How to Understand and Use Chord Cadence in Songwriting
Have you ever been writing a song and gotten frustrated about transitions between sections?
Have you been writing chord progressions and the last chord just doesn’t lead back to the first chord the way you wish it did?
Allow me to introduce you to Chord Cadences in songwriting. This can solve many of your troubles.
For this post it helps to be familiar with Chord Function so if you need a refresher check out this blog post Chord Function: The Compass to Flowing Chord Progressions.
What is a Chord Cadence?
In music theory, Chord Cadence usually refers to the last two chords in a chord progression and how they flow from one to the other to create a sense of resolution or lack thereof.
I think of Chord Cadences as the sounds of resolution in a chord progression but I also like to keep in mind the sounds of resolution from one song section to the next as well. Really all kinds of resolutions everywhere, not just in the end of the song.
There are different types of cadences. Some chord cadences feel finished and some unfinished (or open ended). It’s a bit like the difference between a comma and a period in a sentence.
A sentence with a comma feels unfinished if you don’t complete the sentence.
A sentence with a period feels like it has been finished.
In this same way, certain Chord Cadences can make a chord progression sound finished or unfinished.
This is useful because as a songwriter, you might want the chord progression to sound unfinished at the end of your song. For example if you are writing a song for an album and you want to leave the audience feeling like the song and its message are leaving you hanging on purpose, like a cliffhanger.
Types of Chord Cadences
As mentioned above, there are two types of Chord Cadences, finished and unfinished.
Finished Chord Cadences
We call it a finished cadence when we have a resolution to the first Tonic chord of the key.
That’s because that Tonic chord gives the strongest feeling of resolution. It’s the Home chord, the chord that feels like you finally arrived back home.
Here’s where we lean a bit on Chord Function. There are two types of Finished Cadences.
- Perfect/Authentic Cadence – The strongest resolution. It is a V – I chord resolution. It feels very dramatic and final. In terms of chord function this goes from a Dominant chord to a Tonic chord.
- Plagal Cadence – This is a more gentle resolution. It is a IV – I chord resolution. It is often called the Amen resolution because it sounds very final and resolved but in a gentler way than the Perfect/Authentic Cadence. This is a Subdominant chord to a Tonic chord.
Unfinished Chord Cadences
We call it an unfinished cadence when we have a resolution to chords that are not the Tonic one chord.
By not ending on the first chord of the key, it tends to make the progression feel like it’s not entirely completed. Like there is still more to the story.
There are two types of unfinished cadences,
- Imperfect/Half Cadence = This one leaves the progression in a very tense position because it ends on the V chord, which is a Dominant chord and carries a strong desire to resolve to the Tonic One chord. This chord resolution could be a I – V, II – V, or a IV – V.
- Interrupted/Deceptive Cadence = This one is meant to trick the listener because we want to set up the chord progression to make them think the song resolves from V – I but instead it resolves V – VI. This adds surprise because it is less expected, however it also works because VI is a Tonic chord so it sort of feels resolved but not really. It’s a Tonic chord, but not the Tonic One chord.
How do Chord Cadences Feel?
It’s important to emphasize how different cadences feel so you know which to use for your songs.
Perfect/Authentic Cadences are great for grand finales and strong epic resolutions because of how final they feel.
Plagal Cadences are more subtle but still final, so it gives off feelings of warmth and reassurance which makes them great for reflective or comforting moments of resolution.
Imperfect and Deceptive Cadences both build tension and can be used strategically to create anticipation and surprise. For example Imperfect Cadences are great for feeling like things are building up to something and Deceptive Cadences are great for creating a feeling of disorientation because the chord change is unexpected.
How Do You Use Chord Cadences in your Songwriting?
So now that we’ve covered what they are, it’s important we talk about how to use them in practice. How do you actually make them make a difference in your songs?
As transitions from one song section to another
Transitions can be troublesome at times and there are lots of ways in which you can connect one song section to another more smoothly, one of the most important ones is using the correct chord cadences for what you want.
This just means, does the last chord from one song section flow well to the first chord of the next song section?
By using Chord Cadences you can get the emotional effect you’re going for as you transition.
For example, if you want your Chorus to come in really strong then you could make the last chord of the Verse or Prechorus a V chord and the first chord of the Chorus a I chord.
This would make it a Perfect/Authentic Cadence, which is a finished cadence, and so when you get to the Chorus you will get a strong feeling of having arrived at the main idea of your song.
Another example, let’s say you end the second Chorus with a V chord to go to the Bridge but instead of going to the I chord as the first Bridge chord (which is where the V chord is wanting to resolve to), you go to a vi chord instead as the first chord in your Bridge. This would be a Deceptive Cadence that is connecting your two song sections.
What would happen there is that the audience expected the I chord after that V chord but instead they got a vi chord. We still got a Tonic chord (because vi is still a Tonic chord) so it feels like it fits but is unexpected. You don’t know where the song is going to go from here and you can use this feeling of disorientation to go somewhere different in your Bridge before resolving back to a familiar song section like the Verse, Prechorus, or Chorus.
So this is how you can use Chord Cadences to make good transitions between your song sections. You can always combine these with rhythmic elements (like drum fills) or melodic elements (like bass fills, ad libs and other vocal melodies, ear candy etc) to make more unique and solid transitions.
To manage tension and release in your song
As you can imagine, understanding the flow of resolution between chords can help you manage the flow of tension and release in terms of harmony. You will understand how to build tension with your chords when you want to, and also how much tension you want in any given moment.
This is important because your drummer can’t be the only one carrying the entire dynamics of the song. If you try to add tension by making the drums more intense, but the chords are taking away tension because they are too mellow then things might sound weird (there’s always exceptions of course, but just something to keep in mind).
Managing tension and release is a team effort. Harmony, melody, and rhythm all have to work in a way that makes sense for a song to feel impactful and get the emotional tone of the song across to the listener.
To make unexpected chord changes and resolutions
Understanding how to play with the expectations you’re setting up with your chords to your listener is crucial to add surprise. You need a balance between predictability and unpredictability.
Chord Cadences can help you do that by setting up the expectations of resolution in your songs. You can then supercharge the element of surprise by combining other theory concepts like using chord inversions, or adding chord extensions for more colorful and moodier chords. This is how you use crazy chords that still make sense with your progression. Start simple and build on it.
Wrapping it up
If you have an understanding of Chord Cadence and Chord Function you have a strong foundation for making chord progressions.
This is really it when it comes to figuring out how to make chord progressions that flow and that connect well from one song section to the other.
Like I mentioned earlier, Chord Cadences can help your song feel dynamic harmonically so that your drummer isn’t the only one controlling the entire dynamics of tension and release in your song. It’s a team effort between harmony, rhythm and melody.
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