Generating Song Energy With an Open Cadence

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OneRepublic - Good LifeI frequently use the term “forward motion” when describing how music captivates listeners. Specifically, forward motion is that characteristic of songs that makes the listener feel that whatever is happening at any given moment is going to be “answered” or resolved by something else. This creates anticipation, and compels the listener to keep listening. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, all hit songs have this important characteristic of pulling us in and keeping us listening.

A simple example of this anticipation effect happens when we create a crescendo in music. We instinctively want to hear where this crescendo is leading. Forward motion also comes from chord progressions, in the sense that until we reach the end of the progression, we feel a desire to keep listening. Like a plot from a good movie, we want to experience the resolution. You can take full advantage of a chord progression’s ability to keep an audience riveted by using an open cadence at the end of your verse.

A cadence in music is the resting point that happens at the end of a musical phrase. Some cadences have a temporary feel, like the kind that might happen in the middle of a verse or chorus, while others have a more final sound, such as the kind that happen at the end of song’s section. Think of the well-known folk song, “Oh! Susanna”. There is a temporary cadence that happens after the second line (“…with a banjo on my knee”). That temporary cadence is an open cadence because it rests on a dominant chord (a chord based on the 5th note). Dominant chords compel us to keep listening because they naturally lead to tonic chords, and we want to hear that resolution.

A closed cadence is one that features a tonic chord as its final chord. The main difference between open and closed cadences, certainly the difference that should be of interest to songwriters, is that an open cadence, like a comma in prose, begs for more, while a closed cadence, like a period, gives a sense of finality and conclusiveness to a phrase.

Open cadences, as we see with “Oh! Susanna”, often happen at the midpoint of verses and choruses. But you can create a strong sense of forward motion by placing an open cadence at the end of a verse. Typically in these songs, the resolution of that dominant chord – the tonic chord – will start the chorus.

Check out some good contemporary examples of verses that end on an open cadence: Good Life (OneRepublic); The Edge of Glory (Lady Gaga); Just a Kiss (Lady Antebellum).

“Just a Kiss” has an added feature that further builds energy: the chorus begins on a vi-chord, acting as a substitute for the I-chord. The effect of that chord is to delay the resolution to the I-chord, increasing forward energy. So it’s like a double shot of momentum: the first coming from an open cadence at the end of the verse, and the second coming from a tonic chord substitution.

There are lots of ways to generate energy, so don’t use an open cadence at the end of a verse all the time. Look for other ways as well: crescendos, increased instrumentation, raised instrumental and vocal ranges, etc.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: Songwriting Link of the Day July 18, 2011 | Creative Music

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