Music Lessons

Perfect cadence, plagal cadence and minor cadence

Italian flag
Leggi in Italiano

What is a cadence in music? In this lesson, you’ll find out what the three most important cadences are and where they are used: the perfect cadence, the plagal cadence and the minor cadence. We will also talk about a special type of cadence called a turn around.

In order to understand what a cadence is in music, we must first analyse how music works in general, particularly with regard to its main qualities: harmony, melody and rhythm.

The three components of music: melody, rhythm, harmony

Music consists of three basic elements: melody, harmony and rhythm. The melody is the singing part of a piece of music and is the first thing that strikes our ear. If a piece of music is catchy and effective, it is almost certainly due to the melody. Melodies are often composed using musical scales, or parts of them.

Rhythm is a little less obvious and is that part of music that makes us move our legs, it makes us dance. Rhythm depends on the alternation of short or long sounds and their subdivision into musical measures, e.g. there are simple and compound times.

Harmony is made up of several notes that sound at the same time and that have precise distances between them. The relationship that is created between these notes is called a chord. Harmony is therefore the most hidden part of a piece of music. To understand chords and recognise them, some musical knowledge is required.

The cadence in a piece of music: it’s there but not showing up

Using a metaphor, when we see a person we immediately notice their appearance, whether they smile or not, how they are dressed: the first thing we notice in music is the melody. We can then observe how this person moves, whether he runs or walks, or moves senselessly, going nowhere: this is the rhythm.

Finally, chords are the skeleton of a musical composition, they are indispensable but cannot be seen. Thanks to the skeleton, a person can stand and move, but to understand how it is made, one needs to have some knowledge of anatomy. Those who study harmony learn to go beyond the appearance of a piece of music by understanding the mechanisms that allow the skeleton (the chords) of a piece of music to function.

The most typical relationships between two chords are called cadences. Staying with the metaphor, cadences are the most important bones in our skeleton, the ones that support all the others. A cadence is the meeting of two chords, not just any two chords, but two chords that establish a specific relationship with each other. Let’s analyse this relationship and find out which chords form the perfect cadence, and which ones form a plagal cadence.

What is a musical cadence

The cadence in music is the succession of two chords which take on a different function within the piece. One of the two chords is more dissonant, creating tension and movement. This chord is called the dominant chord and is an unstable chord, which needs to be completed by a second chord, called the tonic chord, which resolves the tension and brings the piece back to a situation of calm and balance.

Dissonant chordConsonant chord
It is an unstable chord, which creates a dissonance and suggests that another chord will soon arrive. The tension chord is therefore a chord of movement. The most typical is the dominant chord, the one built on the 5th degree of the major scale.The tension chord is followed by a second, more stable chord, which resolves the previous tension. Unlike the previous one, this chord is more stable and conveys a sense of conclusion. The most typical is the tonic chord, built on the first degree of the major scale.

From this alternation of tense and quiet chords, music and harmony in particular comes to life. In addition to the tonic and dominant chords, which are found on the first and fifth degrees of the scale, other chords can also be part of a musical cadence. This is possible because chords that are neither the tonic nor the dominant take their place in the cadence, assuming their role.

So there are authentic tonic and dominant chords, the real ones, and other chords that take the tonic or dominant function. Understanding these mechanisms is very interesting for those who play a musical instrument, because it means learning to go beyond appearances and getting to know how music works.

We will now look specifically at the two most important cadences, the perfect cadence, which is the most common of all, and the plagal cadence, which is the main alternative.

The perfect cadence

The most common cadence is called a perfect cadence and employs the fifth-degree chord, called the dominant, and the first-degree chord, called the tonic. In the key of C Major, these two chords are G7 and C.

To hear what the perfect cadence sounds like, let’s use a classic Christmas carol, a tune we have all heard many times: Tu scendi dalle stelle (You come down from the stars).

The perfect cadence is highlighted in yellow in this sheet music
The perfect cadence is highlighted in yellow.

We observe that the piece alternates between the two chords of tonic and dominant. Where the dominant chord plays, the piece is more tense and unfinished, while when the dominant gives way to the tonic, at the end of the second and third lines, the dissonance is resolved. At those points, the musical phrases find fulfilment, and we experience a kind of relaxation.

What moves the piece in particular is the transition from the dominant chord to the tonic, that exact point at which the tension is released. The cadence is in fact intended to create expectation, suspension, and then to resolve it.

In some cases the composer plays with the listener’s expectations, not resolving the tension, or only doing so at the end of the piece. In this case, however, the chords of the piece are very simple and reassuring: every time we have a dominant G7 chord, it is followed by the tonic C chord.

Let’s listen to the performance of these few lines on the piano. I will deliberately stress the points of transition from the dominant to the tonic, which we have called the perfect cadence.

Composed cadence II V I

When the dominant chord is preceded by a chord built on the second or fourth degree, we speak of a compound cadence. The compound cadence therefore comes in these two forms:

II V I, e.g. Dm7G7 C

IV V I, e.g. F G7 C

We can see that within both sequences the V I movement is still present, the V chord is however preceded by a subdominant chord.

We can in fact classify the chords of the scale according to the function they most often occupy within the cadences, as follows:

  • Tonic function (I, III, VI degree)
  • Dominant function (5th, 7th degree)
  • Subdominant function (II, IV degree)

The “Turn Around” progression

If we expand the compound cadence further, we obtain a succession of four chords, called turn around. This is therefore a II V I cadence to which the VI degree is also added. The sequence thus becomes:

the “turn around” progression

If we make this sequence in the key of C major, the chords are as follows:

Turn around in C key

In the turn around these chords are repeated the same several times, so the last chord G7 always resolves on the first degree C, forming a perfect cadence V I.

This chord sequence is also known in Italy as “a barber’s chords”. This humorous definition underlines the ease with which these four chords can be played, with them a very large number of songs can be played.

The plagal cadence

The plagal cadence consists of the movement IV I, or subdominant – tonic. In the key of C major the chords will be F and C.

Compared to the perfect cadence we notice a difference: in the plagal cadence the fourth degree (subdominant) has taken the place of the fifth (dominant). The plagal cadence IV I is less conclusive than the perfect cadence V I. Let us analyse a second Christmas carol: Stille Nacht.

Perfect cadence is highlighted in yellow, plagal cadence is highlighted in pink
Perfect cadence is highlighted in yellow, plagal cadence is highlighted in pink

We observe that the first line ends with the movement V I, a perfect cadence. In the second line, twice we have instead the plagal cadence IV I, in this case with the chords F and C. In the third line we have again the perfect cadence, twice.

The piece in its simplicity shows us very well the difference between the two cadences, and how a composer can use them. The perfect cadence is stronger and is therefore used both at the beginning of the piece and at the end. The plagal cadence, on the other hand, is softer, more delicate, less resolutive. It is used in the middle of the piece, to create a variation on the perfect cadence heard at the beginning.

Let’s listen to the piano performance of Stille Nacht, again I will emphasise the cadences.

Another well-known example of plagal cadence is found in the first part of John Lennon’s song Imagine.

Altre forme di cadenza plagale, backdoor cadence and Ellington cadence

In jazz music, the plagal cadence often takes a form quite unusual in other musical genres, that is, IVm7 ♭VII7 Imaj7. This cadence is called the backdoor cadence and a very clear example can be found on Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird, where it appears in the first measures.

Why call a sequence like Fm7 B♭7 Cmaj7 a plagal cadence, even though it seems so different from F C, the simplest plagal cadence? Here are the various steps:

IVm6 IFm6 C
IVm7 IFm7 C
IVm7 ♭VII7 IFm7 Bb7 C
Plagal cadence, in various forms

The first three examples are cases of a typical plagal cadence, where the fourth degree resolves to the first. In the last case, that we called a backdoor cadence, the IV is replaced by ♭VII7. We note that Bb7 has as many as three notes out of four in common with Fm6, which is why the movement Bb7 C is considered an equivalent of IVm6 I, thus another type of plagal cadence.

The Ellington cadence ♭VI-I

A movement somewhat similar to the plagal cadence is the ♭VI – I cadence, sometimes called the epic cadence or Ellington cadence because it was used extensively by Duke Ellington. In the key of C major, the Ellington cadence is formed by the chords of A♭ and C.

With a little imagination, we can consider this cadence an even more distant variant of the plagal cadence. If, for example, we were to play the ♭VI chord as a sixth chord, ♭VI6 I would be very similar (except for the bass note) to IVm7 I, i.e.

A♭6 C is very similar to Fm7 C

In fact, the chords of A♭6 and Fm7 are composed of exactly the same notes: A♭ C E♭ F. However, it must be said that in the cadence ♭VI I, it is easier to find the chord of ♭VI in the form of a maj7 (in this case, A♭ C E♭ G). We should note that A♭maj7 and C have two notes in common: C and G.

Duke Ellington often used this cadence for song endings in his arrangements. In his compositions we most often find the formula ♭VI-V-I. This is the case, for example, in Mood Indigo (G♭7 F7 B♭), Caravan (D♭7 C7 Fm), Isfahan (Amaj7 A♭7 D♭maj7), Sophisticated Lady (G♭7 F7 E7 E♭7 A♭maj7).

If you would like to learn more about these concepts, you may be interested in the Harmony video course, a three-level course consisting of video lessons, exercises and downloadable PDF materials.

What the perfect cadence and the plagal cadence have in common

The perfect cadence and the plagal cadence are just two of the many well-known and used cadences. However, they have allowed us to explore the mechanism underlying all cadences: the alternation of dissonant chords, which create tension, and consonant chords, which resolve this tension.

In predictable and elementary pieces such as these Christmas carols, it is easy to identify perfect cadence and plagal cadence, yet these two cadences can be found in almost every piece of music.

Both cadences end on the tonic chord. Thus they have in common the resolution of tension, which occurs precisely in passing from V to I (perfect cadence) or from IV to I (plagal cadence).

Deceptive cadence, suspended cadence, imperfect cadence and Neapolitan cadence

The two most commonly used cadences are certainly the perfect cadence, with its variants compound cadence and turnaround, and the plagal cadence in all its forms.

However, there are other types of cadence, namely: deceptive cadence, imperfect cadence, suspended cadence and Neapolitan cadence.

Deceptive cadence

In the deceptive cadence, the dominant does not resolve on the first degree but on the sixth. For example, in the key of C major, the deceptive cadence is formed by the chords G7 Am (V VI).

This is what happens in the first verse of The Police’s Every Breath You Take, for example, where the V degree D resolves to the VI Em. Here is the chord sequence:

| G | Em | C D | Em |

Remember that the I, III and VI degree chords belong to the tonic area, which is why the VI degree Am chord can take the place of the tonic chord in the cadence.

Imperfect cadence

An imperfect cadence occurs when the 5th degree resolves on the first inversion of the 1st degree. For example, an imperfect cadence occurs if in the key of C major the 5th degree G7 resolves on C/E.

By extension, in pop/jazz music we speak of an imperfect cadence even when the fifth degree resolves on the third, e.g. G7 Em. This is what happens for example in the fifth measure of Sapore di Sale, a well-known Italian song from the 1960s. Here is the chord progression.

G7 Em is an example of the imperfect cadence

Suspended cadence

The suspended cadence is nothing more than a reversed perfect cadence. First the tonic chord plays, then the dominant chord follows, without resolving. In the key of C major, the suspended cadence is therefore formed by the chords C and G7.

To give an example, the suspended cadence is the one played when the acrobat is about to jump from the trampoline, at the circus, and you want to create tension and expectation. Hardly a cadence remains “suspended” forever, sooner or later the tonic chord almost always arrives to resolve the dissonance.

Neapolitan cadence

The Neapolitan cadence, or Neapolitan sixth chord, is typical of the minor mode and occurs when the chord built on the second minor degree resolves on the first degree. For example, in the key of C minor, the Neapolitan sixth chord is D♭ that resolves to Cm.

This chord is called a sixth chord because it is normally played in the position of first inversion, i.e. D♭/F. In classical music, where this cadence is more frequent than in jazz, chords are numbered with intervals and not with classical chord symbols. Among classical composers, Beethoven made extensive use of the Neapolitan cadence.

Overview and examples of all cadences

Below you can see a diagram of all the cadences, with examples in the key of C major and C minor.

The complete chart of major and minor cadences
The complete chart of major and minor cadences

To download the complete scheme in .pdf format click on this link.

In-depth study 1. Study guide for perfect cadence II V I

If you play a harmonic instrument or study jazz improvisation, you will often come across the perfect II V I cadence in your exercises or playing jazz tunes. From the very first steps, it is important to learn how to play it in the twelve keys, so here are some tips and exercises.

In this case, the dominant chord is preceded by a subdominant chord, i.e. an intermediate chord that serves to prepare the dominant chord. We have said that this succession of chords is also known as a compound cadence.

Why should you study the II V I progression?

Knowing how to play the II V I cadence chords in all keys is a good start for learning to play many songs, in any key.

The II V I cadence is particularly important for those who want to play jazz. In fact, many jazz pieces are built primarily on the perfect cadence. For example, this is the case with Jerome Kern’s great classic, All the Things You Are, but also with John Coltrane’s more modern and difficult Giant Steps.

Some exercises on the compound cadence II V I

I have created twelve progressions containing the II V I cadence in all twelve keys, arranging the keys differently each time. Start practising by reading the diagram, but try to abandon it as soon as possible by learning to play each progression by heart.

Progressions 1-11 are symmetrical (with a few adjustments to cover all twelve keys), while number 12 is asymmetrical.

The twelve progressions scheme

  1. Descending minor second (semitone)
  2. Aascending minor second
  3. Descending major second (tone)
  4. Ascending major second
  5. Descending minor third
  6. Ascending minor third
  7. Descending major third
  8. Ascending major third
  9. Descending perfect fifth (or ascending perfect fourth)
  10. Ascending perfect fifth (or descending perfect fourth)
  11. Ascending tritone plus descending fourth (or descending tritone plus ascending fifth)
  12. Free series of intervals, with prevalence of ascending thirds and descending minor seconds

Here are some of the progressions listed above (click on the image to zoom).

download the .pdf with the twelve II V I cadence progressions

Let us now look at another type of cadence and all its variations: the minor cadence.

In-depth study 1. The minor cadence

The minor cadence is much more varied than the major one, because the minor mode can use different scales and therefore offers a wider choice of chords. In fact, it is common to switch freely between natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales, without compromising the solidity and clarity of the harmonic progression.

Minor cadence derived from the harmonic minor scale

The most typical minor cadence uses chords derived from the harmonic minor scale.

  • The first degree is played as a triad (Am): Bm7(♭5) E7(♭9) Am
  • Or as a seventh chord (mMaj7): Bm7(♭5) E7(♭9) AmMaj7

Hybrid cadence

The 1st degree harmonised minor chord/major seventh is dissonant, if we want a less tense sound we can use (Am6) instead of (AmMaj7). The resulting cadence is therefore: Bm7(♭5) E7(♭9) Am6

This cadence is hybrid because the first and second chords are derived from the harmonic minor scale, while (Am6) is derived from the melodic minor scale (which has the F♯). The scheme of the resulting cadence in the twelve keys follows.

the scheme of the cadence II V I minor in twelve keys

download the .pdf with the minor cadence in twelve keys

Minor cadence, a few examples

Let’s now take a look at some examples of minor cadences, these progressions use chords from the natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales, alternating them in a free and varied way.

Alone Together (Shwartz, Dietz)

two chords derived from the melodic minor scale

In this 1930s jazz piece, the first and second chords, Dm6 and Bm7b5, are derived from the melodic minor scale. We notice this because both chords have a B natural in them. The third and fourth chords, Em7b5 and A7b9, derive from the harmonic minor scale. We can tell because they both use the note B flat.

Sunny (Bobby Hebb)

Sunny - some chords are derived from the natural minor scale
In Sunny some chords are derived from the natural minor scale

This classic 60s pop/soul song uses two chords from the natural minor scale, Cm7 and A♭Maj7. Sunny does not therefore use a tonic chord taken from the harmonic minor scale.

Angel Eyes (Matt Dennis)

Angel Eyes, Matt Dennis. An example on the minor cadence

This piece is particularly interesting, because the minor cadence appears in several forms:

  • measure 1, the D7 chord is a secondary dominant (V/V) that resolves on G7
  • measure 2, A♭7 is a dominant that does not resolve. The lowered sixth degree (A♭) is found in natural and harmonic minor scales, in this case it can also be interpreted as a tritone substitution of the D7 chord (subV/V)
  • measure 3, Am7(♭5) comes from the melodic minor scale
  • measure 6-7, we see a series of dominants that resolve one on top of the other: A7, A♭7, G7 (again with the tritone substitution procedure)

Hit the Road Jack (Ray Charles)

Hit the Road Jack, a soul song with the minor cadence

We now see one last example of the minor cadence. The progression used by Hit the Road Jack is also known as a descending tetrachord and is used in many songs, including Song For My Father (Horace Silver) and Minnie the Moocher (Cab Calloway). The F7 chord is derived from the natural minor scale, while E♭7 is a secondary dominant (subV/V) resolving to D7.

Also for the minor cadence, a systematic study in all twelve keys is highly recommended (indispensable!), in order to accustom your ear to the sound of the cadence and learn to use it in a fluid and spontaneous way, in both accompaniment and improvisation.

Final thoughts: knowing cadences to understand music

Understanding and recognising the different types of cadence is very important for those who play an instrument. Recognising a cadence within a piece of music allows you to learn to play it much faster, to remember it and to transport it to another key if necessary.

I recommend that you study cadences on all scales, major and minor, in this order: perfect cadence, plagal cadence, minor cadence and then the others. It’s a job that may take a few months, but it will definitely make you a better, more prepared and capable musician. If you want to ask me a question or write your opinion about the lesson, you can do so in the comments below. Thank you!

Do you want to receive my free lessons?

Sheet music, harmony lessons, music theory and musical analysis.

Help me to spread the love for music