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Musical cadences.
They sound complicated.
They’re not.
And best of all they are SUPER useful – and you’ve heard a MILLION of them, you just might not know it yet!
In simple terms, a cadence is a pair of chords, a mini chord sequence if you like, and there are only four to learn. We usually identify them (although they can be anywhere) as a pair of chords at the end of a section, a line, a verse, a song… The last pair of chords is a good place to start when you want to practice identifying cadences.

How to label chords

It’s worth pointing out at this point that when you are labelling chords there are two parts to it. First there is the note the chord is based on (what step of the key is the lowest note) and then there is the chord type. The good news is that when it comes to finding cadences, it’s only really the note the chord is based on that makes a difference.
So a recap… 
  • Look at a pair of chords.

  • Look at the note that each of the chords is based on.

  • Try to spot some common combinations.

Let’s start with two of the four cadences we can have.

A perfect cadence

In this example, we’re in the key of G major (one sharp which is an F). If you have a chord V (that’s the Roman Numeral for 5 – we label chords with these) followed by a chord I (1), then you have what’s known as a perfect cadence. Commonly the chord types formed on these steps will follow certain rules, but I can tell you about that another day. For now let’s just focus on the roots of each chord.
Perfect cadences are by far the most common cadence. How do I remember they’re called “perfect” you ask? Well it’s because they combine two really important rules in music.
Firstly a chord V ALWAYS suggests to the ear that something else is going to follow. It’s not the end. It’s the perfect pivot chord to link things together.
Secondly, chord I is your home chord, it’s the root, it’s effectively the musical start and end of the piece of music. Even if the composer doesn’t use it like that.
So guess what happens if we combine these two chords V-I? It sounds perfect. It sounds complete. It makes a great end to a section or a song.

A plagal cadence

Let’s stay in G major so we can see the difference. We already know what happens if a pair of chords ends with a I – it’s going to sound finished, complete. But what happens if we proceed that with a chord IV rather than a chord V like we had in a perfect cadence? The answer is it still sounds complete, but obviously the “set up” is different. We call this combination of IV-I a plagal cadence.
If you want to know what it sounds like then I always recommend thinking of it with the nickname I give it – the “amen cadence“. Why? You know that sound at the end of old hymns? The “Aaaaaa-mennnnn”? That would be a plagal cadence!

What about the chord types formed on these notes?

As I said before I can teach you about what to expect these to be another day, but for now the crucial thing to remember is regardless of what the types are, the rules of cadences are the same. If you have V-I it’s a perfect cadence, and if you have IV-I it’s a plagal cadence.

You said there were four types of cadence?

Yes, that’s right, there are. For now I want you to concentrate on getting better at identifying perfect and plagal cadences. As the theme for the month here and on my social channels, there will be lots more time for talking about the other two. Perfect and plagal are the most common, so they’re a great place to start.

What’s the point of cadences?

Great question! Asides from anything else, understanding how cadences work can really help in lots of subject areas including modulation, transposition, songwriting and composition, arranging…. The list goes on. Essentially when you start to learn about cadences you are starting to develop your understanding of diatonic harmony, and how keys and chords can not only be formed, but strung together, and therefore how music is written. I said they were useful!

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