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The Basic Guide To The Plagal Cadence In Music


Plagal Cadence

Plagal cadence is one of the types of cadences we have in music. And it is one of the complete ending cadences we have in music. 

We already discussed it briefly in types of cadences in the music post. But now, we will discuss plagal cadence in more detail.

So let us quickly remind ourselves that plagal cadence is used to establish a sense of end at the end of a musical phrase.

However, the end result of a plagal cadence is completely resolved.  This means with plagal cadence, the phrase is totally ended without giving any hint of continuation.

This looks similar to a perfect authentic cadence which also ends a musical phrase completely without requesting a continuation.

In one of our posts, we have already discussed what we know as the perfect cadence. So, if you have not seen it yet, you may just want to look at that one before you come back for plagal cadence.

Both perfect and plagal cadence sound similar because both of them end on a tonic chord. However, the plagal cadence sounds a little bit softer compared to a full rounded perfect cadence.

In this plagal cadence article, we will look deeper into what is plagal cadence in music theory. 

Along with plagal cadence definitions, we will also discuss the types of the last two chords it used to create a conclusive sense of ending.

Also, for a better understanding of this type of cadence, we will use different examples in our article.

What Is The Cadence In Music?

Cadence In Music

Absolutely, in our main post about cadence, we have already discussed what is a cadence in music theory earlier.  So before we go properly into a plagal cadence, let us remind ourselves what is cadence in music.

In a simple term, cadence is used in music to satisfactorily end the piece or a phrase of music. In order words, a cadence is a conclusive resolution used to signify that the piece has come to an end.

A cadence utilized a combination of chords to bring a phrase, section, movement, or the entire piece of music to an end. Majorly, it used the last two chords that end a phrase in music.

And we have different types of cadences in music. But basically, we have four types that are commonly used in music.

What Are The Four Types Of Cadences?

The four different types of cadences we have in Western harmonic music are:

1.    The Authentic Cadence.

2.    The Half Cadence.

3.    The Plagal Cadence.

4.    The Deceptive Cadence.

Cadence is what composers use in their composition to ensure that the final endings of their phrases sound absolutely right. 

Of course, cadence has a substantial role in ending a musical composition or phrases that form the whole composition.

There are different ways a proper final ending of a piece, section, or phrase can be achieved with cadence. One of the most common ways to properly end a phrase or piece with cadences is using a plagal cadence.

What Is A Plagal Cadence?

Plagal Cadence

Basically, a plagal cadence is a cadence that is made up of a harmonic progression from a subdominant chord to a tonic chord. 

It still poses a satisfactory ending progression just like a perfect authentic cadence but with a slightly weaker close.

So just like a perfect cadence, a plagal cadence is a way of finishing a musical phrase or section in a nice rounded complete way. The only difference we have is the chord we used to create a plagal cadence.

In a perfect cadence, we have a movement from the dominant chord (V) to tonic chord (I). On the other hand, we have a movement from a subdominant chord (IV) to a tonic chord (I) in plagal cadence.

Specifically, this chord IV to I progression at the end of a phrase is called a plagal cadence. For instance, the plagal cadence in the key of C looks like what we have in the diagram above.

Although plagal cadence is an effective cadence, it is not as strong as the perfect cadence with V to I progression. 

Also, as a result of IV to I chord progression, a plagal cadence has a slightly different sound compared to a perfect authentic cadence sound.

Obviously, plagal cadence is a slightly less strong (or a bit softer) close and it is used in certain types of music. For that reason, we might want to use it in the middle of a composition or melody and save the stronger perfect cadence for the big ending.

Plagal Cadence As Amen Cadence

There is no special type of cadence that is “Amen Cadence”. Technically, plagal cadence is what people sometimes call an Amen Cadence.  

The reason is that the plagal cadence is frequently used for the “Amen” ending of the hymns. Hymns are a special type of music that is mostly sung in churches and it normally ends with Amen.

Notwithstanding, we should know that we can sing Amen to any two notes or any two chords. So calling plagal cadence and amen cadence is not the best way of sorting what it is out.

But if we focus on how to write a plagal cadence, we cannot go too far wrong. This comes down to notes or chords we need to create the plagal cadence.

Specifically, it is always/and consists of subdominant to tonic chords (chord IV to chord I). As you can see from the Amen chord above, it is regular chord IV to chord I that defines the plagal cadence.

Why Plagal Cadence Is Used For Hymns Amen?

Note that a plagal cadence is another final cadence and will also sound finished if used at the end of a composition. So it absolutely sounds finished with Amen to end the hymn as well.

Besides, what actually makes it suitable for the Amen ending of the hymn is its smooth and weaker ending. So, the plagal cadence is often used at the end of the hymn for “Amen” to give it a nice, pleasant, and soft close.

You can listen to the hymn ending above to have the feel of the plagal cadence for the Amen part. The chord is nothing but a movement from chord IV toward Chord I.

It is very clear that plagal cadence adds a different element to the end of a piece of music. The same way it did for the Hymns Amen. Obviously, it gives a certain stateliness that you don’t get with perfect cadence or five to seven/one cadences.

Chord V and Chord I for plagal Cadence

Chord four (V) is technically known as the Subdominant chord in music. Also, chord one (I) is technically called a tonic chord in music.

This note of chord IV followed by a chord I can be found with a simple theoretical process. For a typical example, let us find it in a key of C Major.

For the scale of C Major, we have C-D-E-F-G-A-B and C’ for an octave. As we can see, C is the name of the first note in the scale of C Major.

Now let us count from the first note which is C to the right, and stop at F.  Thus, we have C as the first (I) note, then we got D (II) and E (III), and then we got F as the fourth (IV) note. So F is the fourth (IV) note in the scale of C Major.

The next thing is to form the triad chord with the first note and fourth note which are C and F respectively.

Chord I (Tonic Chord) of The Scale

So we form a triad with C which is the first note in the scale of C Major. This is done by finding the note that is three and five above C on the scale of C Major.

Counting from C, E is the third note above C and G is the fifth note above it. So we have C-E-G as a chord I in C Major and it is a chord of C. It is sometimes called a tonic chord. So there we are, that is chord I.

Chord IV (Subdominant Chord) of The Scale

To find the triad of chord IV, we will follow the same step above. Remember F is the fourth note of the C Major scale. So to form the triad of F we find the third and the fifth notes above it.

Counting from F, the A and C are the third and fifth notes above F in the scale. So F-A-C gives us the notes we need for chord IV in C major.

So we have two important chords for plagal cadence which are chord IV and chord I. The two chords are the recipe for a plagal cadence. I got plagal cadence with a chord (IV) followed by chord (I), at the end of a phrase in music.

We can use the two chords in different inversions to create plagal cadences. In fact, the possibilities are endless as long as we are using those notes that belong to chord IV followed by the notes that belong to chord I.

Plagal Cadence Example

Basic Guide To The Plagal Cadence In Music Theory

Specifically, plagal cadence is made up of chord IV – I progression in the major key. Also, it consists of the chord iv– i progression in the minor key.

Therefore, in order to use a plagal cadence, we have to use chord IV followed by a chord I. That is a subdominant chord followed by a tonic chord.

For instance, let us assume we are in the key of E-flat Major as shown in the diagram above. We would make a plagal cadence on this key with chord movement from A-flat Major to E-flat Major at the end of a phrase.

Simply because an A-flat is chord four (V) in the key of E-flat and obviously E-flat is the tonic chord (I) on the same key.

Final Thought

Hopefully, this little write-up about plagal cadence will help you understand what plagal cadence is in music theory.

And also give you a clue to identify, create and properly use a plagal cadence (PC) in music.

However, if you have any questions, please feel free to share them in the comment session below.

At Phamox Music, we go all out for exactness and honesty. For this purpose, if by any means you found any possible glitch, be it factual, editorial or something that we need to update, kindly contact us.


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