My question is not: what is the textbook definition of a half cadence?

What I am trying to get at is the perception of an incomplete, sort of antecedent phrase ending.

When playing the following hymn I heard the harmony and phrasing as marked...

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...where I considered the first phrase to be non-modulating, in E minor and ending on a non-tonic chord. The second phrase I treated as being in G major and ending on a tonic chord.

Obviously I could try marking a modulation to G major in the first phrase and then call the ending perfect cadence. But it doesn't feel that way. Especially with the pairing of the two phrases.

If the music were major key, I could easily imagine the first phrase ends on a normal half cadence followed by perfect cadence in the dominant. Like this:

        H.C.         P.A.C.
C: I    V || G: V    I ||

...the domiant is both the common point for modulation and the contrasting chord for a half cadence.

So, is this:

        H.C.           P.A.C.
Em: i   III || G: V    I ||

...the analogous structure in minor? The relative major is both the common point for modulation and the contrasting chord for a quasi-half cadence.

I guess the main concern here is just about labels. A typical half cadence doesn't require a key change label, because there is an accepted cadence type to use. But in this kind of minor key phrase there simply isn't such a cadence label. Or is there a label? Perhaps one from earlier theory, or from another language.

  • Interesting question. I’ve never thought about this and never encountered a term for this. I agree the 3 phrases contain cadences, but which label? The relative-cadence? Or the Curtis-cadence? Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 21:37
  • I never thought about before either, but I played this hymn this morning and the phrasing seemed so clearly antecedent/consequent. Surely it comes from the brevity of the first phrase. I think other simple examples like Schubert dances or Mozart minuets - in minor keys - are probably, typically longer phrases and in effect modulate. This hymn may be an odd case. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


I think the answer depends on what you mean by the term "half cadence."

On the one hand, "half cadence" in most theory books today is basically defined as a move to the local dominant. Your first cadence clearly can't be a "half cadence" in that sense, since it's about the strongest IAC one could imagine (and the soprano even jumps down to make it seem like it just barely missed being a PAC). There's absolutely nothing in that first cadence progression that remotely could be classified as a stereotypical "half cadence" to a local dominant.

On the other hand, I sense that you're after something different. The etymological root of half cadence obviously is referring to a sort of standing point on the way to something else (i.e., "halfway" to there, whatever "there" is).

And in that second sense, one might consider a lot of chords as substituting to create a sense of an "unfinished cadence" that ultimately gets to a PAC later.

I certainly think III can function that way in minor keys. The immediate progression that comes to mind is the standard Folia progression and variants of it, where phrases commonly move toward III (the mediant) but then return to minor. Hundreds of Russian Orthodox chant arrangements do a similar progression too, mirroring a minor-mode harmonic move that was also common in Western Europe in congregational four-voice chanting settings in earlier days. (This is the tradition the hymn setting you quote ultimately comes out of.)

In fact, early theories of keys and cadences in the 17th-century often gave a place of privilege to cadences on the mediant, as another sort of "dominant" that served in contrast to the tonic. This relationship was usually stronger in the minor mode.

(Actually, to be more accurate: originally the French terms dominante and mediante were used to classify cadences that could occur on various notes of the scale depending on the precise mode, where the dominante was only slightly inferior to the finale of the mode, and the mediante was an alternative place to cadence in the middle of a piece, which often fell on the third above or below the finale. A cadence mediante was actually sometimes a term for any cadence that occurred "in the middle," i.e., what you're calling a "half cadence." The mediante cadences often came on the third above in what we'd now think of as "minor modes," but could fall below in some modes we'd now think of as "major modes," i.e., a cadence to vi. Eventually, the terms mediante and dominante settled down in French theory to the third and fifth degrees in all modes, which begat our modern nomenclature for those scale degrees.)

So yes, there's all sorts of conceptual and historical precedent for saying that III in a minor key can be an alternative cadential destination for a medial cadence within a larger set of phrases.

All of that said, I don't understand the labeling of cadences in the question. Both of the cadences to G are obviously authentic cadences with very strong ii6-V-I motion. I get that the first cadence feels less strong (as an IAC, lacking a V7, and a very fast modulation), but it's clearly not a half cadence in the hierarchy where cadences are called things like PACs.

I think perhaps what you might be feeling is partly the general sense of 4-bar phrase units adding up to a larger 8-bar structure. When one hears a sudden modulation at the outset and an arrival point after 4 bars, it's often meant to feel like "halfway there," and you get the rest of the way "there" after the first 8 bars. That seems to be the sort of modulating period-like structure you document at the end of the question, giving a sensation of structural completion after 8 bars.

And, in this particular hymn, by the end of the first 8 bars, one might legitimately wonder what key we're even in. Did we just begin on an unusual chord, and the "real key" is G major? Of course, subsequent phrases eventually confirm E minor to be the true tonic (after even more waffling with G -- the mediant -- as a temporary goal again toward the end of the verse).

  • I think I was overlooking how an IAC sets up a continuation, that "halfway there" feel. I really appreciate the historical info about cadencing on the mediant. I would like to understand that better. Do you know a piece that illustrates it? Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 14:57
  • @MichaelCurtis: I'm happy to see if I can come up with an example, but I'm not sure what exactly you're looking for. Large amounts of music from the 17th century that begin on a minor chord tend to modulate to the mediant at some point, which was the precursor of III being the standard modulatory destination for minor keys in the classical era. But if you're looking for simple 4-bar or 8-bar structures that modulate to III, you might need to poke around a bit more, as such regular phrase structures weren't always as common in the 17th century.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 22:30
  • After re-reading, I think I misunderstood cadence mediante. That is just a modulation to and cadence in the mediant. Whatever sense of incomplete ending I'm heading in the first phrase is captured with IAC label. Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 16:32

You hear it the way you hear it, but IMO this is a good illustration of the fact that the major and "relative Aeolian mode" are so close to each other that their tonality can be ambiguous.

In G, the harmony of the first line is completely conventional cadential formula: vi I6 ii6 V I, and for me that's what the end of the first line sounds like. However the three E minor chords at the start make it sound like it is starting in E minor not G major.

We don't get an unequivocal leading note of E minor (D#) till the end of the third line.

The fact that the tune ends in E minor reinforces the feeling that it also starts in E minor, in subsequent verses.

I don't see any logic in analysing the exact same ii V I chord sequence at the end of lines 1 and 2 as two different types of cadence in two different keys. That seems like eye-music not ear-music IMO.

Edit in response to comment:

Try an experiment. Play line 2, followed by line 1. Do you still hear line 1 as in E minor ending in a half cadence in the relative major?

By "eye music" I mean analysis by looking at the notes, not from what they sound like. A nice example was a recent thread where somebody was trying to analyse the chord sequence Cdim7 C (in C major). First, rename Cdim7 enharmonically as D#dim7. Then consider D#dim7 as B7(b9) with no root. Conclusion, these two chords are obviously an interrupted cadence, V of iii VI of iii. Or maybe not.

  • The logic of it - the reason - it to recognize the first phrase as an incomplete ending, because that's how it sounds. The labels aren't eye-music (whatever that means), they are just labels to explain how it sounds. But I understand your reply. You consider the first cadence in G major. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 21:10
  • FWIW, I didn't analyze it on paper first. I played it, and then analyzed after first play through. I'm OK with saying the first cadence is in G. In fact I wanted to know if others heard that. But @Athanasius I think got the heart of the matter: it's an IAC, different than the second cadence PAC. I was overlooking IAC as an antecedent. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 21:42

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