Hearing Major & Minor

Lesson 5: Major and Minor Cadences



Major and Minor Cadences: Between Triads and Keys

In the previous lessons we have been able to progress in easy steps from major and minor thirds to major and minor triads underlying complex passages of music. Now we must make more of a leap. Hearing major and minor keys would be easy if in a major key, for example, all of the triads used were major. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If we are in the key of C major, using only the notes from the C major scale, we will be able to construct equal numbers of major and minor triads, three of each. The situation is even more confusing with minor keys; there are usually more major chords than minor chords available in a minor key.

In the process of learning to hear major and minor keys, there will not be one simple feature to listen for that will always help us to make the correct identification. Soon it will be necessary to let go of concrete reference points. You will need to learn by practice how to make a distinction that has only a nebulous relation to other distinctions you have already learned how to make. Before this point, though, there will be one more helpful exercise.

Listening for cadences will help us toward being able to identify major and minor keys in two important ways. Firstly, it will focus our attention on the most important triads in a passage of music. No one cadence will tell us the mode for sure, just as no one triad will tell us the mode. In general, though, cadences highlight the most important triads in a passage; paying attention to them will help us make a much more educated guess about the mode. Secondly, cadences can be thought of as short, simple pieces of music. They offer us an easier domain in which to practice making a new distinction which is less straightforward than the ones you learned how to make in earlier lessons.

Cadences: A Quick Definition

Our word "cadence" comes from the Latin verb "cadere," to fall. In speech it refers to the fall of the voice, as at the end of a sentence. Similarly, in music a cadence is a conclusion, a coming to rest. A cadence concludes a musical idea and brings the music to a resting point, either temporary or permanent.

In general a cadence will have two phases. In the first phase, we have sense that a musical idea is nearing a point of completion. Though this sense may have been gradually increasing for some time, in the first phase it becomes much sharper; the music behaves in ways that we recognize as "the beginning of the end." In tonal music we have a sense that the arrival of a specific chord is being set up. (You may not be conscious of expecting a specific chord, but we will demonstrate this effect shortly using musical examples.) Then in the second phase we get a clear sense of conclusion and arrival. In tonal music, we get the chord we have been expecting; in fact, the second phase consists solely of this chord, often elaborated in some way.

Here is an example of a simple phrase, a musical idea, which ends with a clear cadence. The video display will illustrate the two phases of the cadence. It is taken from the aria "My Darling's Lovely Cheeks" from Mozart's early comic operetta Bastien and Bastienne.

Video Example 1: Beginning of "My Darling's Lovely Cheeks" from Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne


In the example above, the cadence occupies a fairly brief span of time at the end of the musical idea. Here's the cadence alone.

Audio Example 1: Cadence from video example 1

In this lesson we will deal with cadences alone, out of their context. This is because in tonal music there are a number of standard harmonic patterns which usually underlie cadences. It is important to understand, however, that the sense of conclusion comes most strongly when the cadence is heard in the context of a full musical idea. A cadence is an end, and an end is only an end in context. If you take the end by itself, it is no longer really an end, but a separate object. For our purposes here, it will be useful to listen to the typical harmonic patterns, but do remember that for a cadence to function as a musical conclusion it must be prepared in a fuller musical context.

Let's return to the cadence itself that we just heard. Remember that above we claimed that the first phase creates an expectation of hearing a specific chord, and that the second phase fulfils this expectation by giving us that chord. Let's listen to the example again, but without the concluding chord

Audio Example 2: The cadence without the final chord

If we skip the final chord, the second phase of the cadence, we have a sense that something is incomplete; we are left hanging. Whether we know it or not, we are left at the end of the first phase expecting something very specific. Below are a few examples in which various different chords have been substituted for the final chord.

Audio Example 3: The cadence with a different final chord

Audio Example 4: The cadence with another different final chord

Audio Example 5: The cadence with yet another different final chord

Some of those sound more jarring than others, but none of them completely satisfy the desire for completion we have at the end of the first phase. So although you may never have been aware of it, when you hear cadences in tonal music (a category which includes pop, rock, and jazz) you are experiencing an expectation of hearing a specific chord. In a normal, complete cadence, this expectation is fulfilled. Here's the original cadence again; notice how much more complete it feels than the three above. If you like, play them again for the sake of comparison.

Audio Example 6: The original cadence again

Listening for the Final Chords of Major and Minor Cadences

Recall that although major and minor keys both contain major and minor triads, the tonic triad is always the same mode as the key, major for major keys and minor for minor keys. It is clear that this fact will be useful to us only if we have some way of knowing when we are hearing the tonic triad. But few untrained listeners know at any given moment whether or not they are hearing the tonic triad. Learning to hear cadences, however, can help us to identify the tonic triad. This is because in tonal music cadences are used to signal arrivals on important harmonies. The final chord of a complete cadence, the cadence's arrival point (we called it the second phase of the cadence above), is generally an important harmony for the passage of music which contains it.

As the harmonic home base of the music, the tonic triad is the most important harmony, so we can be certain that there will be strong cadences to the tonic triad. The catch here is that in any but the shortest and simplest passages of music, there will be cadences to triads other than the tonic triad. So we can't be sure of the mode just by listening for the final chord of a single cadence, any more than we can by listening for the mode of any other individual chord in the piece. But cadences help us to listen for the most important harmonies in a passage of music, allowing us to single them out among the many harmonies passing by. We can make much more educated guesses about the mode by paying special attention to the mode of cadences, and especially of those which are either particularly prominent in some way, or else which are placed at the beginning or end of a section.

Below are two examples of simple cadences, one in major and one in minor.

Audio Example 7: Major cadence, descending melody

Audio Example 8: Minor cadence, descending melody

Here there are two useful clues. First, the final chord of the cadence in major is a major triad, and the final chord of the cadence in minor is a minor triad. Second, the melody in each case consists of a downward scale -- major or minor -- from the fifth note to the first. These examples allow you to identify whether the key is major or minor based on two other things you have already learned to hear as major or minor: triads and scales.

Now here are two similar, but more difficult examples. Though the chord progression is the same, the melody has been changed, so that it no longer makes use of any pitches that differ between major and minor scales. The two melodies are now the same.

Audio Example 9: Major cadence, flat melody

Audio Example 10: Minor cadence, flat melody

To distinguish these two by the methods discussed to far it is necessary to listen carefully for the mode of the final chord.

Listening for the "Majorness" or "Minorness" of Cadences

The last statement above contained an important qualification; that listening for the final chord is necessary by the methods discussed so far. Though the melodies are the same, you can hear that the wholes of the two examples sound different from each other; it is not just the final chords that sound different. Play these examples again a few times. The goal here is to begin to get a feel for the "majorness" of major keys and the "minorness" of minor keys. These words "majorness" and "minorness" are not meant to refer to details like the quality of the final triad, but rather to suggest some kind of general attribute of the whole. Try to get to the point at which you can tell the difference between the two cadences before you get to the final chord. If you can do that, you are starting to hear "majorness" and "minorness."

Listening for Cadences in Real Music: A Warning

Before going on to the training environment for major and minor cadences, a warning is in order; it has to do with listening for cadences in real music.

In the Baroque period (and even earlier, before the advent of tonal music) it was common for composers, when writing in minor, and when reaching the end of the whole piece (or of a main section) to substitute a major chord for the final minor chord. The substituted chord would have the expected root, the tonic, but instead of a minor chord a major chord would be used. This technique is known as the Picardy Third. Learning to identify Picardy Thirds is not a part of this lesson, but so that you can recognize them when you hear them, a few examples are given below. The first is a simple minor cadence; the second is also in minor, but a major chord has been substituted at the arrival point.

Audio Example 11: Minor cadence

Audio Example 12: Minor cadence with Picardy Third

Here's an example of a Picardy Third used in real music, the end of the chorus "Have lightnings and thunders their fury forgotten" from Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

 Audio Example 13: End of "Have lightnings and thunders"

Picardy Thirds can make listening for cadences in the minor tricky. For it is possible that a piece could be in minor, but have major chords concluding a great many of its cadences, either because of internal cadences to chords other than the tonic or else because of Picardy Thirds at the ends of sections.


The cadences in the training environment won't have any such tricks. They are valuable less because you should listen for cadences when trying to tell if pieces are in major or minor (though this is one piece in the puzzle) but more because they can be like very short, simple pieces of music. Listen for the quality of the cadential chord, but use this like training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle. Don't just listen for the cadential chord, but listen for the relationship between the cadential chord and the whole of the music that preceded it. Use this environment not just until you can make correct identifications on the basis of the final chord, but until you start to get a sense of the overall character of "majorness" and "minorness."

Enter Training Environment


  • A cadence is a musical conclusion, a coming to rest.
  • In tonal music, cadences consist of two phases:
    • In the first we get a strong sense that the end of a musical idea is coming, and we expect a specific chord.
    • In the second the get the actual end of the idea, and we hear the chord we have been expecting.
  • Cadences can help in two ways toward learning to hear major and minor keys.
    • Firstly, they help focus attention on the most important chords in a passage of music.
      • Though they don't pinpoint the tonic, they do narrow down the candidates.
      • This is helpful because the mode of the tonic triad and the mode of the piece are the same.
    • Secondly, cadences can be like short, simple pieces of music; they provide an easier task than distinguishing major and minor in larger musical passages.



Copyright © Columbia University,
15 March 2000

Lesson 5 written by: John Ito

Technology & Design: Kristen Sosulski and Maurice Matiz