What Songwriters Need To Know About Musical Cadences

A cadence happens at the end of a musical phrase, and how you end that phrase can contribute to (or stifle) musical energy.


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Bob Dylan - Blowin' in the WindYou may have not used the word cadence in a musical context before. If you’re a cyclist, you’ve known that that word refers to the number of times per minute the crank turns. If you’re a linguist, you’ve used cadence to refer to the general rhythm of a set of words.

In music, we tend to use the word cadence to describe the ends of musical phrases. It’s easier to demonstrate this than it is to describe it, so think of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Every second line features a kind of “pause” in the words and music before the next two lines begin. Each pause is called a cadence. There are 3 types of cadences that are relevant to this discussion: plagal, half and authentic. I’ll label the cadences first, and then follow up with a description of what they are:

G         C          G
How many roads must a man walk down
G          C         G
Before you call him a man? [PLAGAL CADENCE]
G          C         G
How many seas must a white dove sail
G           C            D7
Before she sleeps in the sand? [HALF CADENCE]
      G       C               G
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
G              C        G
Before they're forever banned? [PLAGAL CADENCE]
     C        D7        G              C
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
     C         D7            G
The answer is blowin' in the wind. [AUTHENTIC CADENCE]

To identify a cadence in music, what you need to look at are the two chords at the end of each phrase (the ones that are in bold print, above). This song uses three different types of cadences:

  1. Plagal cadence: A IV-chord moving to and resting on a I-chord. In this song, the plagal cadence is C – G.
  2. Half cadence: Also called an “open” cadence, it’s any chord moving to and resting on a V-chord. In this song, the half cadence is IV-V: C – D7
  3. Authentic cadence: Also called a “closed” cadence, a V-chord moving to and resting on a I-chord. In this song, the authentic cadence is D7 – G.

So why is this important at all? You’ll notice that the half cadence (IV-V) has a very incomplete sound; it really demands more music. So if Dylan suddenly stopped playing at the end of the line, “Before she sleeps in the sand“, you’d notice how odd that would sound. It needs music to follow. It’s why it’s also called an open cadence.

To a lesser extent, the plagal cadence (IV-I) has the same incomplete quality. It sounds as though more music should follow. But once you reach the authentic cadence (V-I), you notice how final it sounds. You really get the sense that you’ve reached the end of that verse. Music can (and does) follow, but you certainly get the feeling that the song could end right there.

And here’s the important bit: in this song, each of the first three phrases ends with an incomplete sound, and that sense of incompleteness translates as musical momentum in the minds of the listeners. Like a comma in a written language, it requires the reader to keep reading. So a half cadence in music similarly requires the listener to keep listening.

So what can you do with this information? Here are some tips:

  1. You can ensure that you build musical energy by avoiding authentic cadences until the end of a section.
  2. You can make a verse beg for a chorus by placing a half cadence at the end of the verse and a I-chord at the start of the chorus.
  3. In songs that use a bridge, you can make the final chorus repeats of your song more inviting if you end your bridge with an open cadence.
  4. In songs that use a pre-chorus, build energy by ending it on an open cadence, and starting the chorus with a I-chord.

Most of the time you don’t need to overly worry about cadences. They are the kind of thing that happen naturally in music. But if you find that your verse energy is dying and you don’t know why, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve ended the verse on an authentic cadence. That can cause a problem because authentic cadences allow energy to relax, and that’s not what you often want at the end of a verse.

If your verse ends on an authentic cadence, one easy way to deal with that is to insert a V-chord just before the chorus starts, and that creates a sense of urgency to get back to the I-chord at the start of your chorus.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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  1. Gary Ewer definately gives you your moneys worth, there are many
    books on songwritng around , the trouble is an awful lot are dated

    Its good to know what was popular ten or twenty years ago, but take
    songs like “Release Me” – Stand By Your Man “-
    Take This Job And Shove It, even – “Devil Woman” sung by the great
    Marty Robbins they are not songs being recorded today , yes their structure
    is certanly worth a study, but they are not Country Songs from
    The New Millenium, some could say that’s the problem with todays
    Country Music, and they could be right.

    Gary Ewer studies songs from every era with a lot of emphasis on
    songs from the last decade.

    I certainly belive we must write in as many genres that we can otherwise
    we are limiting our chances.

  2. Thank you for your response.
    when you update your ebooks with the new information, is it available for free to people who have already purchased the ebooks. Possible for us to re download the updated material in the Books? Or would we need to re purchase the books for the extra information that is present in the books?

    • It usually depends on the nature of the update. If it’s an update with minimal new material, that’s the sort of thing I’d usually offer free of charge to all previous purchasers. An update that’s more substantial, with lots of new information, will usually be offered free to recent purchasers (within a few months of the original purchase date), and at a discount to those who have purchased an older previous version.

      Any updates will be announced first on this blog, so please be watching here for any news.


  3. Hi I was wondering with all the new tips you upload via twitter and other platforms are these all parts taken from the 6 ebook PDFs. As I purchased them sometime ago from you and not read all them yet. But was wondering is this imfromation on cadences new and not in my books I bought from you a while ago. Please reply. Looking forward to your response.

    Yours sincerely

    Jamie simpson.

    • Hi Jamie:

      I do mention cadences in both “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” and “How to Harmonize a Melody.” The specific information from this blog article regarding cadences is not something I’ve put in the current editions of those eBooks, however. As you will imagine, now with over 1300 blog posts, there will inevitably be things I’ve written in this blog that aren’t in my “official” writings. From time to time I do update those books, and will include other new info that I’ve researched and placed first on the blog.


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