A Cadence is the pair of chords that harmonize the end of a phrase; that is to say, the final two chords that underpin the conclusion of a melody, or a section of melody. It can be said that cadence is a combination of chords that bring a section, a movement, or an entire piece of music to a close. In short, a cadence is a definitive resolution to indicate that the piece, melody or movement is over.
This is any place in a piece of music that has the feel of an ending point. This can be either a strong, definite stopping point – the end of the piece, for example, or the end of a movement or a verse – but it also refers to the “temporary-resting-place” pauses that round off the ends of musical ideas within each larger section. The easiest way to understand cadences in music is to think of the punctuation you find at pauses and breaks in spoken speech. Cadences are the musical equivalents of commas (still needs to be finished) and full stops (finished). A cadence is a pair of chords (progression of 2) that occurs at the end of a melodic phrase.
Like a story, a piece of music can come to an end by simply stopping, but most listeners will react to such abruptness with dissatisfaction: the story or music simply “stopped” instead of “ending” properly. A more satisfying ending, in both stories and music, is usually provided by giving clues that an end is coming, and then ending in a commonly-accepted way. Stories are also divided into paragraphs, chapters, stanzas, scenes, or episodes, each with their own endings, to help us keep track of things and understand what is going on.
Music also groups phrases and motifs into verses, choruses, sections, and movements, marked off by strong cadences to help us keep track of them. Like the ending of a story, an ending in music is more satisfying if it follows certain customs that the listener expects to hear. If you have grown up listening to a particular musical tradition, you will automatically have these expectations for a piece of music, even if you are not aware of having them. And like the customs for storytelling, these expectations can be different in different musical traditions.
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Cadence are called “weak” or “strong” the more or less final the sensation they create. It should be noted that while cadences are usually classified by specific chord or melodic progressions, the use of such a progression does not necessarily constitute a cadence; there must be a sense of closure, as at the end of a phase. Harmonic rhythm plays an important parts in determine where a cadence occurs in music and those things that produce a feeling of cadence in music are discuss below.
In most Western and Western-influenced music (including jazz and “world” music), harmony is by far the most important signal of cadence. One of the most fundamental “rules” of the major-minor harmony system is that music ends on the tonic. A tonal piece of music will almost certainly end on the tonic chord, although individual phrases or sections may end on a different chord (the dominant is a popular choice).
But a composer cannot just throw in a tonic chord and expect it to sound like an ending; the harmony must “lead up to” the ending and make it feel inevitable (just as a good story makes the ending feel inevitable, even if it’s a surprise). So the term cadence, in tonal music, usually refers to the “ending” chord plus the short chord progression that led up to it.
There are many different terms in use for the most common tonal cadences; you will find the most common terms below (Some Tonal Cadence Terms, as below). Some (but not all) modal music also use harmony to indicate cadence, but the cadences used can be quite different from those in tonal harmony.
In the major/minor tradition, the melody will normally end on some note of the tonic chord triad, and a melody ending on the tonic will give a stronger (more final-sounding) cadence than one ending on the third or fifth of the chord. In some modal music, the melody plays the most important role in the cadence. Like a scale, each mode also has a home note, where the melody is expected to end. A mode often also has a formula that the melody usually uses to arrive at the ending note.
For example, it may be typical of one mode to go to the final note from the note one whole tone below it; whereas in another mode the penultimate note may be a minor third above the final note. (Or a mode may have more than one possible melodic cadence, or its typical cadence may be more complex.)
Changes in the rhythm, a break or pause in the rhythm, a change in the tempo, or a slowing of or pause in the harmonic rhythm are also commonly found at a cadence.
Changes in the texture of the music also often accompany a cadence. For example, the music may momentarily switch from harmony to unison or from counterpoint to a simpler block-chord homophony.
Since cadences mark of phrases and sections, form and cadence are very closely connected, and the overall architecture of a piece of music will often indicate where the next cadence is going to be – every eight measures for a certain type of dance, for example. (When you listen to a piece of music, you actually expect and listen for these regularly-spaced cadences, at least subconsciously. An accomplished composer may “tease” you by seeming to lead to a cadence in the expected place, but then doing something unexpected instead.)
Thus, a cadence is a harmonic or melodic configuration that is able to create a sense of finality, resolution, or pause.
A rhythmic cadence is a specific pattern which indicates the end of a musical phrase, while a harmonic cadence is a progression of 2+ chords which can conclude a phrase, a section, or be the conclusion of the composition.
Using certain rhythms or harmonic configurations does not necessarily mean that a cadence is being used. There must be a sense of closure included with the composition for a cadence to be present. The strength of that closure helps to determine whether or not the cadence is strong or weak, while providing sense of tone and pitch for the entire composition.
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