How an Open Cadence Builds Song Energy

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Lady AntebellumThere’s so much you can learn from the hit song “Need You Now.” I analyzed this song in a previous post, mentioning the use of motif, plateau pitches, vocal harmonies, etc. There’s another aspect of how the harmonies work in this tune that you can use in your own songs: the use of the so-called open cadence. A cadence is a particular set of chord progressions that end a musical phrase. Some of these progressions are used so frequently that we treat them as formulas: the authentic cadence (ex: V-I), half cadence (ex: I-V), plagal cadence (ex: IV-I), and so on. Any cadence that ends on the I-chord is considered a closed cadence. The one I want to address in this post is the open cadence, which in traditional harmony is one that ends on a V-chord.

The half cadence example above, I-V, is a type of half cadence. The musical phrase ends on a V-chord, and the assumption is that the next phrase will begin easily on the I-chord. But in pop theory, you can think of an open cadence as any cadence that ends on something that’s not the I-chord.

The nice thing about ending a phrase on the V-chord is that it practically begs for the music to continue. It needs more, because our ears are “trained” to expect something to follow V-chords, usually the I-chord.

So open cadences that occur at the end of verses are great for building song energy, because any time we hear a chord that demands that something follow it, we create a kind of musical urgency. That urgency is translated into song energy.

In “Need You Now”, V-chords are in short supply. They just wouldn’t suit the song. V-chords make song harmonies very predictable, and as we know, the harmonies and chord choices in “Need You Now” are more subtle. V-chords are a bit too obvious to work well.

But they still manage to achieve the effect of the open cadence. The actual definition of the half cadence in traditional harmony is “any chord moving to, and pausing on, the V-chord”. If you replace the V-chord with something like a IV-chord, you’ve still got the open cadence effect. In “Need You Now,” the cadence is actually vi-IV (C#m  A).

The fact that the verse ends on a IV-chord gives it the same sense of urgency that usually comes from placing a V-chord at the end of a verse: the listener can tell that the music hasn’t settled, and that more is needed to resolve the harmonies.

Here are some verse chord progressions you can try that feature open cadences at the end. Hold each chord for 4 beats, then experiment:

1) C  F  Dm  G  Am  F  Dm  G

2) C  C/Bb  Am  F  Dm  C/E  F  G  ||

3) Fmaj7  Em7  Fmaj7  Em7  Am  Dm9  Em7  F

4) C  Eb  F  C  Bb  Eb  Bb  F


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  1. This is a very good explanation. Most of the time students are concerned only about the notes to play, but I love to teach them about cadences and how it creates tension.
    When writing a song, it’s a combination of playing around with chords
    using knowledge and adding the creative touch to accommodate the lyrics. This is an excellent article, and I will post it.

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