Cadences (the magic of V I)

Français : Deux cadences imparfaites - image p...

Français : Deux cadences imparfaites – image personnelle sous GPL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If notes are the building blocks of music, cadences are the walls. A cadence is usually used in conjunction with lyrical phrases. In this example, right at the beginning (before the vocals even come in) we have what is called a perfect authentic cadence. Basically what that means is the phrase by itself resolves and could stand alone as a ‘mini song.’ Every 8 bar phrase in this song is either a perfect authentic cadence (PAC) half cadence (HC) or inauthentic cadence (IAC). these are the only 3 types of cadences you will find in all classical music up to the modern era, and of course almost all modern pop songs.

After the instrumental introduction, the choir line repeats what the orchestra just played, a PAC (5 hallelujahs). The next 8 bar phrase is modulated up a few steps, and at the end of the next 5 hallelujahs, this is a perfect example of a HC. If you take that phrase out of the song by itself, it doesn’t sound like it’s done, it doesn’t resolve right. Even with no music theory knowledge our brain knows this based on what they have heard before in music. There isn’t much else to say about this piece for what I am going to cover today, Handel plays around with PAC, HC, switching up the order in which they occur, until one final grandiose PAC at the end of the piece. Sweet resolution.

How did your brain know the difference between PAC and HC without knowing what they meant previously? It’s simple math actually. To form any cadence, you start on the root of the key you are in. For instance if you are in C major, you start on C, if you are in G minor you start on G. It’s the first note of the scale you are using for the song. Then you have some freedom in between the beginning until right before the end. The notes in between aren’t that important, the important part is how you resolve at the end of the phrase. For a PAC, the resolution is always V I, or the 5th note in the scale back to the first again. A HC sounds like the 3rd phrase of the Handel piece, it doesn’t resolve back to the first note of the scale, instead it resolves on the V. It is impossible to end a song on a HC, hence half-cadence. It just doesn’t sound right. Once you hear the first note of the song you know it has to end on that same note. That’s how cadences work. Time for some examples

After an introduction that goes on for a while, we hear JT’s lady killing voice come in at :44. He says, “I can’t wait till I get’chu on the floor good lookin.” Based on what your brain knows, the root note has been established in your head. Did  this phrase end on that note? It should sound like this isn’t quite the resolution, therefore this is a HC. “Goin on so hot just like an oven” again, it hasn’t quite resolved yet, another HC. Come on JT let’s see that music theory in action! “…but its so fine” Ahhh that V I in action. It’s so sweet. He really had us hanging there with not 1, not 2, but 3 HC before finally resolving on a PAC.

Lets skip ahead to 1:21 for redundancies sake. “As long as i got my suit and tie…let me show you a few THINGS” a PAC. The chorus then repeats the PAC with different words, well done JT I knew you wouldn’t leave us hanging.

Whew. I don’t know about you but Justin Timberlake is always hot.

Now that you see how cadences work, it’s time to show you why all songs have become 4 chord songs.

If you don’t know every word to this song, you will one day when you go to college. It’s so catchy, easy to remember, easy to feel. With our newfound knowledge of cadences we can figure out why.

Ignore the melody and the singing for now. Listen to the background chords. what do you hear? One note per measure for 4 measures, repeated over and over again. The same 4 notes. The scale used is irrelevant; the steps are what our brain associates with resolving chords. The steps here are I V mVI IV. Apply it to any scale, repeat, add in emotional lyrics about love, proceed to make millions of dollars.

No, but really

What kind of cadence is this? You lied to me, you said all PAC are V I not IV I! What is this strange new cadence that all of these songs are using?

At last we get to the last type of cadence I haven’t talked about yet the Inauthentic Cadence. The reason that this cadence is used in nearly every pop song post 1990, is that it can be looped back upon itself over and over. It doesn’t quite resolve, but it doesn’t leave as much to be desired as a HC.

Sure its a funny video, but seriously hundreds of artists get away with using only one single cadence per song repeated over and over until the end. Its almost magical how perfect this cadence is, it’s so GOOD. Right?

I can’t be the only one who thinks this is lazy song writing that anyone with a keyboard and a computer could make in a few hours. The only actual decision you need to make is what words come next.

That is more 90’s-00’s, there is a new type of cadence in town being used in pop music. let’s take a look at it.

The verse is the part to notice, the chorus follows the 4 chords guide above (facepalm)

Again the verse, the chorus demonstrates a  different 4 chord structure while still an IAC

That’s right, the new cadence that is all the rage is I I I I. I mean who needs notes anyway? lets just pick a note and some cool beat above it and repeat it for the whole song. That way we can make a song in  1/4th the time it would take to make a 4 chord song! People only care about the lyrics these days anyway nobody will notice that we are slowly sucking any music theory that is left out of the industry. Plus its only 99 cents! (well, now its 1.29 on itunes)

Please don’t give these people your money. Don’t reward lazy songwriting and over-production. There is more to music then a beat and words. I know it’s hard because it’s catchy, it’s easy to dance to, but I for one will not stand in silence as the recording industry destroys the theory that classical composers have established for the last 3 centuries.
In my next post I will talk about album song order, the good the bad and the cliché.

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2 thoughts on “Cadences (the magic of V I)

  1. Hate to break it to you, but a single-chord song structure is nothing new. See:


    (Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”, 1972, chorus and verse [but not the bridge])


    (Steve Miller Band, “Fly Like an Eagle”, 1976, entire song)

    Also, the blues is just about the laziest (OK, maybe second-laziest) song writing scheme there is, and that’s been in heavy use since the late 19th century.

    The way I see it, every generation has a wide spectrum of songwriters, from avant-garde artists living on the edge to wildly popular but unoriginal entertainers.

    • in “pop music” is what this timeline is based on. Single chord songs have been around since the classical era, in fact the earliest documented music (mongolian chants) are almost always a single chord.

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