt cadence
    these cadences end on unexpected chords
    not authentic for example:
    phrygian cadence
    a special type of half cadence that only occurs in minor keys
    modal cadencefor example, iv6V
    mixolydian cadencemodal cadencefor example, vI
    disguised cadencecadence containing altered dominant or tonic, so that the dominant-tonic function is often camouflaged in standard chords to which additional notes have been added or from which notes have been deleted
    inverted cadenceapplies to perfect or imperfect cadences where, in either case, the final chord is inverted, i.e. not in root position
    medial cadence(from 'medial' meaning 'middle') an inconclusive cadence commonly marking the end of the first musical section in a multi-sectional piece. The term may be applied to any cadence where the penultimate chord is inverted
    radical cadenceany cadence where the chords are in root position, i.e. the roots of each chord are in the bass
    suspended cadencea cadence held on a penultimate chord (often the second inversion of the tonic chord) while a cadenza is performed by the soloist at the end of which the cadential progression (i.e. two further chords) is completed
    third-relationship cadencea cadence that results from a harmonic progression in which the roots lie a 3rd apart

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