Cadences in Music: Beyond the Harmonic Formulas

Cadences in Music: Beyond the Harmonic Formulas

In this lesson we’re going to look at cadences – a very important subject in music composition. Most discussions on this topic are brief so today we’re going to look at all the important detail. We’ll learn what they are, where to use them, how they work and how to recognise them by ear.

What are cadences in music? Cadences are where the harmony, rhythm, melody and other musical aspects come together to produce a sense of arrival in the music. The arrival can be a dramatic moment, a simple end of phrase and anything in between. Whether big or small, the cadence is a sense that the music reached its destination.

Let’s look at some examples to see what this actually means.

Cadences in Music: Beyond the Harmonic Formulas
Cadences in Music: Beyond the Harmonic Formulas

Examples of Cadences in Music

Here’s a little quiz.

Listen and look at these examples and notice the endings of the phrases (that’s where the cadences occur). Pay attention to the impression that each cadence gives you, and think:

  • Does the cadence give you the sense that the music has finished?
  • Or does it give you the sense that more is coming?

1. From Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K.581:

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K.581 4th movement
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K.581 4th movement

2. From The Wizard of Oz – Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somewhere Over the Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz

3. From The Beatles – When I’m 64

The Beatles: When I’m 64

How do Cadences Work?

The examples above come from different styles so how is it that they all work so well? 

They work because despite their differences, they have something in common and it is fundamental: it’s their sense of direction. In all of music, whether it’s a classical waltz, a church hymn or a rock song, there’s a sense of moving forward.

The question is: What are we moving forward towards? Well, we’re moving towards the cadence! The cadence is the musical goal and every phrase has one.

The cadence is the musical goal and every phrase has one.” 

Musically, cadences can be either ‘open’ or ‘closed’ and as we’ll see, combining these two kinds of cadences produces larger sections of music.

  • Open cadences are musical goals that invite continuation. It’s a sense that “We’ve gotten somewhere but we’ve got more to go.”
  • Closed cadences are musical goals that are conclusive and do not invite continuation. It’s a sense that “We’re here! We’ve made it to where we wanted to go.”

Out of the examples above, the first cadence is always of the open type while the second one is always of the closed type. The open cadences invites the continuation into the next phrase, which in turn ends in a closed cadence.

Think of them just like the commas (,) and full stops (.) in everyday sentences. Like the comma, the open cadence invites a continuation. Like the full stop, the closed cadence ends a sentence.

Go back to them and listen carefully, do you get the same impressions of ‘closed’ and ‘open’?


Harmonic Cadences: the Four Common Types of Cadences

Harmonic cadences are standard 2-chord formulas that convey the end of a phrase, section or piece. There are four basic types of harmonic cadences (out of which the first two are of the closed type and the others of the open type):

  1. The Authentic Cadence
  2. The Plagal Cadence
  3. The Half Cadence
  4. The Deceptive Cadence

As we discuss these cadences in detail, you will notice that in some way all but one involve the dominant chord (the chord built on the fifth degree of the scale). The reason is that the sound of this chord naturally sets up an expectation for the tonic. Listeners may not be aware of it but whenever they hear the dominant chord, they expect it to resolve ‘home’ on the tonic. It’s ingrained in our culture and in our psychology.

We discuss this principle in depth in this lesson about tonality in music. But it doesn’t take much to prove this for yourself. Let’s say for example that  we had this little tune in C major finishing on the dominant chord (that’s G major). It gives us a sense that the music should continue because our ears are conditioned to expect the tonic after the dominant. In other words, the dominant requires a resolution. Without it, the musical ‘story’ is not quite complete yet:

A simple tune ending on the dominant.
A simple tune ending on the dominant.

We can even strengthen this anticipation of the tonic simply by extending the dominant chord: 

A simple tune ending on an extended dominant.
A simple tune ending on an extended dominant.

But when the tonic finally arrives, we get a resolution – the music is at its conclusion. 

With the dominant chord resolving on the tonic, the music is at rest.

With the dominant chord resolving on the tonic, the music is at rest.

These chord progression formulas (the harmonic cadences) aren’t any different than our little experiment here. They manipulate the listener’s experience by using the dominant chord in a variety of ways.

When we speak of chord progressions, we are labelling chords with Roman Numerals from 1 to 7 – one numeral for every chord of the scale. It’s crucial to be familiar with these before going further with harmony. Here’s an example in C major:

Triads in C major with Roman Numerals
Triads in C major with Roman Numerals

1. The Authentic Cadence

The authentic cadence consists of the chord progression V – I and it conveys a sense of finality, of conclusion. This is because the expectation for the tonic (that was just set up by the dominant chord) is satisfied immediately.

Authentic cadence in C major
Authentic cadence in C major

This cadence is used to finish phrases with a strong sense of finality so examples of it are in the thousands! Out of them all, one of my favorite ones is this epic cadence by Strauss:

Authentic Cadence in Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (C major)
Authentic Cadence in Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (Key of C major)

So a chord progression that ends with the chords V – I gives us a feeling of conclusion. This is a closed type of cadence.

2. The Plagal Cadence

The plagal cadence consists of the chord progression IV – I and it also conveys a sense of finality.

Plagal Cadence in C major
Plagal Cadence in C major

Traditionally, this cadence was used for the word “Amen” at the end of hymns. In this case, it usually followed an authentic cadence and because of this, some authors claim that this is not a cadence in its own right but an extension of the authentic cadence.

Plagal Cadence in 'Amazing Grace' (G major)
Plagal cadence in ‘Amazing Grace’ (Key of G major)

Regardless, the plagal cadence is very common in pop music and in this case, it certainly does have a sense of conclusion. So this is also a type of closed cadence. Here it is in The Beatles’ Yesterday:

Plagal cadence in the Beatles' Yesterday (F major)
Plagal cadence in the Beatles’ Yesterday (Key of F major)

3. The Half Cadence

Any cadence that ends on the dominant chord is known as a Half Cadence. The most common examples are ii – V, I – V and IV – V.

Half cadence in C major
Half cadence in C major

As we’ve already seen, the dominant creates the expectation of a resolution on the tonic. So when a phrase ends on the dominant the resolution is not satisfied (or at least, not yet). Not reaching the tonic creates a sense that despite the end of phrase, the music is about to go on (and it often does so starting with the tonic).

Here is a simple example from Haydn’s wonderful 94th Symphony:

Half cadence in Haydn's Symphony no. 94, 2nd movement
Half cadence in Haydn’s Symphony no. 94, 2nd movement (Key of C major)

A chord progression that ends on the V chord creates a wanting for some sort of continuation and so this an open type of cadence.

4. The Deceptive Cadence

Like the authentic cadence, the deceptive cadence begins on the dominant but instead of tonic, it resolves on a different chord – very often the submediant (vi).

Deceptive cadence in C major

Deceptive cadence in C major

The ‘deception’ occurs in that the dominant resolves on the tonic note but not the tonic chord. In other words, in the deceptive cadence, a different chord harmonizes the tonic note. Usually it’s the submediant (vi) but sometimes it’s other chords, such as the subdominant (IV).

A deceptive cadence in Bourgeois' Old Hundredth hymn
A deceptive cadence in Bourgeois’ Old Hundredth hymn (Key of G major)


Rhythm and Melody

While the harmony is essential to the sense of arrival in a musical phrase, it doesn’t work on its own. Other musical elements, especially melody and rhythm, also have their roles in producing cadences.

The top notes (the top melody) have an important effect on the character of an authentic cadence (VI):

  • The sense of finality is the strongest when the tonic note is on top the tonic chord (as we’ve seen in the examples above);
  • The sense of finality is weakened when the third of the tonic is on top the tonic chord;
  • And the sense of finality is even weaker when the fifth of the tonic is on the top the tonic chord.
The top note of the final chord affects the sense of finality of the cadence.
The top note of the final chord affects the sense of finality of the cadence.

Apart from the chords and the top melody, the musical effect of a cadence also depends on whether its final chord occurs on a strong beat or a weak beat.

In an authentic cadence (V – I):

  • The sense of resolution is stronger if the final chord is on a stronger beat:
  • The sense of resolution is weaker if the final chord is on a weaker beat:

Here is an example from Bizet’s Farandole from L’ Arlessiene Suite 2. The 2 phrases here end on the tonic D but the second one is more final just because it ends on the strong beat. 

Bizet: Farandole from ‘L’Arlessiene-Suite’ 

Without that subtle touch in the first phrase this same melody loses a lot of its excitement and vitality:

Bizet's Farandole - an uninspired alternative

Bizet’s Farandole – an uninspired alternative

And to add to our possibilities, even the inversions of the chords themselves have a significant impact on the effect of a cadence. The sense of conclusion of the authentic cadence is strongest when both chords are in root position (with the roots of the chords in the bass). 

The sense of conclusion of the authentic cadence is reduced if any of its chords are inverted. Here’s an example from Schumann’s Op. 2 where the authentic cadence consists of the dominant resolving on the first inversion tonic:

An authentic cadence with tonic in first inversion - from Schumann's Papillons Op. 2
An authentic cadence with tonic in first inversion – from Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2 (Key of D major)

With all these possible varieties in chords, rhythm and melody, we have a whole spectrum of cadences ranging from completely closed to completely open and everything in between.


How to Use Cadences in Music      

The harmonic cadences are tools that allow us to compose different types of musical phrases:

  1. Phrases that finish with a sense of finality (the authentic and plagal cadences),
  2. Phrases that finish with a sense of continuation (the half cadence),
  3. Phrases that finish with a sense of a temporary repose (the deceptive cadence).

What’s really interesting is that we can combine different kinds of phrases to produce larger sections of music, typically known as ‘periods’. A period is 2 or more phrases that belong together much like a paragraph in English consists of a variety of phrases and sentences.  

We’ll leave the detailed discussion about composing musical periods for another lesson but in the meantime, let’s look at 3 examples. Observe that the cadences are essential to these structures: 

  • There’s a cadence at the end of every phrase
  • The last cadence of a period is the strongest cadence of the group (and this is what brings the period to an end). 

Phrases tend to come in groups, most usually in groups of 2, 3 and 4 but sometimes more. Notice that in all examples, the last one is always the strongest so it brings the section to a conclusion.

Here’s an example of a 2-phrase period. The first cadence is a half cadence followed by a phrase that ends in an authentic cadence.

2-phrase structure: 1 open cadence and 1 closed 
from Schubert: Waltz D. 146
2-phrase structure: 1 open cadence and 1 closed 
from Schubert: Waltz D. 146

Here’s an example of a 3 phrase structure from Rossini’s Overture for The Barber of Seville:

3-phrase structure from Rossini’s Overture for ‘The Barber of Seville’

And here is an example of a 4 phrase structure. Just like the other examples, the last cadence is the strongest and it brings the section to a close. 

Mozart Piano Sonata in C minor (4 phrase structure with cadences)
4-phrase structure from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor (4 phrase structure with cadences)

The 3 Common Misconceptions about Cadences

Now that we learned some detail about what cadences are and how to use them, I’d like to address 3 common misconceptions. If you have come across one or more of these inaccuracies in your studies, we’ll clarify them here.

1. Not every cadence is a moment of rest.

There is a common misunderstanding amongst students that a cadence must end with a long note or a sense of relaxation. This is not so. While many cadences do end with a long note, it is not a necessity and many cadences do not.

In this example from Bach’s first Cello Suite, there is no rest or long notes between phrases. The music simply keeps going with short notes that lead smoothly to the next phrase. Longer notes are reserved for later in the piece.


Bach: Courante from Cello Suite no. 1, BWV 1007

2. A cadence is not necessarily the very last 2 notes of its phrase.

There are many instances where a few notes round off the phrase after the actual cadence already occurred. This happens very often at the end of a piece or a song. In this example, also from the Bach’s first cello suite, the bar is filled with notes rounding off the phrase after the cadence has already occurred. 

(The cadence here is from beat 4 of the 1st bar to the first note of the 2nd bar.)

Bach: Allemande from Cello Suite no. 1, BWV 1007

Bach does this because the melody still has a lot of momentum as it comes into the cadence. Rather than end abruptly, the music tapers off. It’s like a marathon runner sprinting towards the finish line. Having reached the finish line, the runner cannot just stop moving at once. She slows down and gradually comes to a stop.

3. Not every V – I progression (or I – V) is a cadence.

A phrase can be full of tonic and dominant chords but it can only have one cadence.

If every V – I progression was a cadence, these 2 bars and a bit would have 4 of them. Clearly, this is not so even though they only consist of the tonic and dominant chords. 

Bach: Allemande from Cello Suite no 3

How to Find Cadences in the Music

A common question from students new to composition is how to find cadences in the music. To the inexperienced eye and ear, a written piece of music can look like a bunch of dots without any clear organization. But I assure you that with a little bit of guidance and practice, it’s not that hard.

So how do you find cadences in the music? Since cadences are at the end of musical phrases, what we have to do is recognise where the phrases start and finish. Here are 6 handy tips to find the phrases and their cadences:

  1. Listen to the natural breaks in the music. Much like in everyday language, a phrase is normally uttered in one breath after which there is a pause or a break. The pause can be long or short but it’s always there.

  2. If there are lyrics sung with the melody, then a musical phrase is usually as long as a verse or a sentence.

  3. Look for patterns. A repetition of a few bars is often a signal that a new phrase has begun.

  4. Number the bars starting from the first full bar (upbeats don’t count as the first bar). Typically, phrases are 4 to 8 bars long and phrases that are grouped together are the same length. A phrase in a slow tempo will take fewer bars and a phrase in a fast tempo will take more so look at the tempo marking.

  5. Typically, all the phrases begin on the same spot of the bar. So if the first phrase begins on an upbeat, the next one will do so too.

  6. Not every long note is a cadence and not every cadence is a long note. This is one of the misconceptions we spoke about earlier. While some cadences are long notes, there are also plenty of examples of cadential short notes.

Common Questions about Cadences in Music

Why are Cadences Important?

It should be clear by now that cadences are essential because they are what allows the listener to make sense out of music. Every musical phrase begins a short journey towards its cadence and once there, the cadences itself hints at what’s coming next. The next phrase, then, begins its own journey towards another cadence and so on and so forth the music unfolds bit by bit.

In this sense, music is like a collection of mini-journeys that combine into one long expedition.

It’s also in this way that cadences act like the punctuation of everyday language. If you consider any long paragraph of text, you’ll see that it consists of phrases and sentences. What is it that separates phrases and sentences from each other? Or to put it in other words, what is it that organizes words into phrases and sentences?

It’s the punctuation! The full stops, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, hyphens and so on organize words into phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Cadences have the same role in music and this is why they are so significant in musical composition.

How to Identify the Cadences by Ear

Another common question is how to identify the four common harmonic cadences by ear. As with so many things in music, it takes a little bit of daily practice but here are a few tricks to get you started.

The Authentic Cadence

         The authentic cadence has a strong conclusive effect. Generally you can hear two things in particular:

  1. The half step (also known as the semitone) between the leading tone and the tonic;
  2. The bass moving from the fifth degree of the scale to the first degree (making a descending perfect 5th or an ascending perfect 4th)
How to recognize the authentic cadence
How to recognize the authentic cadence

The Plagal Cadence

Out of these four harmonic cadences, the plagal cadence is the only one without a dominant chord but it still has a sense of conclusion. Often you will hear a common tone between the two chords.

How to recognize the plagal cadence
How to recognize the plagal cadence

The Half Cadence

The half cadence ends on the dominant meaning that it ends with a strong urge to go to tonic. Listen to the impression of the music wanting to go on, a sense of needing a resolution.

Recognizing the half cadence
Recognizing the half cadence

The Deceptive Cadence

As we’ve seen, the deceptive cadence begins on the dominant but resolves on a chord other than the tonic. Since it usually ends on the submediant chord, this cadence ends on a minor chord and it’s the only one to do so. Listen also to how the bass moves by step up in this cadence. 

Recognizing the deceptive cadence
Recognizing the deceptive cadence