Let's say we're in the key of C major (for simplicity). A typical cadence would be V-I, which is G major to C major. Is there are name given for the role each chord play within a cadence?

The reason for this question is that I'm trying to develop some rules for my students when it comes to building phrases in various modes and I'm trying to find a name for the cadential chords at the end of a phrase.

  • Consider introducing them as guidelines (or similar), not rules. I find calling this sort of thing a 'rule' can confuse students, because they'll be more exceptions than you can poke a stick at.
    – endorph
    Dec 27, 2016 at 7:35
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    Sure...when I say "rules" that's what I'm saying. In any complicated musical topic, for every "rule" there are always some ways to negate those rules.
    – 02fentym
    Dec 27, 2016 at 7:38

2 Answers 2


Well, yes:

  1. V-I: Dominant - tonic: authentic or perfect cadence.
  2. IV-V-I: Subdominant (or predominant) - dominant - tonic: another (fuller) authentic cadence.
  3. ii-V-I: Supertonic (or predominant) - dominant - tonic: yet another authentic cadence.
  4. II (V/V)-V-I: Dominant of the dominant - dominant - tonic: (you guessed it) yet another authentic cadence.
  5. IV-V: Subdominant (predominant) - dominant: half or imperfect cadence.
  6. ii-V: Supertonic (predominant) - dominant: another half cadence.
  7. V-vi: Dominant - submediant (tonic substitute): deceptive or interrupted cadence.
  8. IV-I: Subdominant - tonic: plagal cadence.
  9. iv6-V (- I): Subdominant minor (predominant) - dominant (- tonic): Phrygian half cadence (authentic cadence).
  10. It+6/Fr+6/Gr+6 - V (- I): Augmented sixth (predominant) - dominant (- tonic): Half cadence (authentic cadence).

You can substitute iv for IV, i for I and VI for vi, depending on mode, for most of these cases. I didn't list II-V as a half cadence, although it can make a perfectly valid one, because there is a fair potential for ambiguity: is it II-V in the tonic key or V-I in the key of the dominant? This will be context-dependent, and you will find that you will need to refer to the context when teaching.

This list is by no means exhaustive (it misses the Neapolitan sixth as a predominant, for instance), but it does give some insight into how function factors into cadences: cadences tend to fall into some variety of half, authentic, deceptive or plagal, and the functions of the chords involved tend to be some variety of subdominant (or substitute), dominant (or substitute, e.g., vii°) or tonic (or substitute).

It is sometimes simpler to refer to a chord that leads into the dominant as a predominant, because they will sometimes partake of mixed function. V of V, for instance, is almost a "super-dominant", and the French sixth combines a gapped dominant seventh of the dominant over a descending leading tone bass (♭6 moving to 5), so works both as a dominant and a subdominant. (Augmented sixths can act as dominant substitutes as well as predominants. I would contend that jazz tritone dominant substitutions are really just mixed function augmented sixths.)

In a modal context, using v as a dominant is a bit rare (due to the fact that, without the leading tone, v doesn't much sound like a dominant). Plagal (iv-i, Iv-i, iv-I and IV-I) and plagal-like cadences involving ♭VII6 or ♭vii6 are going to be common in modes lacking V. In Pop music, where parallels are not necessarily a consideration, you may find ♭II or ♭ii used in plagal-style cadences as well. Half cadences in very minor modes like the Phrygian will tend to move to the subdominant as well (e.g., i-iv).

  • Thanks for the answer. After reading it, I don't think it answers what I'm asking. I understand how cadences are created, but I want to know if there is some sort of scheme for naming the role of the two (or three) chords in a cadence.
    – 02fentym
    Dec 27, 2016 at 7:41
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    There is a scheme for naming the chords depending on their context - just as I have listed above. The name of the cadence itself tells you the role of the two or three chords taken as an ensemble.
    – user16935
    Dec 27, 2016 at 7:43
  • @Patrx2 the way I interpreted the OP's question was to paraphrase it as something like "if the basic idea of a any type of cadence is a progression of two chords X and Y, is there a generally accepted name for 'chord X' and 'chord Y'?". (And I suspect the answer is "no, because this isn't a very useful way to characterize cadences").
    – user19146
    Dec 27, 2016 at 8:34
  • @alephzero, which leaves us with subdominants (predominants in a more general sense), dominants and tonics, and chords that act like these. I quite agree that adding a level of indirection (which is what I suspect OP is doing) isn't very useful: so much of common practice harmony depends on the asymmetry of effect of dominant regions versus subdominant regions relative to a tonic (on the level of tonal regions as well as at the chord and phrase level) that trying to abstract this away, even in the early stages of instruction, is not doing the students any favours.
    – user16935
    Dec 27, 2016 at 8:56

The perfect (authentic) cadence - V>I, is dominant > tonic, or root. [G>C]

The imperfect (half)cadence is the opposite - I>V, tonic to dominant. [C>G], leaving us dangling, as we were going home, but now...

The plagal cadence ends on tonic, Amen. sub-dominant>tonic. [F>C]

The interrupted (deceptive) cadence is usually dominant to submediant. V>vi [G>Am], nearly home, but home's changed subtley.

  • I know about the types of cadences (perfect, imperfect, plagal and deceptive). That wasn't exactly what I was asking, but thanks for the quick reply anyways. Let me give you an example: in the V-I perfect cadence, perhaps the V is called the "preparer" chord and the I is called "the finisher". I'm just making stuff up here of course. Are there any proper terms for their roles. By my. Among scheme, the IV in the plagal cadence would also be the "preparer".
    – 02fentym
    Dec 27, 2016 at 7:36
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    Most of us like to put labels on whatever we can, but there's already labels on the cadences, and after all, there's only two chords involved in each, and the penultimate is the same in different cadences. So, I don't think there's any point in pinpointing it any more than it is.
    – Tim
    Dec 27, 2016 at 7:43

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