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A while ago I wrote a quartet (or attempted to) which contained an imperfect cadence in a minor key, specifically i - V. The V chord is simply a triad with no seventh. In the context that I wrote it, it does not feel unstable or create the feeling of needing to resolve to the tonic. Though it naturally returns to the i chord afterward, it feels perfectly stable - in fact I use this cadence as the finishing cadence. Were I to describe the kind of 'aesthetic' qualities it has, I'd say "grand", "heroic" or "momentous" though I realise that this is subjective and dependent on context too.

Here's a screenshot of the cadence from my quartet. The key is A minor and the final chord of that phrase is E major. Although not in the screenshot, the following chord would be A minor. enter image description here

Another example of this is in the piece of music Death of Walter from the video game Fable III.

YT link:

The cadence occurs at roughly 0:40 and again at 1:31. If this version hasn't been transposed then the key is B minor and chord V is F# major.

So my question I suppose is: is this simply considered an imperfect cadence or is it a different type of imperfect cadence? I've looked into it a little but could not find anything regarding one that doesn't feel a need to be resolved. Generally descriptions of imperfect cadences give that as their defining quality. Although I'm maybe making a big deal of this, this isn't to say it's an uncommon sound to hear in music - it sounds quite natural and intuitive. I suppose one thing I should note is that perhaps it's kind of subjective; compared to me you may find it to feel less stable than I've described. I've not looked into it so I don't know if what I'm describing could be replicated in a major key. I'm just making guesses but the raised seventh degree in a minor scale to create the major V chord may play a role.

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    This might be subjective or a matter of context. Pieces (especially songs) have been ended on half cadences or with unresolved harmonies. I expect if one listens to enough of such music one might hear stability in a harmony that would be considered unresolved in other contexts. Also harmony alone does not make the cadence. With a strong enough rhythmic resolution the music can feel stable even with a less stable harmony. I’ll confess I’m not sure I can come up with and example right now but it should be possible. Sep 19, 2023 at 1:36

4 Answers 4

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I will look up a proper source for this (away from my counterpoint books at present!) but I seem to recall it was common to use endings that sound like this in 16th Century counterpoint.

Imagine you were writing in E Phrygian (all "white keys" with the final cadence on E). One way of managing a cadence in this mode which lacks a perfect fifth in its dominant [V] was to cadence through iv to I.

So your work could be laid out like so...

[E phrygian] ..... counterpoint .... iv...I

It is easily mistaken for a half-cadence in A minor but actually was a legitimate ending to a piece in the Phrygian mode.

This is not your exact situation, as you stated you are deliberately writing in A minor, but there is at least some precedent for ending with this sonority.

Again, I will add a proper citation when I find it!

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  • I'm wondering if the G# stymies this idea. E Phrygian doesn't (and didn't) have that, just the G natural. Not sure either if Tierce de Picardie had been 'invented' by then.
    – Tim
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:54
  • Thanks for your answer - very interesting. I had a thought that it may not actually be in A minor, but didn't give modes any thought. But as Tim had noted, there is a G sharp in the E chord - the major third of the chord. Unless it's a plagal cadence in E phrygian combined with a Tierce de Picardie (also suggested by Tim).
    – user94662
    Sep 20, 2023 at 20:55
  • One possible citation (my translation): "The paragon of a 'phrygian' in the 16c was not the just discussed one, which has the tenorizans in the bottom voice. It does not allow an appropriate movement in the bass. As the phrygian mode forbids a falling fifth in the bass, it must fall a fourth, often following another auxiliary cadence." (T. Daniel: "Kontrapunkt." Dohr, 2002)
    – cdalitz
    Sep 28, 2023 at 13:04
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Somewhat in the ear of the beholder. It's going to be subjective, but there's no reason why finishing on a V in a minor key won't sound like an end cadence - to some - if not many. We're all used to the end harmony being a major one, heck, even pieces in minor keys quite often finish on a major (Tierce de Picardie).

I guess the 'purpose' of an imperfect cadence is to keep the listener hanging on, expecting there to be more to follow, but if it doesn't, well, at least things have finished on a satisfying V chord in the diatonic key! It's your piece, and you can do whatever you like. Haydn's Surprise symphony was unconventional, but it worked, and is renowned even today!

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  • One thing I had mentioned was that the sound/feel that this cadence produces is not unconventional by any means. It's quite natural and intuitive to the ear. Also (provided it is actually in A minor not some other key or mode) then it can't be a Tierce de Picardie as it isn't finishing with a major I chord (A major).
    – user94662
    Sep 20, 2023 at 21:00
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It's still considered an imperfect (half) cadence. The greater or lesser sense of stability at the cadence point does not change the analysis or the name of the cadence. In the case of this piece, it's especially true, since the piece continues by immediately stating the chord of resolution.

A similar effect can sometimes be found between movements in Baroque music. For example, the Largo of Corelli's C Minor Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 3) ends on an imperfect cadence. If one listens only to the bars immediately preceding the cadence, it's sounds perfectly stable, though in the larger context, it's clearly an imperfect cadence.

YouTube, timed to bars immediately before cadence

Same video, started a bit earlier

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  • Thanks for the links. What I found interesting was that even with more context I still thought that it sounded quite stable - though I agree that it is definitely an imperfect cadence. Thanks for your answer!
    – user94662
    Sep 20, 2023 at 21:04
  • Another piece that comes to mind is the ending of the Lacrimosa in Mozart's Requiem in D minor (youtube.com/watch?v=1u2fCJwW8Ys). I'm not 100% sure but I think it's an imperfect cadence and is in line with what you say about endings of movements in Baroque music (Mozart isn't baroque but you know).
    – user94662
    Sep 20, 2023 at 21:18
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This kind of cadence was called a "plagal" cadence (versus an "authentic" cadence) in old (19c and early 20c) harmony books and it was very common in the 16th century and still used in the 17th century. Beware however that the progression in modern harmony terms is not I-V, but IV-I. Modern harmony and counterpoint books put this cadences in the context of modes, and classify these cadences as standard endings in the mixolydian mode and the phrygian mode, often added as a "flosculus" ("litte flower") after a different cadence, eg. the chord progression F76 E AM E.

For famous examples, see, e.g., all endings in the Missa Papae Marcelli (Palestrina), all endings in the Missa Quarti toni (Victoria), or (perhaps the best known example) Aus tiefer Noth (Le Maistre). And for a particular weird example of a phrygian (mode IV) piece ending on a E minor(!) *) chord, see Mille regretz (ascribed in some sources to Josquin). The most bombastic example, however, known to me is the ending of Virgo prudentissima (Isaak), where the notes C and G alternate many times on the text "ut sol" ("like the sun") as a solmization: The effect is overwhelming (which, admittedly, was the precise purpose of the piece).

Whether this is still applicable to a piece utilizing late romantic harmony is a different question, though. To my ears (more used to renaissacne counterpoint than to romantic music), it sounds pretty natural.

*) One might argue that the final third in the cantus could be altered by musica ficta to g#, but this is in contradiction to all extant lute intabulations of the piece, which undeniably end with a minor chord.

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