In Common Practice music, music within a key consists of harmonic progressions that lead towards and away from the tonic.
One chord above all others leads to the tonic: the dominant, which is built on the fifth scale degree. The dominant chord presents a harmonic request, which is fulfilled by the tonic.
Cadences are harmonic arrival points: They typically act as the punctuation at the end of a musical phrase. A cadence to the dominant is called a half cadence.
The opening phrase of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Sonata in f-minor, opus 2, no. 1 ends in a half-cadence.
This excerpt from Gustav Holst’s The Planets ends with a half-cadence.
Because they are making a request, half-cadences sound incomplete and create a feeling of expectation. A long wait or “stand” on the dominant heightens the anticipation. In this excerpt from his “Emperor” Concerto, Beethoven elaborates on the dominant harmony, stretching it out before finally resolving it to the tonic.
A cadence to the tonic is called a full cadence. Here is a full cadence in Major from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello.
This excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg consists exclusively of full cadences in Major.
Here is a full cadence in minor from Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.
Many classical themes consist of a half-cadence followed by a full cadence. In this excerpt from the third movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, “Haffner,” the two cadences are characterized differently: The half cadence is forceful and majestic, while the full cadence that follows is calmer.
In this excerpt from Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, the oboe’s plaintive melody ends in a half-cadence. The piano answers with its own version of the melody, this time ending in a full cadence.
In Schubert’s song “Der Leierman” from Die Winterreise, the voice’s somber melodic statements are echoed by the piano, whose progressions end exclusively in half and full cadences. The excerpt begins with two half-cadences followed by two full cadences. See if you can follow the rest of the cadences. How does the excerpt end?
Cadences to the dominant and tonic help establish and solidify a key. We will now study three features that add harmonic complexity: postponed closure, chromaticism and dissonance. These can contribute to destabilizing a key, making it easier to leave; and they also establish bridges between keys, facilitating more far-reaching harmonic trajectories.