The cadence is a critical element in any harmonic progression. Cadences will often come to you naturally without you being aware of them, but understanding how and why you are using them (and how you can avoid using them) will give you more sophisticated control over the dramatic shape and direction of your music.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in December of 2009.
We’ll start out this tutorial by examining what a cadence is, followed by a look at some of the most common traditional cadences. We’ll finish up by looking at a couple of examples of cadences in the context of real music.
What is a Cadence?
The most common way to describe a cadence is that it’s like a musical punctuation mark. And just like punctuation in writing, different cadences have different effects. They can be firm like a period. They can be more like a comma, taking a breath but continuing on the thought. Can they ask a question? They can create surprise! And they can even be used incorrectly which leads to a disturbing or disappointing effect.
Cadences help create the pacing and flow of your music. They can give the listener’s ear a chance to rest at the end of a phrase or help them understand the form of your music by clearly marking off different sections.
Traditionally there are four types of cadences that are most often discussed in musical analysis: the authentic cadence, plagal cadence, half cadence, and deceptive cadence.
The Authentic Cadence
The most common and basic type of cadence is the Authentic Cadence. An authentic cadence comes in two varieties: a Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC) and an Imperfect Authentic Cadence (IAC). An authentic cadence is one that moves from the dominant to the tonic, from V to I. It is considered perfect if the tonic is in the top melody voice, and imperfect if a tone other than the tonic is in the top melody voice.
Let’s hear an example of each, starting with the PAC:
When we land on the I chord there is a feeling of rest and conclusion. Compare that to the IAC:
The IAC is very similar to the PAC, but there is a subtle feeling that it is less conclusive. As a rule of thumb the IAC is more useful for ending a phrase in the middle of a section. Because it feels more conclusive, the PAC is more useful for ending an entire section. You might think of it like this: both kinds of authentic cadence are a period, but while an IAC ends a sentence a PAC ends a paragraph.
Also notice the differences between having the third in the top voice and having the fifth in the top voice. Rimsky-Korsakov describes a voicing with the third in the melody as being sweeter. How does the voicing with the fifth in the melody feel different?
The Plagal Cadence
The Plagal Cadence goes from the IV chord to I. It is often called an “Amen” cadence because it’s how many traditional hymns end. It has a warmer and more feminine feeling than the authentic cadence.
Here we have a plagal cadence commonly used to end a hymn:
The plagal cadence is generally weaker than an authentic cadence. There is less of a pull like that from the dominant to tonic. Instead we have more of a feeling of relaxation, perhaps of laying down to rest. It’s a less forceful and more peaceful cadence.
The Half Cadence
The Half Cadence end a phrase on the V chord, giving it the sense of either a comma or a question mark. Although there is a definite feeling of pause and rest, there is also a feeling of incompleteness. The half cadence suggests that more needs to be said, either as a continuation or an answering phrase.
Here is an example of a half cadence from Beethoven. Begin by listening to the first phrase alone and paying attention to how there is a feeling that you need more. Make sure you notice that sense of incompletion. Then listen to both phrases together to see how the half cadence sets up a question and then it is answered.
The Deceptive Cadence
The Deceptive Cadence is where you can really begin to have some fun. In a broad definition a deceptive cadence is any cadence that doesn’t go where you expect it to. Hence, it deceives your expectations.
The best way to set up a deceptive cadence is with a Dominant chord. A deceptive cadence isn’t successful unless you have clearly established an expectation in the ear of your listener. Because a dominant chord has such a strong natural tendency to move to the tonic, this is the easiest way to establish an expectation and surprise the listener by not delivering.
The effect of the deceptive cadence can be quite dramatic depending on what chord you actually land on. A tamer deceptive cadence will move to a chord that is still closely related to the tonic, such as the vi chord (Am in the key of C). A more dramatic shift will come from moving to a more distantly related chord.
Here’s an example of a common deceptive cadence, going from V to vi. I’ll even set up the sense of C as the tonic to make the change clear.
It’s unexpected but it’s not unusual. The vi chord is diatonic to the key and so it’s as much a variation as it is a surprise.
Here we have a cadence that moves from V to bvii, creating a much more unexpected effect. While the V to vi cadence was a pleasant digression, this is a dramatic change of events.
Sometimes for special instances you might not actually want to define your sections or provide a moment of rest. Allow me to stress the word sometimes. In general breath and phrasing is critical to good music and you should only be avoiding a cadence if you are perfectly aware you are doing it and it suits your intentions.
A famous example of unsettled harmony is the prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (that’s right pop music fans, we’re actually going to learn something from opera). Listen to the opening bars and notice that there is never a harmonic cadence, that is to say that the harmony never actually rests. Yes, the music pauses for breath but that is only because the rests are actually written in. From a harmonic standpoint it just kind of keeps on going.
One recognizable cadence and all of a sudden we would be grounded in a specific key. Instead Wagner avoids cadences to leave us wandering.
This is extremely useful technique especially for film composers. Being aware of when to use or not use a cadence puts you in far greater control of the dramatic direction of your music. If the audience is meant to feel unrest and you want the longing in a scene to drag on, withholding a cadence is a very effective way to do this.
So How Do You Use Them?
As always, the theory is meaningless if you can’t put it to use. Let’s look at a few different ways cadences have been used for different effects for a deeper understanding of what they can do.
When I’m Sixty Four
First a very simple example of a half cadence and a perfect authentic cadence. The opening 8 bars of When I’m Sixty Four use nothing more than a I and V chord. The first phrase moves from the tonic to the dominant, pausing on a half cadence, and then the second phrase goes from the dominant back to the tonic, landing on an authentic cadence. What’s important to notice here is that if you weren’t already feeling the phrasing, the lyrics go right with it.
The opening phrase, which ends on the half cadence, is “When I get older, losing my hair many years from now…” OK, what happens then? We’ve set up a situation but the sentence is incomplete. Here the half cadence is acting like a comma.
Then we complete the thought with “Will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?” The pickier among you might argue that “this ends with a question”, but what we really have here is a complete statement. If you have to, think of it as a rhetorical question that isn’t begging for an answer.
The important thing to notice here is that the half cadence sets up an incomplete sentence, and the authentic cadence closes it.
Using Deceptive Cadences
Let’s look at a few examples of how we can use deceptive cadences to have a little fun with the listener.
Listen to the opening bars from the Home Alone Main Titles by John Williams.
A nice warm melody establishes us in the key of D major. The last note of the melody, an E, implies an A major chord and we obviously expect it to land on the home chord of D. Instead we land on Dm, which defies our expectations but is also a nice surprise. Williams has set us up to think it’s going to be all warm and fuzzy in the first few seconds and then pulls the rug out from under us to make it very clear that this is a mischievous movie.
Another great example of a deceptive cadence is used in the first cue from Joe Hisaishi’s score to Spirited Away. You can listen to the cue here, but I also strongly encourage you to watch the movie.
The critical moment in this cue occurs at 2:07. The music has set up a big warm G7 chord and the melody is clearly leading us into a C, causing us to logically expect that the chord to come is a C major. But instead we get hit with a totally unexpected chord, which to my best guess is an Fmaj7#4. While the Home Alone example was a bit of a surprise, this chord is from out of left field. We’re completely thrown off, and dramatically we can feel that something is different.
It’s very important to note what’s happening in the film at this moment. The family has been driving in a car, heading towards their new home. The father takes a wrong turn, and for a moment they pause to think about what to do. The deceptive cadence lands on the decision to try out the wrong turn anyway, as a “shortcut”.
If the music had landed on C major like was expected, the decision wouldn’t feel wrong at all and would actually probably feel very nice and complete. It would have felt like we were heading home. Instead, because of the deceptive cadence, we can feel that clearly something is not right. Rather than a sense of completeness, we know that there is more to come.
Also worth pointing out is how the cue ends. At 2:56 we get hit with another deceptive cadence. The car is careening down the road at 100 miles an hour and the music creates a big build on a D7, leading us to believe that we’re about to slam into a Gm chord. Instead of crashing into a building, however, the father slams on the brakes. At this moment the D7 doesn’t move to the expected Gm but instead to a Bbm. This deceptive cadence accents the dramatic moment, making it clear to us that stepping on the brakes is a significant moment and is taking us in a different direction than the inevitable crash of a Gm.
Cadences are a basic concept in musical phrasing, but the proper control and awareness of them can add amazing layers to the dramatic strength of your music. Film composers can especially pay attention to the way cadences can set up, meet, and defy our expectations and control our reactions to the drama.