Basic Cadences in Chord Progressions for Guitarists

By Jeff Moore


When you talk about a cadence in music, some professional guitarists look blankly trying to remember exactly what a cadence is. “What was that….thing from music theory?” Or perhaps they never had music theory and were never exposed to it. Many use it in songwriting without knowing exactly what it is. Knowing what a cadence is may help you write better music. So let’s get on with the definitions, and you can decide how you would like to use cadences in your songwriting. And for our discussion, we are talking about harmonic cadencing—a cadence that occurs in a chord progression. Think of the sound of the progression : V IV I, or in the key of G : D -> C -> G This is just one very specific cadence, there are others that we will discuss.

A cadence can be thought of as a logical structure within a chord progression that ends a musical section or musical phrase. The cadence is the ‘going home’ move or faking the going home move, or partially faking it. The cadence is the resolution, partial resolution or lack of resolution of the dissonance in the movement between chords. This distinction is especially important to keep in mind for the difference between chorus and verse in a song. In general terms a cadence is used in a chorus as it resolves and is pleasing to the ear; however, you can use a cadence wherever you’d like. Knowing that music is a balance between dissonance and consonance, a cadence resolves, or brings the listener’s ear back to the home chord in a way that is satisfying – or it will make them think they are moving back to the root chord and then you can use a cadence that will keep the tension and movement in the song going….if it’s done right. You could cadence on every single bar/measure of the song and it would be boring. You could never cadence, have a dissonant sounding song and leave it at that. All spice or none sounds extreme on both ends. Use the analogy of a cook: the real artistry is in using spice sparingly and wisely. Just enough, but not too much. In this article, I will discuss what a cadence is, and you can determine how much special sauce to use in your creations. So let’s get to the cadencing!!

Commonly used cadences:


Authentic cadence: V to I

This gives the listener a resolution and is pleasing to the ear. This arguably makes the user want to pause here. There are many songs that use this construct, but many songs may have additional chords in the progression. The cadence is the ‘final’ movement in the chord progression from V to I. The full chord progression may be II -> V -> I or ii -> vi -> V -> I. The point is the movement to the I chord.


Half cadence: ii to V

This cadence moves to the V chord rather than away from it. Gives the feeling that something isn’t finished. Very good for surprising the listener and continuing forward motion in the song.


Plagal cadence: IV to 1 or (IV to iv to I)

IV to I this is also the ‘amen’ cadence. This cadence can also be used effectively by adding the minor iv to the progression. IV to iv to I.


There are other cadences that we could discuss but this gives us a good starting point for purposefully cadencing in music. Bringing the listener to a point in a song where they are expecting a resolution and then either ‘satisfying’ them with an authentic or plagal cadence, or pushing the song momentum forward with a half cadence. Writing music, especially from a harmonic (chord)-based perspective gives us the opportunity to construct musical movement that provides the base structure of the song. The melody weaves a story, the chord progression and how this chord progression resolves is important in the emotional context of the song.

When combined with rhythmic components (and variations) melodic threads, and vocal components a song has the capability of really communicating with the listener. It is important to realize that it is not only a ‘chord progression’ that you are writing, but a movement from a point of consonance, or resolution to the ear and dissonance and how you craft those two as you move through your chord progression. If you are talking about the ‘usual’ way this is done in popular music, a verse has forward momentum (fewer cadences) and a ‘medium’ emotional intensity. The chorus generally is a good point to ‘satisfy’ the listener emotionally and harmonically using a cadence in your chord progression and the chorus is generally more energetic than the verse.

That’s the basics for cadencing, enjoy!


Jeff Moore is a guitar instructor for Peak Music Lessons in the Capital District of New York. He teaches guitar lessons in Latham, NY and is the lead composer of the band Dark Ballet. Jeff is passionate about the fusion of guitar and voice in rock, metal and other forms of musical expression.