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Cadence: Definition, Meter & Examples

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Punctuation marks divide phrases in a sentence, but what do you call the end of a musical phrase? A cadence! Learn about the different kinds of cadences and how they work in this lesson.

Identifying Cadences

Cadences are musical resting places and are important tools in musical composition. They organize music by breaking long melodies into musical phrases.

Cadences are everywhere! To illustrate how they work, let's look at the popular children's song 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' Sing the melody. Where did you pause and take a breath? If you are like most people, you probably breathed on the cadences.

This song is divided into two musical phrases. The first is

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream

The second is

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

Each phrase ends with a cadence or resting place. Sing the song again, this time paying attention to those cadences. This piece uses the two most common types of cadences: a half cadence and an authentic cadence.

Authentic Cadences

Cadences are defined by which pitches in the scale are used to create it. Sing the melody to 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat' again. Which of the two phrases makes the song sound finished and complete? The second one, right? Why is this true? The second phrase gives a sense of arrival or conclusion because it ends in an authentic cadence.

Most pieces of music have a special pitch called the tonic. In this song, the tonic is the first note you sang on the word 'Row.' All the other pitches used in the song are arranged in such a way so as to make the tonic sound like a musical home. Authentic cadences provide a sense of finality by ending on that musical home.

In our example, can you hear how the pitch sung on the word 'dream' at the end of the second phrase is the same pitch as the one sung on 'row?' Both are sung on the tonic pitch. Ending a cadence on the tonic pitch gives the same impression as a period at the end of a sentence. It is a musical arrival point that conveys a sense of completeness.

Half Cadences

The first cadence you hear in 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat' occurs on the word 'stream' at the end of the first phrase. Try singing just this first phrase, stopping after the word 'stream.' Can you hear how the pitch on the word 'stream' is not the same as the tonic? This first arrival point is a half cadence, a temporary resting place on the musical journey.

Half cadences are like commas at the end of verbal or written phrases. By listening to the musical inflection, you can tell that the song isn't over yet, just like you can tell that a spoken sentence isn't over at a comma because of the verbal inflection.

So, if authentic cadences end on the tonic, what kind of note do half cadences end on? There are special names given to the order of notes in a musical scale. The tonic is the first note. The fifth note is called the dominant. The letter name of both the tonic and dominant will change based on the musical scale used.

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