If we took someone who had never heard western music before and played a piece of music with, say, a deceptive cadence and a perfect cadence in it, would they understand it? I.e., would they feel that the piece is not quite over when they hear the deceptive cadence, and feel a sense of resolution when they hear the perfect cadence? Or are the feelings of resolution created by various kinds of harmonic cadences a product of learning and expectation? What examples of harmonic cadence are there in non-western music?

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    I suggest you listen to some non-Western traditional music. You’ll be amazed how different it is. I recommend starting with traditional Chinese “classical” music (for shock effect). Indian ragas should be interesting too and don’t forget Indonesian gamelan (although quite a lot of that made it into western music - e.g. Debussy). I’m recommending this because there are no examples of harmonic cadences in non-Western music; harmony is a Western invention. Other traditions have developed other aspects: Indian musicians find western music boring because it lacks rhythmical diversity for example. – 11684 Oct 8 '18 at 15:08
  • Great question! I wonder about this too! – elliot svensson Oct 8 '18 at 22:45

To test out whether certain musical features are commonly understood across musical cultures that haven't been exposed to each other, you need to take music containing that feature to a group of people who have not been exposed to music with this feature, and yet with whom you can also communicate effectively for the purposes of running an experiment. Opportunities for musicologists to do this are rare.

I couldn't find any study testing the emotional effect of cadences in particular. However, a recent study on the Tsimane people of the Amazon found little preference for concordant vs discordant sounds, which suggests that the modern Western perception of harmony is to a significant extent a cultural construction.

This probably makes sense from an evolution/survival point of view, as it's not really possible to say that, in general, associating a consonant combination of sounds (or a particular sequence of dissonances and consonances) with a particular emotional response would give a survival advantage; many environments probably only rarely feature moments of naturally-occurring consonant sound.

Another study of the Mafa people of Cameroon suggests that members an isolated culture can have some success at identifying the intended mood of pieces of Western music overall, albeit to a much lesser extent than Western listeners. It seems that this study did not attempt to draw any conclusions about which features led to those emotional inferences. Other studies (1, 2) have also come to the conclusion that it's possible to understand the mood or function of a piece of music cross-culturally.

As to where the limits of that ability lie, I would go back to the thought experiment of considering the evolution/survival point of view. It's easy to see why a piece of music with a lot of sudden loud moments or rhythmic changes might be disturbing; why a quiet, slow, consistent piece of music might be seen as a lullaby; and why a consistently rhythmic piece of music might be understood to relate to dancing. However, I think it's hard to imagine why a certain harmonic cadence would be universally associated with a particular emotion.

I think Dekkadeci's point that associations change even within western music is also a relevant one. This article makes the same kind of point about a current retreat in the prevalence of major tonality as a marker of 'happiness'.


There's a video online by Sideways (

) in which he breaks down what makes Miyazaki films sound pretty. At one point in the video, he starts to break down why the composer (Joe Hisaishi?) uses strange scales that don't really fit western harmony ideas. He tells you that even though some of them can sound unresolved to you, they don't have to (paraphrase). Then he plays a piece of music that sounds completely unresolved, then tells you that it's the Japanese National Anthem ("Kimi Ga Yo"), and that that really was the end of the song. It sounds extremely unresolved to Western ears, but Japanese people don't tend to hear it that way. It therefore seems to me that a lot of the effect of cadences is created through conditioning.

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    The narrator cites Japan's national anthem Kimi Ga Yo at 10:58. – Rosie F Oct 8 '18 at 7:22
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    Interestingly, the American folk hymn "What Wondrous Love is This" ends the same way as Kimi Ga Yo, with 5-4-2-1 as of the Dorian mode. So a lot of cultures will create similar cadence structures, but they are based on melody and tend to sound unfinished to listeners hearing harmonically. – Mirlan Feb 18 '19 at 2:23

In fact, if you give someone who's listened to plenty of Western music a piece with a deceptive cadence in it, that person may still feel a sense of resolution when the deceptive cadence comes!

The I-V-vi-IV chord progression is commonly found in pop music and more. A common variant of it is the vi-IV-I-V chord progression. Rewrite everything as if the vi chord is the tonic instead and you have the i-VI-III-VII chord progression. Note the strong resemblance of the VII-i cadence to the V-vi deceptive cadence.

Listen to enough music with that chord progression that's in a minor key (i.e. starts with the vi chord) and you may end up thinking that deceptive cadences bring a strong sense of resolution. The Wikipedia article quotes Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" as an example of the vi-IV-I-V chord progression, but I think F-777's "Dance of the Violins" is a better example because its V melody portions aren't prominently using the root note of the I chord.

tl;dr I believe that people's sense of cadence resolution is created through conditioning, and their reaction to the vi-IV-I-V chord progression is a great example that shows this.

  • what is the strong resemblence of VII-i to V-vi, the root movement by step? – Michael Curtis Oct 8 '18 at 16:34
  • A combination of that and the major-to-minor shift, correct. – Dekkadeci Oct 9 '18 at 5:48

In Western music, pieces that are highly tonal in nature are setting up the tonic note as home base all throughout the piece which increases the strength of the final cadence. It is impossible to know for sure how another person perceives that cadence, whether from a Western perspective or not, but I would find it hard to believe that anyone would have difficulty recognizing "I" to be the final resolution after the hammering of V-I at the end of a Beethoven symphony, for example.

However, even much of Western music has not been so specifically tonal. 3rds weren't even used much before 1500, and by 1800 music was modulating all over the place, and increasingly so until atonality came into vogue in the early 20th C. Disguising cadences is something many composers do and have done, and with the tendency toward modulation, I suspect that it became more difficult for listeners to know for sure that the final chord was the end, not a springboard into a new key or section, until the sound stopped.

I listen to a significant amount of non-Western music and hear cadences in it all. They are just done differently. Some are rhythmic, some are melodic. When one listens intently to the music, those points are noticeable, though perhaps not predictable (to a non-native listener.) I went to a concert of Indian music the other night which contained a tremendous amount of improvisation. I could hear a lot of cadences but had no idea when the performers were done improvising until they stopped. However, I also often get that feeling when listening to modern Western classical compositions.

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