What is a Cadence? The Basics

What is a cadence? It’s defined as “a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of resolution”. They’re composed of at least 2 notes or chords, and are extremely common in music from the Baroque and Classical eras (but still show up in pop music!).

In today’s video and blog post, we’re going to talk about what a cadence is, how to spot them, and some of the different types of cadences with examples.

Important terms

Before we get into this cadence business, let’s get a few terms out of the way.

Here’s a C major scale. Each scale degree has a number, 1 through 8. So the first note of the scale is 1, the second note is 2, and so on.

So now let’s talk roman numerals. I’m going to find the first and 5th note of the scale, in this case C and G. You’ll see these scale degrees symbolized by their respective roman numerals – I and V. These scale degrees are SUPER important – possibly the most important – and they have names. The 1 is the tonic note, and the 5 is the dominant note.

What is a cadence: The most common cadence

The most common, most basic cadence is one that moves from V – I (5 – 1), from the dominant to the tonic. So if you’re playing a piece in the key of C major, Playing a G to a C would be considered a cadence. This type of cadence is called a ‘perfect’ cadence.

Because most music isn’t written with just one note at a time, cadences are often played as chords, multiple notes at a time. So are perfect cadence, the notes G and C, could be played as a full G chord, and full C chord. Often the G and C are played in the left hand as bass notes, and the right hand plays the full chords.

A common variation on this cadence is moving from adding the 7 to V – here, a G7 chord adds an F, so we’d mark it as V7 – G B D F, instead of just G B D. It adds just a little more tension.

The purpose of a cadence

Cadences are to music what periods are to punctuation. They create a close – an end of a section, a part, the end of a song. You can even hear cadences in modern music – listen to the last 5 seconds of a song, and you’ll often hear it move from the dominant to the tonic – even though they’re more obvious and specific in classical music, their musical function is so important that you’ll hear some form of cadence in most music.

The Imperfect Cadence

Another common cadence is the imperfect cadence. So with the perfect cadence, the chord progression moves from the dominant to the tonic, creating a sense of “ahh, completion”. With an imperfect cadence, it’s the opposite – it moves from the tonic to the dominant (I – V), creating a sense of incompleteness.

Check out the video for an example for an imperfect cadence (as well as the others), to hear the way they sound!

The plagal cadence

I want to show you a couple more types of cadences. First, we’ve got the plagal cadence. Instead of moving V – I, it moves from IV – I (4 – 1). If we’re in the key of C, this would mean moving from an F chord to a C chord. The sound isn’t quite as powerful as a perfect cadence, so you’ll never see this at the very end of a piece (in Classical music, anyway).

It’s nicknamed the “amen” cadence because when you’re in church and you sing amen, it’s generally to the tune of a plagal cadence.

The deceptive cadence

Finally, I wanted to mention deceptive cadences. These are fun, and really common in pop music. It’s called a deceptive cadence because you think it’s gonna go from V – I, but it tricks you and goes from V to vi (5 – 6). So say you’re in the key of C major – you’d hear the chord go from G major to A minor. If your piece was in a minor key, it would be reversed – say you’re in A minor. The piece would move from E major (the dominant) to F minor.

This kind of cadence, with its unexpected nature, isn’t used at the end of a song in Classical music – it’s just too abrupt, and not nearly as relaxing as the V – I. But you might see them pop up somewhere in the middle of a piece.

Conclusion

This video and blog post just scratches the surface of the question “What is a cadence?”, but with this in mind, you’ll start to recognize them in your pieces. Understanding cadences is also useful from a composing standpoint, because they give harmonic direction to a piece, or in simpler terms, they serve as “punctuation.”

Hope you enjoyed this blog post, and until next time!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.