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The Function of Cadences in Music

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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

A typical cadence like you might find in a hymn tune using the chords ii-V-I

A typical cadence like you might find in a hymn tune using the chords ii-V-I

You've probably heard it said that music is a language. And like any language, it has certain elements that help us navigate our way through it. These include phrases, pauses, changes of speed and accent.

A musical phrase might be compared to an English sentence, having a beginning, a main idea and a definite conclusion. The longer the sentence, the more devices used to help us make sense of what's being said, such as punctuation. A sentence written in English will use commas, semi-colons and periods to help us identify pauses and stopping points. A musical phrase will do the same thing using its own unique form of "punctuation" known as cadences.

Cadences act as aural signposts to performers and listeners alike

Cadences act as aural signposts to performers and listeners alike

Cadences are Musical Signposts

Cadences exist in almost every kind of music in the Western world, from classical to jazz and pop. They're in the nursery rhymes and occasional songs we learn when we're growing up, and they form the backbone of a high percentage of the music heard across the globe from day to day.

If you were to write a list of your favorite 10 songs of all time, it's likely that there would be some cadences in every one of them. Even a song like "Happy Birthday" is packed with them, and we'll use that most familiar tune to get started.

Definition of Cadence

The term "cadence" defines the movement (or progression) of two or more chords designed to bring a section of music to an end. Perfect cadences sound final and usually come at the end of sections or at the end of the song. Imperfect cadences sound unfinished and usually come in the middle of a piece or section.

The word comes from the Latin cadentia, meaning "a falling" - although we use the word to indicate when the music comes to a rest either temporarily or finally.

The Basic Cadences

Music, like any language, has to be structured in a way that makes sense. In the same way that you never see sentences or paragraphs written without capital letters, commas and periods, you never come across music that doesn't have cadence points in it. Without these "breathing" points the sentence or musical phrase would simply become a continuous stream of words or notes, incomprehensible for the most part, going nowhere and communicating very little.

Cadences are built around the main chords of a key and the way we expect a song or tune to unfold. In the key of C major, for instance, we expect the piece to start in the key of C and to end in the key of C, C being the tonic. During the middle of the piece it might wander off to the dominant or G, or to the sub-dominant or F. But eventually we know it will return back to the tonic - because that's what music does.

We call the chords of a key by their name and also by the number of the scale they occupy, using Roman numerals. So the tonic chord formed on the first note of the scale is also called the I chord, the dominant formed on the fifth note of the scale is the V chord, and the sub-dominant on the fourth note is the IV chord. Here's an example of the first cadence using two of these chords in the tune "Happy Birthday to You" -

The first cadence in the song, moving from the tonic (I) to the dominant (V)

The first cadence in the song, moving from the tonic (I) to the dominant (V)

As well as being numbered using Roman numerals, cadences also have specific names. The cadence moving from the I chord to the V chord above is called an Imperfect cadence, and its opposite - shown below - moving from the V chord to the I chord is called a Perfect cadence:

A perfect cadence moving from the V chord to the I chord

A perfect cadence moving from the V chord to the I chord

The song continues with a chord progression ending on the sub-dominant, or the chord of C major. Note the F sharp which functions as a passing tone from the notes G to E in the melody:

The third section of the song moving to the subdominant key

The third section of the song moving to the subdominant key

Finally the piece concludes with a perfect cadence, ending on the tonic or G chord (I) and using a dominant seventh chord (V7) to add variety and color.

The final cadence moving back to the tonic and using a V7 chord for extra flavor

The final cadence moving back to the tonic and using a V7 chord for extra flavor

Other Common Cadences

There are many other names and variations for these cadences - particularly significant when the chords used are in inversions - but if you know these names at least you have made a beginning. Each cadence can be extended by adding extra chords to it, producing progressions such as the ii-V-I found in the picture at the beginning of this article, which results in a perfect cadence (V-I) but sounds more interesting with the addition of the ii chord beforehand.

Another common twist is to include what's known as a 6/4 chord in the progression. 6/4 indicates a chord in its second position (i.e. for G major that means a D as the lowest note), where the other two notes that make up the chord can be found at intervals of 4 notes (the tonic) and 6 notes (the third of the chord) above the bass note. This makes movement smoother between chords, as progression to a D chord means the bass note stays the same. Here's how that would work in the "Happy Birthday" song:

The final section of the song using a 6/4 chord to lead into the cadence smoothly

The final section of the song using a 6/4 chord to lead into the cadence smoothly

One of the most famous cadences is the plagal cadence, also known as the Amen cadence. This you often hear at the end of hymns and religious music, when the choir or congregation sings the word "Amen" in a harmonic arrangement using the chords IV and I, as shown below:

A plagal or "Amen" cadence using the chords IV and I.

A plagal or "Amen" cadence using the chords IV and I.

Test Your Knowledge

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What do cadences do for the music?
    • They make it go faster
    • They make it go slower
    • They highlight points of rest
  2. What are cadences equivalent to in a sentence?
    • Punctuation
    • Paragraphs
    • Page breaks
  3. Which three chords play the most important part in cadence points?
    • I, ii & V
    • I, IV & V
    • I, V & vi
  4. The chords that make up a cadence are identified by:
    • Their names
    • Their position in the scale
    • Their corresponding Roman numerals
    • All of the above
  5. What type of cadence is used most often at the end of a piece of music?
    • Perfect
    • Ideal
    • Standard
  6. Where might you find a plagal cadence?
    • Under your seat
    • At the end of a hymn tune
    • Inside the wardrobe
  7. What type of cadence is most likely to be used in the middle of a piece or section of music?
    • Impetuous
    • Impolite
    • Imperfect

Answer Key

  1. They highlight points of rest
  2. Punctuation
  3. I, IV & V
  4. All of the above
  5. Perfect
  6. At the end of a hymn tune
  7. Imperfect

Questions & Answers

Question: Is it possible for a hymn to start with chord V?

Answer: Yes. Many hymns start with the I chord, but technically a hymn can start with any chord. One reason for starting with the I chord is to establish the key for people singing along, but more modern hymns might not necessarily need to do this.

Question: Can a hymn start with cadence V and in what instance?

Answer: V isn't a cadence; it's just a chord. For a cadence, you need at least 2 chords, such as the V chord and the I chord, which would give you a V-I or perfect cadence. Generally speaking, hymns have cadences at the ends of phrases, such as every 4 or 8 bars, so they probably wouldn't start with a cadence.

Comments

JohnMello (author) from England on December 29, 2012:

Thanks Silver Poet! Glad you liked it.

Silver Poet from the computer of a midwestern American writer on December 28, 2012:

Thank you! Very understandable explanations, good illustrations, voted up!