What is a Cadence in Music Theory


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.

What Are the Different Cadences in Music Theory?

There are a number of different cadences in music theory that are used in common practice. They are divided into four types and are based on their harmonic progression.

  • Authentic Cadence. The chords of this cadence are generally in a root position. A seventh may be added above the root with a progression from the fifth to the first in major keys, or V to I in the minor keys. This is one of the strongest cadence types that is available under common practice tonality.
  • Half Cadence. This cadence ends on the fifth and can be proceeded by any other chord. This causes the musical composition to sound somewhat incomplete, which suspends the piece in the mind of the listener. Variations of this cadence may raise the chording by a half-step, creation semitonal motion within the bass, or offer parallel fourths between the upper voices.
  • Plagal Full Cadence. This cadence is very common in hymnals, offered as the “Amen” portion of the ending in a song. It is usually expressed as V-I-V, but it can also be expressed as I-IV-I. It can be used as a major cadence, a minor cadence, or a combination of both.
  • Deceptive Cadence. This type of cadence is interrupted, creating an irregular resolution to the composition. It offers a suspended feeling to the listener, often repeating chord progressions in such a way that a conclusion is expected, but never comes. It could be said that a composer using this cadence will “sidestep” to a different key in order to bring the composition to a conclusion.

As part of the plagal cadence, there is also a half cadence that can be included within a composition. This rare cadence involves a I-IV progression. It also involves a descending fifth or ascending fourth and is usually used to complete a phrase if it is included with a composition.

Variations of the Cadence in Music Theory

There are other cadence opportunities that can be used in music theory in addition to the four common types. An inverted cadence will follow one of the 4 common types, but invert the last chord of the composition. An upper leading-tone cadence utilizes a trill throughout the key to place an emphasis on the whole tone to draw out an authentic cadence conclusion.

Different types of music may also feature their own cadence variation. Jazz offers what is called a “turnaround,” which bring the chord progressions back to resolve the tonic. Half-step cadences are also common in jazz, using the seventh chord, so that there is momentum between two common tones.

Music from the Renaissance uses its own type of cadence as well. Referred to as the Picardy cadence, it is a harmonic device that uses a major chord from the tonic at the end of a musical section. It will either be in a minor key or a modal.

Rhythmic Cadence and Music Theory

A cadence can also be classified by its rhythm in music theory. Many rhythmic cadences are metrically accented, making them stronger and more significant to the composition. This means the cadence would occur on the downbeat of the measure.

Rhythmic cadences follow the same common types of the harmonic cadences, but do so through different actions.

A transient rhythmic cadence will create a pause within the composition. It is a message to the listener that the piece will continue on. A terminal rhythmic cadence is more definitive, indicating that a phrase, section, or composition has finished. Transient cadences are usually a half cadence, while the terminal cadence is usually a perfect or a plagal cadence.

In music theory, think of the cadence like the punctuation of a sentence. If you need to pause, you’d use a comma – so in music, you’d use a half cadence. When you can learn this language, it becomes much easier to create your own compositions or recognize the work of the composer.