A cadence is the bit of music that marks the end of a phrase, harmonically, rhythmically, or a combination of both. In this post we’ll look at the chords in the five basic harmonic cadences. These are Perfect, Imperfect, Plagal, Deceptive and Half Cadences.
Note: Remember that anything can function as a cadence – these are by no means the only cadences! They are simply the ones that have, for hundreds of years, been burned into the collective consciousness of western music. They’re the five that are the most recognizable, and when we hear them, they sound inevitable!
I’ll use the roman numerals for the chords and translate that to G major. At the end I’ll give you the examples in e minor. If you want to look at them in all keys, use this pdf!
The Perfect Cadence. Sometimes called Perfect Authentic Cadence
This is the cadence that’s most used. It is V – I or V7 – I. In G major that’s D – G or D7 – G. You might have a chord progression cooking along, G – am – C – bm – G – am – C – bm…. Then, out of nowhere comes G – am – D – G… and everything feels like it’s come to an end. That’s the cadence. Try it.
The imperfect cadence is a lot like the perfect one. The chords are the same, or similar, but one or both are inverted and the V might be replaced with the viidim. It could look like V6 – I or viidim – I or V – I6 etc. In G: D/f# – G or f#dim – G or D – G/b.
The Plagal Cadence.
This one is called the Amen Cadence by most choir singers. A lot of Christian music ends with this one. IV – I. In G it’s C – G. Usually, the rest of the music is similar to any other western music but at the very end we hear a big amen sung in the C and G. Try G – em – C – D – G – em – C – G. The last two chords are your amen!
The Deceptive Cadence.
This one is close to the Perfect except it ends on the relative minor. It looks like V – vi… That’s it. In G it’s D – em.
The deception is in the delivery. For instance, you might cycle through G – C – D – G a few times and at the end of the section play G – C – D – em. Try it!
The Half Cadence.
Again… This one is a lot like the perfect cadence, but it ends before we ever hear the I chord. Usually ending on V. An example is I – IV – ii – V. In G it’s G – C – am – D. Our western ears have been trained to hear a G following this. If you decide to end on the D and snub the 2nd part we expect to hear, that’s a half cadence.
Here are the examples in e minor. The important chords are in bold. Notice that I use a B instead of bm. To build the V chord (in e minor, that’s the b) I’m using the harmonic minor scale.
Perfect Cadence. em – am – B – em.
Imperfect Cadence. em – am – d#dim – em.
Plagal Cadence. em – C – am – E.
Yes… I end on an E major so I can hear the a note descend to the g#. Ending on the major while in a minor key is also called a picardy cadence.
Deceptive Cadence. em – am – B – C.￼
Half Cadence. em – am – B.
Like I mentioned above, this isn’t the end of cadences. For example, if you run a cycle of G – D – bm – G – D – bm – etc, we begin to expect the G to follow the bm making that a cadence. Use the above list as a guide in your own writing but definitely also use your ear. If it sounds good to you, use it!
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