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Common Musical Cadences and their Usage

Updated on November 24, 2015
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Cadence comes from the Latin word cadentia, meaning "a falling"
Cadence comes from the Latin word cadentia, meaning "a falling" | Source

Whenever you see or hear the word "cadence" used in reference to music, it usually refers to a series of two or more chords. These chords come at the end of a section of music to indicate a pause or a complete stop. Cadences may be found in the middle of a piece of music - or in the middle of a particular section - and at the end of a piece of music or section.

The word itself comes from the Latin cadentia , meaning "a falling" - although in normal usage it simply indicates a point at which the music comes to a rest, either temporarily (within the piece) or finally (at the end of the piece or section).

There are many different types of cadences, but two of the most common cadences found in Western music are known as Perfect and Imperfect.

The Two Main Cadence Types

Cadences are either final, marking the end of a piece or section so that it sounds finished and complete, or they're unfinished, sounding incomplete and leaving the listener wanting more. The most common final cadence of all is the Perfect Cadence.

To understand the perfect cadence a bit better, you need to remember that every key has a number of important chords. The two most significant chords in any key are the tonic (C in C major) and the dominant (G in C major), also indicated with Roman numerals as I and V respectively. Next, you need to realize that a "perfect" cadence brings the music to a conclusion, giving it a perfect ending, so to speak. A perfect ending will bring the music to a finish on the tonic or I chord, so a perfect cadence follows the chord pattern of V - I. Keep those two points in mind and you'll always be able to recognize a perfect cadence when you see or hear it.

Here's an example of a perfect cadence going from the V chord to the I chord in C major:

A perfect V-I cadence
A perfect V-I cadence | Source

An imperfect cadence - or at least one variety - uses exactly the same chords but in reverse order. This ties in with the idea that imperfect cadences occur within the piece, coming to a rest but not ending the piece. The most basic type of imperfect cadence therefore is the I - V cadence, an example of which is shown below:

An imperfect I-V cadence
An imperfect I-V cadence | Source

When Imperfect is Perfect for the Job

Generally speaking, any cadence that ends on the dominant or V chord can be termed an imperfect cadence. That makes sense, because the dominant is the furthest chord away from the tonic and will therefore produce the "unfinished" sound you're after.

Besides using the chords I - V to create an imperfect cadence, other options are available. These include going from the IV chord to the V chord (from F to G in C major), as in the example below:

A IV-V imperfect cadence
A IV-V imperfect cadence | Source

Or moving from the ii chord to the V chord - D minor to G major in the key of C - as in this example:

A ii-V imperfect cadence
A ii-V imperfect cadence | Source
Varying chords adds interest to cadences
Varying chords adds interest to cadences | Source

You'll notice that the supertonic - or chord formed on the second note of the scale (D) - is indicated with lowercase letters (ii). This is done because it's a minor chord, formed using the notes D, F and A as they occur naturally in the key of C major. Moving to the dominant (V) from the supertonic (ii) can give much needed variety to a piece, as using the same three chords (I, IV and V) all the time can be monotonous.

Think of it as you would a recipe. I, IV and V are the main ingredients, but the dish really comes to life when you add those extra herbs and spices, such as the ii or the vi chord.

Imperfect cadences sound unfinished, telling us there's more music to come. Another way this is achieved is by using what's known as an Interrupted Cadence.

The Interrupted Cadence

Occasionally a piece of music will sound like it's going to come to an end, but it doesn't. This is when an interrupted cadence is used. Your ears expect to hear a typical V-I perfect cadence, but instead they get presented with something else, something surprising and unexpected.

The interrupted cadence uses the chords V-vi as in the example below:

An interrupted cadence using the V-vi chord progression
An interrupted cadence using the V-vi chord progression | Source

More Final Cadence Types

All final cadences come to rest on the tonic or I chord. This is not surprising, as it's usual practice for a piece of music to end on its tonic key. As well as the Perfect cadence, there are also two other types of final cadence.

The first of these is the Plagal cadence, also known as the "Amen" cadence because of its use at the end of hymns and religious music. This cadence uses the chords IV and I to produce its unique and familiar sound:

A typical IV-I Plagal or "Amen" cadence
A typical IV-I Plagal or "Amen" cadence | Source

A less frequently used type of final cadence employs yet another twist. The Tierce de Picardie cadence follows the V-I pattern used in the Perfect cadence, but with a difference. It includes a slight element of surprise.

This cadence is used in a minor key, so you would expect the final chord to be minor as well. But in a Tierce de Picardie the final chord is changed to major, giving the piece a subtle lift and change of mood. This device was used frequently in Baroque and Classical music. Here's an example of how it might be employed:

The Tierce de Picardie cadence ending on a major chord within a minor key
The Tierce de Picardie cadence ending on a major chord within a minor key | Source


You can hear each one of these cadences by watching the video at the top of this article. And don't forget to test your knowledge by trying your hand at the Cadences Quiz below.

Thanks for reading!

Understanding Cadences Quiz

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