So far, we’ve focused on units/sections of music that either repeat or contrast with each other. Our focus in this section is a little different: we’ll pay particular attention to the ends of phrases/sections. These endings often contain important clues as to how the various sections are intended to be heard together. In particular, if a segment of music is intended to sound like a single, coherent section, its beginning and middle phrases are likely to have less-conclusive endings, while its last phrase is likely to have a more-conclusive ending.

Many factors contribute to a sense of conclusion, including long notes, silences, and predictable rhythms. Hearing a new beginning afterward is also a clue that something just ended. But because it is particularly important across a range of classical, jazz, and some popular music, we’ll focus here on the concept of cadence, or a formulaic chord progression that indicates closure in tonal music. (Note: the chord progressions associated with cadences also occur at beginnings and middles of phrases. We’ll only call them “cadences” where they are paired with other factors like long notes or low points in the melodic contour to clarify that they are intended to feel like an “ending.”)

Locating cadences can sometimes be difficult. In Classical and contemporary popular music, there are often but not always points of rest at regularly-spaced intervals of time (often described as a default of “every four measures”). But even here, there is sometimes ambiguity, and other styles are less apt to be regular in this way. Locating cadences is a useful skill, but here our focus will be primarily on identifying them.

One other note: music theorists sometimes argue at great length over whether a given chord progression is “truly” a cadence or not. We will not worry too much about this. If something feels like it has some level of conclusiveness, we’ll call it a cadence.

Music theory classes that focus on written score analysis often define a large variety of cadences; standard definitions can be found here and with more specificity here. Since listening is a more in-the-moment, attention-limited activity, we’ll focus on the most important distinction:

  • Closed cadences end on the tonic chord. These include Perfect Authentic Cadences (PACs), Imperfect Authentic Cadences (IACs), and Plagal Cadences.
  • Open cadences end on some other chord, particularly the dominant. These include most prominently Half Cadences (HCs) and Deceptive Cadences.

There is a range of how conclusive/inconclusive each of these categories might be. For example, Imperfect Authentic Cadences are typically heard as less conclusive than Perfect Authentic Cadences, as implied by the names people have chosen for them. If you can hear that level of detail, great, but our primary focus is simply on the more general categories of “closed” and “open.”

There are several ways to attune yourself to this distinction. The first and most powerful is simply using your intuition, which is likely to work pretty well if you are deeply involved in the style of music you’re listening to. If your intuition isn’t reliable, however, you might focus on whether scale degree 1/do fits in the final chord of the phrase, perhaps humming it along to hear if it sounds right. If so, it’s most likely a closed cadence. Open cadences are more strongly associated with scale degrees 7/ti and 2/re. As you gain skills in harmonic hearing (see next chapter), you can use this more detailed mode of hearing to determine whether the chord is truly tonic or not.

Finally, note that when a song modulates to a new key, we change our frame of reference: so a cadence to the new tonic would be considered “closed” (even though it may not feel as final as when we get a closed cadence in the home key).

Activity: Identify cadences as open or closed

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to cadences and how they relate to each other.

Before you start: You’ll need a source of sounding music that uses cadences. You could use harmonic dictations from chapters 22 and following of The Dictation Resource; these are written in chorale style (four simultaneous notes, all moving together, without a consistent harmonic rhythm) and use a piano sound. You could alternatively simply listen to the first phrase or two of any song.

Instructions: Listen to the phrase or the first phrase or two of the song and identify cadences as closed (ending on tonic) or open.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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