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 Cadences: Understanding and Application


From the beginning of our musical training we learned about melody, rhythm, and harmony. We learned that melody is the important line that must always be in the foreground. We were taught that the rhythm creates the sense of strong and weak beats and organized the duration of sound and silence. As we grew in our musical comprehension, we moved to harmony where we began to understand the layers of music supporting the melody, often in terms of the type of harmonic progressions and cadences that gave breadth and depth to the melodic intent. The definition of cadence comes from the Latin word cadentia meaning “a falling” or “sense of resolution.” We will further interpret this as meaning a “sense of arrival” and apply it to each of the three important musical notions of melody, rhythm, and harmony, each being a derivative type of cadence.

The most effective way of understanding music and the roles of each note, line, or part at any given moment is to understand the relationship between these three types of cadences. This awareness creates greater emotional context within the music, leading to passionate and evocative performances. Far too many musicians start and end their understanding of a work of music by simply doing a phrasal analysis based on the melody or harmony or simply follow the dynamics printed on the page. This becomes obvious when musicians miss the opportunity to lead the listener past the end of a melody that continues to be “driven” or supported by an incomplete rhythmic or harmonic cadence. Further, when the composer completes a melody on beats one or two and the rhythm cadences on beat one, this has a completely different musical effect than if the composer had rhythmically cadenced on beat three. Adding the arrival point and/or sustaining the length of the sounds of the harmonic cadence brings yet another beautiful complexity to consider that will completely change the interpretation.  


Every melody has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Understanding this simple notion can lead to a more sensitive interpretation of the music and ease of unifying the musicians’ approach to performing it. Melodic cadences generally include a long note at least once somewhere near the middle of the melody (sometimes more) and a long note at the end. The melodic cadence generally concludes over two or three beats. Understanding that a melody does not always end at the arrival beat but, instead, may end at the silence following the last beat of a longer note can change the emotion of the music. For example, sing Mary Had a Little Lamb or This Old Man. You will find that if you think of Mary in cut time, you have three options. The first two options are either to emphasize beat one or beat two at the end of the melody. The third option is to slow the tempo of the tune (now in four) and sustain the tension through to the beat following the last note. All three are acceptable, but your choice will change the feeling or emotional outcome of the music. In This Old Man, you will notice that you could arrive on beat one of the final melody note or you could extend it a full bar to the downbeat of the measure following, again changing the emotional outcome.


Rhythmic cadences are generally a combination of long and short emphasized beats, usually ending on a single beat. The timing of these is not always aligned with the other two types of cadences. In fact, the less they are aligned, the more compelling and complex the music becomes. Understanding when the rhythmic cadence concludes or does not conclude is critical to its use as the “engine” that drives the music forward to its logical and beautiful conclusion.

You are encouraged to think of simple tunes and sing the rhythm without the melody. You will notice that on occasion the rhythm arrives on beat one and at other times it arrives on beat two, three, or later. In some instances, it may not arrive at all and, instead, it will keep going. One example we like is the rhythm of “shave and a haircut—two bits.” If you add the melody, it almost compels you to end the rhythm on “two bits.”  However, take away the melody and you can either end it or repeat it. The latter could be part of a more complex melody, pushing the entire musical phrase forward without stopping until ending emphatically on the “two bits” rhythm at some point.

Or perhaps a rhythmic cadence will morph into another rhythm. Another example can be found in Gustav Holst’s First Suite in Eb.  In the Intermezzo movement, Holst maintains a steady driving rhythm that does not cadence at the end of melodies. In this fashion, he does not let the listener relax at the end of either the antecedent of the consequent phrases until much farther along in the work. You need not agree and might think otherwise. The point is that identifying melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic cadences and relating them to the interpretation will significantly change the emotional intent and outcome of the performance.


As we know, harmonic cadences often develop over a longer period (IV, V, I) and can either offer the greatest sense of arrival and completion or suspend it; even the untrained musician understands that the music is not complete. We can be set up for surprise or allowed to find moments of repose. Also important to consider is how harmonic cadences can lead to transitional moments. These occur quite often when the bass voice sustains a pedal tone that establishes a new tonal centre or foreshadows a new musical or emotional idea. Another way this is typically accomplished is by suspending a note such as the fifth or the seventh. Another effective compositional technique is to either place the chord in an inversion or leave out an important chord tone altogether, such as the root of the third, thus creating a sense of incompletion for the listener.

A brilliant example of this notion is again found in Gustav Holst’s First Suite in Eb. Although the ending of the first movement (Chaconne) is melodically clear, the listener is left unsatisfied due to the lack of rhythmic and harmonic cadences. These do not arrive or resolve until the downbeat of the second movement (Intermezzo). This requires the conductor to make a choice about the length of the silence between the two movements. In effect, that silence becomes part of the rhythmic cadence, and harmony is completed upon arrival of beat one of the new movement. This cadential understanding completely changes the emotional expression of the work.

Full and Partial Cadences

The notion of partial and full cadence points will now be introduced. When the melody, rhythm, and harmony all cadence at the same time, the listener experiences a full arrival and resolution, thus calling this a full cadence.  When any one of the three cadences are incomplete or unresolved, it is considered to be a partial cadence point. This is important because teaching students how to identify these cadence points will change the way they approach their performance. The key to stronger interpretation of the music lies in determining what the accompanying members of the ensemble are doing to support the element that has fully cadenced (often the melody).

The easiest way to use this cadence point information starts with listening for and identifying the long notes of the melody. Once identified, listen (or look on the score) for what is happening below that long note. Generally, there is at least one longer note somewhere in the middle of a melody and one at the end. Of course, there can be (and are) more at times, so listen and look for those as well. Three things occur during the long note of a melody:

  1. Everyone has the same note length, either the same pitch or other pitches.

  2. Some have harmonic notes that move, such as two half notes during a whole note of melody or two quarter notes during a half note of melody.

  3. Some have moving notes (quarter notes, eighth notes, or sixteenth notes) during the long note of the melody.


The basic approach is to intensify to, through, and beyond these non-melodic notes. The effect is profound if it has not been occurring prior to this. It serves two purposes. The first is that everyone will learn to always listen for the melody and better support it.The second is that when a melody comes to a longer note, it can seem to pause, lose momentum, or increase momentum. In the middle of a phrase, we almost always want to increase momentum. Partial rhythmic and harmonic cadences that occur at a full melodic cadence point are critically important to the interpretation of the music. If they are not intensified then the music stalls. The audience (listener) will not know what happened or why they suddenly disengaged, but the music will lose momentum and be less satisfying when all three cadences finally do align.

Further, understanding how to identify these cadences, how they align, or better yet, do not align, and the composer’s general approach to these cadences and phrasing will help inform whether to select a piece of music. If students learn to identify cadences in this fashion, they will become better at identifying weak or less exciting music. The quickest way to identify a piece of music that is less interesting is to note whether all three cadences occur at the same time in a regular pattern such as every eight measures. The more often the cadences do not fully align, the more complex the music often becomes to the listener’s ear. The more creative the composer is about keeping the rhythm or harmony incomplete until a critical and beautiful moment, the better the music.    


In the final analysis, it is the relationship between the three cadences and the musician that creates the power of an emotional performance. These performances can leave us breathless and emotionally drained. Unfortunately all too often, audience members leave a performance unfulfilled. By understanding and applying the notions here, it is hoped you will get closer to more emotional and meaningful performances.

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