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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You 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:
- Plagal cadence: A IV-chord moving to and resting on a I-chord. In this song, the plagal cadence is C – G.
- 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
- 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:
- You can ensure that you build musical energy by avoiding authentic cadences until the end of a section.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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