2.12: Phrases, Cadences, and Harmonic Function

$$\newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} }$$

$$\newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}}$$

$$\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}$$ $$\newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}$$

( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) $$\newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}$$

$$\newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}$$ $$\newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}$$

$$\newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}$$ $$\newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}$$

$$\newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}$$

$$\newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}$$

$$\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}$$

$$\newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}$$

$$\newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}$$

$$\newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}$$

$$\newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}$$

$$\newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}$$

$$\newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}$$

$$\newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}$$

$$\newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}$$

$$\newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}$$ $$\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}$$

$$\newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}} % arrow$$

$$\newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}} % arrow$$

$$\newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} }$$

$$\newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}}$$

$$\newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}}$$

$$\newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}}$$

$$\newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}}$$

$$\newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} }$$

$$\newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}}$$

22.1 Introduction

Music, like all art, is communicative. Most composers, performers, and listeners agree that music conveys something—an idea, a story, an emotion—to the listener. A comparison with spoken or written language, then, will be instructive, particularly since a number of music theory terms are borrowed from linguistics. In this chapter, we will consider some of the similarities between listening to tonal Western art music and listening to speech. We will begin to discuss how a composition is structured over time and how certain musical features aid the listener in parsing their experience into manageable, meaningful parts.

As we will soon see, these features are closely related to relationships heard between successive members of a harmonic progression. We have already discussed how a single chord may convey different musical meaning in different contexts. An A-minor chord, for example, will be heard as a vi chord in C major and as a iv chord in E minor. (See Chapter 8 and Chapter 9.) But even within a single key, one chord may play different roles depending on the more immediate context. Furthermore, these roles—or harmonic functions as we will call them—may be played by different chords with different musical effects. This chapter will introduce the two most prominent harmonic functions: the tonic function and the dominant function.

22.2 Tonic (T) and dominant (D) functions

Consider the following example:

The music in this excerpt does not flow unceasingly from beginning to end. The melody and harmonic progression are punctuated in three places, corresponding with punctuation marks in the text: m. 4, m. 8, and m. 16. We find rests at the end of each of these measures, but if the rests were omitted we would likely still hear these moments as conveying some sense of melodic and harmonic closure. We refer to these momentary gestures of closure as cadences. They divide this excerpt into three smaller passages. Borrowing a term from linguistics, we refer to each of these smaller passages as a phrase. In tonal Western art music, then, a phrase is a span of music that ends with a cadence.

In linguistics, a phrase functions as a complete unit. It conveys an idea. Sometimes this idea is complete and sometimes it links to other ideas coming before or after. It divides a communication into logical, manageable segments and in doing so allows us to make logical sense of the communication. A musical phrase does much the same thing—though, admittedly, musical ideas are usually much more abstract than spoken or written ideas! Most tonal Western art music proceeds in a manner similar to what we see in Example 22–1. The flow of music is punctuated by cadences that demarcate the boundaries of different sections in a piece.

Note: More often than not, phrases in tonal Western art music tend to be four bars long. In some cases this may be halved or doubled, depending on the tempo of the piece or passage. It not a requirement, however, that a phrase be two, four, or eight bars. You will frequently encounter phrases of all different lengths.

For the most part, the length of a musical phrase is similar to the length of a linguistic phrase. If a phrase is too short, a listener might not register it as a complete thought. If it is too long, it risks becoming unmanageable—or even incomprehensible—to the listener who is trying to make sense of it.

Note, too, that not all passages ending with cadences are phrases. For example, a lengthy transitional passage connecting two phrases may end with a cadence, but it should not be considered a phrase itself. We will discuss these distinctions in greater length in Chapter 35.

Activity 22-1

Activity 22–1

In this exercise, you will identify the the number and locations of all the cadences in an excerpt.

Question

How many cadences are in the following excerpt? Where are they?

Hint

Listen for resting points or moments of melodic and harmonic closure.

There are four cadences in this excerpt: m. 4, m. 8, m. 12, and m. 16

Question

How many cadences are in the following excerpt? Where are they?

Hint

Listen for resting points or moments of melodic and harmonic closure.

There are four cadences in this excerpt: m. 3, m. 6, and m. 14.

Question

How many cadences are in the following excerpt? Where are they?

Hint

Listen for resting points or moments of melodic and harmonic closure.

There are two cadences in this excerpt: m. 5 and m. 10.

Listen to Example 22–1 again, and pay close attention to the way each of the three phrases (mm. 1–4, 5–8, and 9–16) begins and ends. The first phrase starts with a I chord. When it ends with another I chord in m. 4, the listener has a sense of closure. The end of the second phrase, on the other hand, feels less conclusive. It begins with the same tonic harmony, but ends with an unresolved V chord. Ending on V leads the listener to expect more music. The third phrase fulfills this expectation. It begins once again with a I chord. This phrase is longer—equal in length to both of the phrases that came before it—and it ends with the most conclusive gesture of all three cadences bringing a sense of closure to the whole excerpt.

The following example reproduces just the first phrase from the excerpt above:

Harmonically, this phrase is very simple. It consists of only tonic and dominant chords. There is a tonic chord in every measure, but despite this apparent redundancy we hear these chords in different ways. The I chord in m. 1, for example, introduces the phrase. Like the others that follow, it is consonant and stable, but this initial tonic performs the important task of orienting the listener in Eb major. Compare this to the I chords in mm. 2–3. These harmonies echo the initial tonic and reaffirm the key. The I chord in m. 4 follows suit. At this point, the listener is firmly grounded in the key and so the final return to I feels like an ending, a return home.

Now consider the dominant harmonies. Dominant sevenths appear in both m. 1 and m. 4, but again these chords play slightly different roles. The V7 in m. 4 feels more substantial. When it moves to I we hear it as an integral part of the cadence that ends the phrase. The V7 in m. 1 feels somewhat inconsequential by comparison. It supports the opening tonic and even though it too proceeds to a I chord, we do not get the sense that it is participating in a cadence.

The role a chord plays within a phrase is its harmonic function. When we label a chord with a Roman numeral, we are cataloging the content and structure of an individual sonority. When we analyze a piece or passage and consider how a sonority relates to its context and the effect it has on us as listeners, we are identifying its function. The two most important harmonic functions in tonal Western art music are named after their most common representatives: tonic function and dominant function. (We will add a third harmonic function to this list in Chapter 24.)

$\hat1$

$\hat7$

The resolutions of tendency tones are shown with arrows in the following example:

$\hat6$

Chords performing tonic and dominant functions may appear at different locations within a phrase, but their role is clearest when they form part of a cadence. The remaining sections of this chapter will discuss several of the most common types of cadences.

As we have seen, not all cadences are equal in terms of the sense of resolution they convey to a listener. Some cadences feel very strong and conclusive while others feel weak and open-ended. In Example 22–1, most listeners will hear the third cadence as the strongest and the second cadence as the weakest. The first cadence, then, lies somewhere in between with regards to its strength or conclusiveness. The relative strength of a cadence depends on a number of factors. Rhythm, metrical placement, dynamics and other musical dimensions all play a role in determining how conclusive a cadence sounds, but the most important factors are melodic and harmonic.

A cadence that consists of a dominant-function chord (usually V or V7) resolving directly to a phrase-ending tonic-function chord (usually I) is known as an authentic cadence. Authentic cadences are considered the most conclusive sounding cadences in tonal Western art music. Both the first and third phrases in the Example 22–1 end with authentic cadences:

Both of these cadences consist of a two-part gesture: the dissonance and tendency tones of a V7 resolve to a I at the end of the phrase. They are equivalent in terms of their harmonic content and both convey a sense of closure. The second one, however, feels more conclusive than the first. Again, there are numerous factors contributing to our hearing of these two endings, but the most prominent has to do with the melodic content of the outer voices.

$\hat1$

Activity 22-2

Activity 22–2

Question

The excerpt below has three authentic cadences. Where are they?

Hint

Listen for resting points or moments of melodic and harmonic closure that feel relatively conclusive.

There are authentic cadences in m. 8, m. 16, and m. 18. (The cadences in m. 4 and m. 12 are not authentic cadences.)

$\hat5$

The following example shows another PAC, this time in D major:

$\hat2$

Of course, PACs can occur in minor keys as well. The following excerpt concludes with the same cadence as the one heard in Example 22–5, only this time in D minor:

$\hat5$

The following example also has just two melodic lines:

$\hat1$

$\hat2$

$\hat1$

$\hat2$

In the following example, the upper voice resolution is rhythmically altered in the opposite direction:

$\hat1$

The following example has two PACs with a different kind of nonharmonic tone:

$\hat2$

Despite the voice-leading restrictions that define a PAC, there is quite a bit of variety in how conclusive these cadences sound. The finality of a cadence is largely determined by the melodic motion in the outer voices, but as we have already suggested, there are many other factors as well. Consider the two PACs in the following example:

$\hat1$

$\hat1$

The following example shows another IAC, this time in D major:

$\hat4$

In the following example, the authentic cadence is considered imperfect because of melodic events in both voices:

$\hat4$

The first three phrases in the following example all end with IACs:

$\hat2$

So far we have seen only cadences with V or V7 as the functional dominant. Now consider the IAC at the end of the following phrase:

$\hat7$

$\hat7$

The following example shows a similar progression:

$\hat2$

Activity 22-3

Activity 22–3

Question

The following excerpt has four cadences, three of which are authentic cadences. Which of the three authentic cadences are perfect and which are imperfect? Which is not an authentic cadence?

Hint

$\hat5$

The authentic cadences in m. 4 and m. 12 are IACs. The authentic cadence in m. 16 is a PAC. The cadence in m. 8 is not an authentic cadence.

As we have seen, an authentic cadence consists of a two-part harmonic gesture at the end of a phrase: an unstable dominant-function chord resolves to the tonic and conveys a sense of conclusiveness. In the cadences at the end of the following examples, we hear only the first half of this gesture:

Both of the phrases above end with a dominant harmony. We do not hear the expected resolutions to the tonic. Such a phrase ending is known as a half cadence, since it consists of only the first half of an authentic cadence. (The half cadence is labeled “HC” in the example above.) The effect of a half cadence is remarkably different from what we have heard so far. It sounds very unresolved. Rather than moving to the expected points of stability, the tendency tones in the dominant are left hanging.

A half cadence brings a sense of closure to a phrase, but the listener is left wanting more. This expectation for harmonic resolution is often fulfilled by the following phrase, as in the following two examples:

In each of the cases above, the first phrase ends with an inconclusive half cadence. A second, similar phrase follows and ends with an authentic cadence providing the expected resolution of the dominant. Note that in each of the examples above, the first chord after the half cadence is a tonic harmony. This should not be confused with an authentic cadence. In an authentic cadence, the tonic is heard at the end of a phrase. Here, the tonic in m. 5 of each example appears at the beginning of a new and separate phrase and so is not considered a part of the cadence.

Because a half cadence so strongly implies a need for further music, it can be sometimes be difficult to distinguish them from their context. In the following example, a half cadence may be heard at the end of m. 4, followed by a PAC four bars later:

In Example 22–23, a stream of sixteenth notes flows steadily until the second beat of m. 8. It is possible, then, to hear this as a single, eight-bar phrase. There are, however, several factors that break the passage into two four-bar phrases: the contour of the sixteenth-note figure is altered and switches to the left hand in m. 5, the bass repeats a note (B) for the first time, and the dotted-quarter-note melody in mm. 5–7 (B–C–B–A–B) recalls the melody heard in mm. 1–3. Listen again to Example 22–21 and Example 22–22 and compare them to Example 22–23.

Note: Phrases often work together. In each of the three examples above, we heard a pair of similar phrases, the first ending inconclusively with a half cadence and the second ending conclusively with an authentic cadence. Such a pair of phrases is known as a period and will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 35.

Activity 22-4

Activity 22–4

Question

Identify each of the cadences in the following excerpt:

Hint

Consider how conclusive each cadence sounds, and keep in mind the various parameters used to categorize different cadences.

The cadence in m. 4 is an IAC, the cadence in m. 8 is a HC, the cadence in m. 12 is an IAC, and the cadence in m. 16 is a PAC..

In the following example, the first phrase ends with an unexpected harmony:

$\hat6$

Note: Deceptive cadences are much less common than authentic and half cadences. It is rare to encounter a piece of tonal Western art music that does not include authentic and half cadences. Deceptive cadences, on the other hand, appear only occasionally and a majority of compositions do not include them at all.

The effect of a deceptive cadence is somewhat surprising, though the vi chord does not seem entirely out of place. Consider the similarities between a I chord and a vi chord:

$\hat1$

The following examples both include deceptive cadences:

In each of the examples above, the deceptive cadence is soon followed by a conclusive PAC. The deceptive cadence sets up an expectation, the fulfillment of which is delayed until the PAC provides the implied tonic harmony. The effect is a provocative stretching out of the gesture which for many listeners makes the eventual conclusion all the more satisfying.

Activity 22-5

Activity 22–5

In this exercise, you will resolve dominant chords deceptively.

Question

Resolve the following dominant chord with a deceptive cadence:

Hint

Aside from the bass, all of the other voices may move as though the dominant were resolving to a tonic triad. (Beware of parallel octaves with the bass!)

Question

Resolve the following dominant chord with a deceptive cadence:

Hint

Aside from the bass, all of the other voices may move as though the dominant were resolving to a tonic triad.

Question

Resolve the following dominant chord with a deceptive cadence:

Hint

Aside from the bass, all of the other voices may move as though the dominant were resolving to a tonic triad. (Beware of parallel octaves with the bass.)

Question

Resolve the following dominant chord with a deceptive cadence:

Hint

Aside from the bass, all of the other voices may move as though the dominant were resolving to a tonic triad.

22.8 Summary

Chords can have different musical meanings depending on their context in a piece or passage. We refer to this meaning as a chord’s harmonic function. The two most important functions in tonal Western art music are the tonic function and the dominant function. The tonic function—usually performed by a tonic triad—conveys a sense of restfulness to a listener. It is characteristically consonant and stable. At the beginning of a musical expression, it establishes the key and gives the listener a sense of tonal groundedness. At the end of a musical expression, it conveys a sense of repose and, after contrasting harmonic material, a sense of closure. The dominant function—usually performed by a V or V7 chord—acts as a foil to the tonic. It contains tendency tones which convey a sense of urgency to resolve to points of greater stability.

A phrase is a passage of music, typically four bars long, that conveys a musical idea. The harmonic gesture that signals the end of a phrase is known as a cadence. The relationship between tonic and dominant is most apparent at cadences, which are ranked and labeled according to how conclusive they sound to a listener.

$\hat1$

A half cadence ends a phrase with only the first half of an authentic cadence: the dominant. Compared to an authentic cadence, a half cadence feels very unresolved and is characteristically followed by a second phrase ending more conclusively. A deceptive cadence swaps out the tonic triad with a weak tonic substitute: the submediant—which, like the viio chord, has several scale degrees in common with the chord it replaces. Authentic and half cadences are extremely common, deceptive cadences much less so.

This page titled 2.12: Phrases, Cadences, and Harmonic Function is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Andre Mount & Lee Rothfarb (Milne Library Publishing) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.