Using Deceptive Cadences to Boost a Song’s Energy

Extending chord progressions by using deceptive cadences will entice listeners to keep listening.


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Guitarist playing chordsOne of the important ways that songwriters build energy is by creating an expectation, and then avoiding it. Here’s what I mean. Most songs are a musical journey that revolve around the tonic chord and the tonic note. So if your song is in A major, your melodies and chords place an importance on the A note as a resting/starting point, and the A chord as feeling like home – the tonic. Dominant chords (i.e., chords built on the 5th note of a scale) like to move to tonic chords. It explains why so many songs in the A major will feature chord progressions that include E7-A. The E7 is a dominant chord that naturally seeks out the tonic.

That dominant-to-tonic chord progression builds energy. More specifically, the dominant chord builds energy by creating an expectation that the tonic chord is about to follow. When the tonic chord happens, there’s a little flash of musical energy that then quickly dissipates, waiting for the next energy burst.

And of course, energy happens in all sorts of ways in music, and those ways tend to overlap. So in addition to the kind of harmonic energy that I just described, songs also use tempo, loudness (i.e., dynamics) rising melodies, melodic leaps, and instrumental manipulation, to name but a few.

Going back to chord progressions, there is something else you can do to build energy: instead of allowing the dominant chord to immediately move to the tonic chord, you can avoid the tonic and give the listener something else. When you do this, it’s a kind of “delayed gratification”.

In music, a cadence is a type of resting point, and by avoiding the tonic after a dominant chord, you’re often creating what’s called a deceptive cadence. In other words, you “deceive” the listener by making them think that the tonic chord is imminent, and then… you avoid it.

This delaying of the tonic chord builds energy because even though we don’t hear a tonic chord, we still believe it’s going to happen, and musical energy usually remains heightened until the tonic chord eventually happens.

The longer you delay this tonic cadence, the longer energy is allowed to remain high, and that in itself can create its own energy.

Here are some examples of chord progressions that end on a tonic chord in a predictable way, and then ways you can boost song energy by providing a deceptive cadence that eventually resolves on the tonic:

  1. TYPICAL: A  Bm  E  A
  2. TYPICAL: A  F#m  Bm  E  A
  3. TYPICAL: A  A/C#  D  E  A
    DECEPTIVE CADENCE: A  A/C#  D  E  Bm7  Bbmaj7  A
  4. TYPICAL: A  E  D  C#m  F#m  E  A
    DECEPTIVE CADENCE: A  E  D  C#m  F#m  E  D  F#m  E  A
  5. TYPICAL: A  D  Bm  E  A
    DECEPTIVE CADENCE: A  D  Bm  E  D#dim  A/E  E  A

Your choice of chords in a deceptive cadence are up to you, but naturally you’ll need to make sure that your melody will work with whatever you choose.

Also, keep in mind that because deceptive cadences can be quite distinctive, it can quickly become trite and overused. So use your musical judgment.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. I’m not sure how many songwriters are reading this post, but I am interested in what kind of chords you have used as possible deceptive cadences. Now I am a theory buff, so I love new chord ideas and I love studying how the chords relate to one another.

    I noticed some common tone chord transitions and also some chromatic cadences as well. I have said this before. I love common tone movement to unrelated keys. For example,
    C-F-G-Bb-G7-C (if D were the melody on G, then it would flow nicely to the Bb because Bb has D as a common tone) This is just one example, I’m sure I could come up with something better if I sat at a piano.

    • Hi Ryan:

      The cadences that I’ve used here either make use of a common tone, as you mention, or they take advantage of a semitone motion in the voices (e.g., E to F in the second example). Like you, I enjoy the common tone ones, the ones that use a note from the A chord (in the key of my examples).


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