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Cadence in Music: Definition & Types

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  • 0:04 Authentic Cadences
  • 2:53 Plagal Cadence
  • 3:19 Deceptive Cadence
  • 3:47 Half Cadence
  • 4:09 Picardy Cadence
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do composers ensure that the endings of their pieces sound right? In this lesson, we'll look at that question and see what role the cadence has in ending a musical composition.

Authentic Cadences

Imagine reading a great story. There's love, drama, action, humor, betrayal, and at long last - a triumphant victory. Great story, but how exactly do you know when it's over? Most books wrap up their narrative with two simple words that clearly let the audience know the journey is over: the end. It's that simple.

Well, musical composers have a similar system. A cadence is a combination of chords that bring a section, a movement, or an entire piece of music to a close. A cadence is a definitive resolution to indicate that the piece is over: the end. However, for our discussion on cadences, this is really just the beginning.

A musical composition is a complex art form, and so composers have multiple ways to put the final punctuation on the page. One of the most common forms of cadences is the authentic cadence. To understand what this is, we need a basic understanding of musical notations. The key of the piece of music determines which chords the composer will use and determines our understanding of the relationship between those chords. If the piece is in C major, a standard composition, we identify the C chord with the number I. It's important to note that as you can and will see, Roman numerals are what are used for these numbers when discussing musical notation and cadence. Then we go up the scale from there so that D is II, E is III, F is IV, G is V, A is VI, and B is VII.

Okay, with that out of the way, we can start building our cadences. An authentic cadence is the most basic form of ''the end,'' composed of two chords, the V and I. So an authentic cadence in C major starts with a G chord and resolves with a C chord. This cadence is simple, fulfilling, and aesthetically pleasing.

Perfect Authentic Cadence

Composers widely use the authentic cadence, but composers actually can write it in two different ways. In the perfect authentic cadence, both the V and I chord are in root position, which means that the note for which the chord is named is the lowest note in the chord. Your average G chord is made of G, B and D. If those notes appear in that order, G will be the lowest note. However, in a perfect authentic cadence, the note in the lowest position of the I chord is repeated in the highest position. In our C major composition, that last chord could look like this: CEGC. Altogether, our V-I would be GBD- CEGC. That's a perfect authentic cadence.

Imperfect Authentic Cadence

Of course, the perfect authentic cadence can be altered if the composer so wishes. A cadence ending in the V-I pattern but with different notes in the root of either chord and/or without the I chord capped by the tonic note (as in the note the key is named after), makes an imperfect authentic cadence. So, if our V-I perfect authentic cadence is GBD - CEGC, an imperfect authentic cadence could be DGB - GCE. Both of these have a G chord followed by a C chord, but the imperfect cadence messes with the expected composition - the ordering of the notes - of those chords.

Plagal Cadence

With this basic understanding of cadences, we can look at some additional common forms of cadences composers use. Another cadence you'll often see is the plagal cadence. A plagal cadence is composed of the chords IV-I. In our C major composition, those chords are F and C. You may recognize this cadence as the final two chords accompanying the syllables ''A-men'' in most Protestant hymns. Because of this usage, the plagal cadence often is called the Amen cadence.

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