Music Theory Minute: Cadences

Posted on by Peter

Seymour Duncan and Joe Bonamassa

By Dave Eichenberger

Welcome to a new series that will help explain some common musical terms, while providing some links to past articles that will help if you’d like to explore these ideas further. Music theory is essentially the rules that hold musical sounds in a specific order. You might think “I don’t need no rules, baby!” and many people go on to wonderful careers in music without knowing the difference between a half note and a coda. Thing is, music theory is a big subject, and can take a few college courses to get a grasp of, so I’m hoping to introduce important concepts in small, bite-size pieces that don’t require student loans and perfect attendance.

This article focuses on cadences, which occur in almost every song based in Western harmony. It will require you to know some basic open chords, so grab your guitar and let’s play!

So, what exactly is a cadence?

A cadence is essentially two chords that break up the harmonic flow of a tune. There are a many types of cadences, but we will just concentrate on a few basic ones. In our examples, we will use mostly three-note chords, called triads, in a very common key. The actual cadences are in red. 

Pick up a guitar, and play a basic G chord four times, followed by a C chord four times. Now, play that entire chord progression four times. Pretty basic, right? Well, Western harmony is based on the idea of tension and resolution, so let’s add some tension to this progression. Play the same chord progression twice. On the third time, play the C twice followed by a D7 twice and end with a nice ringing G:

G / / / | C / / / | G / / / | C / / / | 

G / D7 / | G

Notice how the D7 provides some tension, and you really want to hear the G afterwards? This is because D7 is the V (five) chord of the key of G. G is the I (one) chord*. The V-I at the end of a song or phrase breaks up the normal progression and provides a natural ending to a song or section. The D7-G (or V-I) is called a cadence

*Chord progressions can be represented with Roman numerals. To understand which chords are which numerals in any key, check out this article

Types of Cadences

The V-I cadence above (D7-G) is the most popular, and is called an authentic cadence. You hear this in standard blues progressions, as one pattern is ending and another is starting. You also hear it in a billion other songs from the end of Happy Birthday to the last two chords in Silent Night. 

But what if the chord progression above were slightly altered? We will change it to something like this:

G / / / | C / / / | G / / / | C / / / |

D7 / C / | G

Here, the second-to-last measure is altered. When we play the D7 (V) chord, we expect the G afterwards, but it hits the C first before resolving to the G. C is the IV (four) chord in the key of G, so this cadence goes G-C, or V-IV. This is called a plagal cadence, and is used to delay the resolution to the I (one) chord. You can hear this in a lot of pop music, and it is used at the end of most hymns that end with the phrase Amen

A half cadence is used when you are wanting to end a phrase with tension (like ending with a comma or a question mark). Take a look at this progression:

G / / / | C / / / | G / / / | C / / / |

Em / / / | D7 / / / 

This half-cadence ends with a lot of tension. Here, I’m using the Em (or iv chord) to go to the D7 (the V), but I could have used any chord to go to the D7, really. The point of the half cadence is that it ends with the V (five) chord, which has a ton of tension. I really want to play a G at the end, but I resisted. 

The last type of cadence we will cover today is the deceptive cadence. Let’s dig this chord progression:

G / / / | C / / / | G / / / | C / / / | 

D7 / / / | Bm

You can probably hear how the deceptive cadence got its name. Here the V (five) chord, D7, goes somewhere other than G. You think you are going to hear a beautiful G chord, but get something else. I chose the Bm (iii), but it could have just as easily gone to the Em (vi) or any other chord. Essentially, you expect one thing but it goes somewhere else. 

All examples were played with a Jazz pickup in the neck position. 

There are many more types of cadences, but hey, this is supposed to just take a minute to read through. You should be able to use some of these ideas in your own writing, and recognize some of these sounds in other songs. The more we know about the musical world around us, the more we can manipulate this knowledge to get the sounds out of our heads. 

How do you like your recorded songs to end? Do you like The Big Rock Ending or a fade out?

Written on June 27, 2016, by Peter

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  • Philippe Saint Breizh

    Well, that’s the most for acustic or jazz song because more harmonic notes. But not really for blues, less for distortions too from me.

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      You’re right. This is for every other kind of music, except maybe metal. And it is certainly for blues- you hear cadences from the V to the IV, and to the V to the I (the turnaround). The more you know…