I'm a beginner when it comes to modes and cadences, and I want to understand them better to improve my song-writing as a metal guitarist. While fiddling with my guitar today, I "wrote" this progression in the key of E minor (or the E Aeolian mode, if I'm right):

ii half-dim 7 --> i (Em) --> vi dim --> v sus 4

  1. Could someone tell me what type of cadence occurs between the bars 1 and 2, and also between the bars 3 and 4?
  2. If I understand correctly, only the modes have changed, because I have only used notes from the key/scale of E minor. But what modes are these?
  3. Why does the vi dim --> v sus4 feel like it has been resolved? I thought tension is resolved only when we return to the root/home chord.

(P.S. I feel I've heard this progression before, maybe someone knows where it's from? :) )

  • Just to be sure, with "ii dim 7" do you mean F# A C with Eb or E? – musicamante Feb 27 at 15:07
  • Hi musicamante! With ii dim 7 I meant the notes F# C E A, not Eb. I can't find the right name for this chord, apparently – Aditya Feb 27 at 15:18
  • 2
    @aditya That chord is usually called "half-dim" or minor 7 b5. – luser droog Feb 27 at 15:49
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This progression lends itself to a variety of interpretations, all similar, but varying in technical detail. This progression, even more so than others, is highly dependent on context -- chord voicings, melody, and what happens before and after.

ii7 - i (F#7b5 - E minor)

ii moving to i as a cadence does not itself have a specific name.

However, it is related to a plagal cadence, iv - i. Although not a plagal cadence it provides a similar sound. And iv - i is built in: the iv chord = A C E, and the ii7 chord is the same but with the addition of F#. We could consider the chord as Am6 rather than F#m7b5.

A somewhat different interpretation comes into play if the E minor chord is voiced with B as the lowest pitch. In that case, it might be considered a "cadential 6-4 chord", heading toward the V chord at the end of the progression.

vidim - Vsus4

vi moving to V also doesn't have a special name. The usual interpretation is that vi is functioning as a predominant moving to the dominant.

However, the "vi dim" chord "doesn't exist." That is, a diminished chord built on the sixth scale degree, C, would be spelled C Eb Gb, with the latter three tones being alien to E minor.

Instead, I think one of two things is happening:

  1. Cdim is actually D#dim7 with the fifth omitted. That makes the chord viio7 in E minor. The reason, then, it sounds like a cadence moving to Vsus4 is that Vsus4 is actually isus2. Vsus4 = BEF#, and isus2 = EF#B: i.e., it is, in fact, a cadence ending on the (ambiguous) i chord!
  2. Also possible is that both the "C diminished" chord and the "B sus4" chords are a single chord: B7b9sus4(omit7). Written in root position, this chord doesn't appear to make sense: BD#EF#C. But with better voicing -- for example, BECD#F# or EBD#F#C -- it becomes a V chord with the E anticipating the (unresolved) resolution to Emin. This is very Mozartean, placing the tonic below a dominant chord (before proceeding to the tonic chord). (Note: in Mozart's case, the "dominant over tonic" chord is likely a suspension from an actual dominant, where the bass resolves first followed by a delayed resolution of the rest of the chord.)

overall mode

The progression is solidly in E minor and uses pitches only from the E harmonic minor scale. However, it's an ambiguous E minor due to the absence of a strong cadence confirming the key.

  • Thanks for the answer! I am slightly confused about the semantics: I thought the 'vi' of an E minor scale would be the note C (not C#). I played C dim and hence assumed it is "vi dim". Is this correct? I have not used C# in any of the four chords, so any mistake would be in my (lack of) knowledge of semantics. One can argue the notes belong to the E harmonic minor scale: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7 (there's no D anywhere). Would this change your answer? – Aditya Feb 27 at 22:50
  • @aditya Dumb mistake on my part. Just to clarify before I update, is it a diminished triad or a fully diminished seventh chord? – Aaron Feb 27 at 22:55
  • I play the C minor triad with a flatted fifth: C Gb C Eb. I am not including a B or Bb so it isn't a seventh. – Aditya Feb 27 at 22:58
  • @aditya I've updated to address Cdim rather than C#dim. Please let me know whether or not the revised post makes sense and answers your question. – Aaron Feb 28 at 5:58
  • Thanks for the update! Why does vi dim not exist in E minor if both Eb and Gb are part of the E harmonic minor scale (7th and 2nd)? About voicings: I always associated i sus2 (played R 5 9) as a slightly dissonant chord. Can voicing (R 5 9 to 5 9 5 R) as V sus4 really change a 'tense' chord to a resolved one? What can I do to understand why/how that happens? – Aditya Feb 28 at 9:25

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