Using Deceptive Cadences to Make Chord Progressions More Interesting

I mentioned cadences in my last post. A cadence is the end of a musical phrase — the end of a line of music or lyric. Sometimes that cadence sounds temporary, when the lyric sounds like the a pause in the middle of a sentence (at a comma), and sometimes much more final, like the end of a verse, chorus, or other major section.

Using music theory terminology, we say that a cadence that sounds temporary is, more often than not, a half cadence, while a more permanent-sounding cadence is usually a so-called authentic cadence.


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The actual chord you use at a cadence point is the main way of identifying what kind of cadence it is. If your song is in the key of C major, a half cadence will usually end on a V-chord, like this one:

C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G (I  IV  ii  IV  I6  V7/V  V)

As you can hear if you play through that progression, it sounds incomplete, as if it needs to keep going. It’s easy to see why it sounds this way: it ends on the dominant chord (V), and not the tonic chord (I).

If you put a C at the end of that progression, you’ll hear how much more final it sounds. In fact, you can play through the entire progression twice, once with an ending on the V-chord (a half cadence), and again with a tonic chord finisher (an authentic cadence), and you’ve got the kind of progression that might serve as a verse or chorus progression in most pop genres, like the following mid-tempo country ballad mock-up:

C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G | C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G  C

Listen:

Using a Deceptive Cadence

A deceptive cadence means that the entire progression ended on a chord that was unexpected. By unexpected, we mean that it moves onto a chord that was not the typical end for that kind of progression.

The most common type of deceptive cadence is to end on a vi chord, like this:

C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G |Am  Em…

Listen: 

As you can see, it adds a lot of interest to a chord progression because it moves into a new key area, and now sounds as though you might continue your song, at least temporarily, in the key of A minor.

Beyond the obvious variety that this kind of deceptive cadence offers, it’s also valuable for another reason: a lot of pop songs use a minor verse and a major chorus. If that’s the way you’ve designed your song, you’ll find that you can use a deceptive cadence at the end of your major chorus to get back into the minor key of your verse.

The sample deceptive cadence above is what is called a melded cadence, which means that the end of one phrase (the Am chord) is the start of a new phrase.

Though my example above moved to Am (vi), you can use any chord other than where our ears (and the rules of harmony) thought the progression might move. Some other good choices to experiment with might be the ii-chord (Dm), or the flat-VI (Ab).

To summarize, a deceptive cadence simply means that you took the chord at the end of a phrase and changed it to something less typical — less expected. It’s a great way to take your chord progression in a new direction.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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