In songwriting, momentum is forward motion… the feeling that there’s a musical engine driving your song onward in such a way that the audience doesn’t get bored or distracted. One moment leads nicely to the next moment in a kind of musical perfection.
For tangible examples of this aspect of music, you simply need only to listen to pretty much any hit song. A song is a hit if it manages to grab a listener’s attention and keep them hooked from start to finish, as all hits songs do.
There are specific moments in every song where the danger of a listener getting distracted or bored is greater than at other moments. Specifically, when song sections change — when you go from verse to chorus, for example — there is a moment where audiences might feel a bit inattentive, shall we say, because the new section — the chorus in this case — hasn’t had a chance to rope the listener in again.
One of the best ways to keep an audience feeling that they must keep listening is to use an open cadence at the end of a song section.
In music, a cadence is a pause. It’s very similar to using commas and periods when you write sentences. The pause might be temporary, as with a comma, or it might be more obvious and final, as with a period.
In music, just like in sentences, cadences give the listeners a chance to rest. It makes sense out of all the music by adding structure. A run-on sentence with no commas or periods is difficult to listen to, and readers will lose interest quickly. Similarly, in music we need cadences to give us a sense of structure. Without them, music would be on long run-on sentence.
Comparing An Open (or Half) Cadence to an Authentic Cadence
It’s not hard to find cadence points in songs. Take Eagles’ hit song “Lyin’ Eyes” (Don Henley, Glenn Frey). As with most songs, there’s a slight sense of pausing at the end of each line, but you definitely get more of a sense of cadence at the end of every two lines.
But you’ll notice that the kind of pause that happens after the word “smile” is not quite as final-sounding as the word that happens at the end of the word “style.” The one after “smile” is constructed to need more to follow it, and we call it an open cadence or half cadence. The one after “style” is more final sounding because it ends on the tonic chord, and we call it an authentic cadence:
City girls just seem to find out early
How to open doors with just a smile [OPEN CADENCE… we need more!]
A rich old man and she won’t have to worry
She’ll dress up all in lace go in style [AUTHENTIC CADENCE – sounds final.]
Why Think About Cadences At All?
Why should we care about this at all in songwriting? Mainly because the open cadence has a way of demanding our attention. It sounds incomplete; we’d not likely want to end a song, for example, on an open cadence.
So a half cadence has a way of creating that sense of forward motion – of musical momentum – that keeps audiences listening. And in that sense, they can be an important tool.
How a Half Cadence At the End of the Verse Can Help
Ending a verse with an authentic cadence (ending on the tonic chord) is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, the verse of “Lyin’ Eyes” ends on a tonic chord that provides an authentic cadence before continuing on with the chorus.
But the chorus of “Lyin’ Eyes” provides a strong sense of energy and musical excitement all on its own, and so the authentic cadence that ends the verse isn’t a problem.
But if you happen to have a situation where the verse ends on a low point, and then the chorus simply tries to start at that low point, it may be difficult to generate the energy that a good chorus needs.
In those songs, especially where your chorus may take a few bars to really get going, you may find that a half cadence at the end of your verse is a great solution.
Example of Creating an Open Cadence to Generate Momentum
So let’s say that your verse ends on a I-chord and then your chorus starts again on that same I-chord. To create a half cadence, you simply add a chord to the end of the verse that leads back to the I-chord.
Here’s an example of a progression from the end of a verse, one that ends on the tonic chord:
C F Dm G C (I IV ii V I)
Then let’s say the chorus starts on that same C chord: C G/B Am F…. (I V6 vi IV….)
It’s that moment between the verse and chorus, where the audience hears the repeat of the I-chord, where musical energy will sometimes die away. By inserting some other non-tonic chord, like a IV or V chord, between the two sections, you’ve created a moment where the audience feels compelled to keep listening:
C F Dm G C F ||C G/B Am F….
Placing a IV chord between the verse and chorus has the effect of making the verse sound like it’s now ending on a IV-chord, and not a I-chord. That IV-chord sounds like it needs something more, and that something more is provided by the start of the chorus.
It’s worth the time to look through the songs you’ve written in the past, songs that you feel are a bit boring, and seeing if you can inject a bit of forward motion at crucial spots by changing authentic cadences to open cadences, particularly between song sections.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” gives lots of examples of how the greatest songwriters use hooks within their songs to grab and keep and audience’s attention.