Aural Masterclass Part 2 – Cadences

Cadences are the punctuation marks in music (see my earlier post on Musical Punctuation Marks). Some cadences are very final (.) while others pause for only a moment (,). Some introduce the performer/listener to a new idea or section in the music (:), others leave the listener wanting more (….). Cadences can asks questions (?), and can create surprise (!). They help create suspense and tension in music. 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 structure of the music by clearly marking off different sections.

Cadences are easy to hear, but are sometimes difficult to recognise, as there are several distinct types of cadence. A cadence comes at the end of a passage of music and each type of cadence has a particular harmonic progression (see my post on Major Scales for more about the degrees of the scale).

The strongest and most easily recognised cadence is the Perfect Cadence. A perfect cadence sounds final, finished. This is because it is built from very strict harmonic requirements:

  • harmonic progression from the dominant (V) to tonic (I) or “home” key
  • the roots of both chords are in the bass
  • the melody must end in the tonic (“home) key

A perfect cadence is nearly always found at the very end of a piece of music, or the end of a section. Sometimes a seventh is added to the dominant chord, creating what is called a “dominant seventh”. A dominant seventh always wants to go “home”, and when we hear a dominant seventh chord, our ear craves the resolution that comes when the chord moves to the tonic. The Perfect Cadence is often described as “masculine”, meaning that it has a very firm, decisive sound.

The Plagal Cadence is often called the “amen” cadence because it is frequently used as a setting for the word “amen” at the end of hymns. In a Plagal Cadence, the harmonic progression is from the sub-dominant (the fourth note of the scale) to the tonic or IV – I. It is softer and warmer than a Perfect Cadence, and is often described as a “feminine” ending. It is less forceful and more peaceful.

An Imperfect Cadence sounds incomplete because it does not finish on the tonic (“home”), giving he sense of a comma or a question mark. Although there is a definite feeling of pause and rest, there is also a feeling of incompleteness. The imperfect cadence suggests that more needs to be said, either as a continuation or an answering phrase.It creates suspension and sets up an urge to move on to the tonic to make the music sound properly finished. It moves from any chord to the dominant (V).

An Interrupted Cadence is the “surprise” or “deceptive” cadence, because it doesn’t go where you expect it to. The imperfect cadence isn’t successful unless it is set up to surprise the ear of the listener. Because a dominant (V) chord has such a strong natural tendency to move to the tonic (“home”), the easiest way to create the expectation and surprise the listener is by moving from the dominant (V) to anything but the tonic.

The Picardy Third (also known as Tierce de Picardie) is a device where a major tonic chord is used at the end of a passage in the minor key. It can be found in any perfect or plagal cadence where the prevailing key is in the minor. It creates the sense of a “happy ending” in music, and is often used to great effect in Baroque music.

Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 in G minor, Opus 15, no. 13 makes particularly fine use of suspensions and cadences, especially in the latter, hymn-like section of the piece. Listen to it here: Chopin: Nocturne No.6 in G minor, Op.15 No.3


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