Lesson 1: Cadence and Form

The most common type of musical analysis is arguably formal analysis. Formal analysis answers the question: How are the large parts of this music related to one another? Form analysis is one of the first types of analysis non-specialist music-lovers grasp; think of any pre-concert talk, program notes, or the like. These often consist of “Listen for this [musical idea] that indicates [emotional idea], and how it comes, goes, returns, changes.” The basics of formal analysis, because they are aural and large-scale, can be grasped by people who may not even read music. Of course, formal analysis can get much more technical than a pre-concert talk, but it is where we will begin our musical analysis.

Let’s start with a vocal form, because we’re going to use analogies from prose to explain cadences in a minute. For example, the first youtube video on my list that caught my eye this morning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRP8d7hhpoQ the Pentatonix version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. If you look up lyrics for this song, the text is organized into verses and choruses (also called refrains). Since the musical ideas repeat with every verse/chorus, this is the larger form of the song: verse/chorus or for a fancy word, strophic. Now, I don’t care so much what words we use to describe various forms, so long as we can communicate that this song has one musical idea that is used for multiple verses of text.

Here’s another piece, this time for solo piano, Mozart’s K 331, the first movement.[*] We’ll be coming back to this piece frequently over the course of these lessons, particularly the first 2 minutes or so. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dP9KWQ8hAYk Feel free to listen to the whole recording, but pay special attention to the part up to time mark 1:40. This is the portion of the music that is the basis for the rest of the recording. If you listen carefully, you can hear how the melody and chords after 1:40 resemble the beginning of the piece. This is known as Theme and Variations. The theme (0:00-1:40) is taken and adapted multiple times as the composer plays with different ideas. In some ways, this is like the repeating verses in the previous song, but without words, the composer must change the musical ideas more to keep interest.

Each of these two forms use repeating ideas in similar or slightly varied form, but still convey emotional development. In Hallelujah, the melody stays pretty stable (maybe some vocal embellishment by various soloists, but it’s clearly one melody), but the changing accompaniment for each verse manipulates emotional tension, to mirror the story formed by the words. In the Mozart, there is no written out story, but each variation showcases a different style, different rhythms, different emotions, like vignettes.

Now, that we’ve covered 2 basic larger forms with specific examples, you can imagine other forms that are possible: pieces with one repeating main idea, pieces with 2 competing main ideas, and a multitude of different ways of varying , repeating, and deconstructing musical ideas. Music analysts usually use letters to mark themes and ideas, saying a piece has an ABA form to mark 2 primary ideas, but with only one returning at the end, or that the form is ABACABA for something more symmetrical, and getting into all kinds of minutia about how each section works, transitions, and is or is not related to the others. That’s more form than we’re going to get into right now, because we want to move on from basic form to cadences.


Think back, or listen again to those two pieces. You could tell when the verse/chorus section was over, even if you’d never heard the song before. When the theme ended and moved on to the first variation, you could tell. Right? Those moments, (0:54 in Hallelujah, and 1:39 or so in the Mozart) are what we call closed cadences. If the song ended there, it would make sense. It’d be very short, but we wouldn’t be sitting up in our seats wondering what is happening next. Closed cadences are sort of like punctuation that end sentences. There are a couple different ways to end a sentence, a period, an exclamation mark, but they both convey a sense of closure.

Other punctuation leave ideas more open. Open cadences can be found at 0:21 and 0:35 in Hallelujah, and 0:11 and 0:55 in the Mozart. A question mark invites an answer, a comma implies continuation, a colon or semicolon does as well. While we won’t worry about matching various types of musical cadences exactly to punctuation, it’s a common metaphor, and it will help you to frame your thinking about musical occurrences if you can think of them as closing versus continuing at the very least. Also, remember that while right now we are only discussing closed and open, it’s not a binary option, it’s a spectrum; the punctuation analogy helps remind us that there are a number of options for indicating relative closure. For example, 0:44 in the Mozart feels closed, because it’s closing the first idea to move to the second idea, but it ends up being not as closed as 1:40.

These concepts of open and closed cadence heavily influence more detailed formal analyses. Because of their emotional impact on a spectrum of closure versus continuation, the type of cadence can make a huge difference to a melodic or rhythmic idea, and can completely change what emotional impact it has. The word cadence is descended from the Latin word meaning “to hold,” so generally speaking a cadence is any point in music that seems like you might take a breath, but as we move forward we will specifically define various types of cadences based on which chords provide that open or closed feeling. In some genres of music, cadence can be solely defined by rhythm, text, or other parameters; so even when we have specific chords that we are looking for, we don’t want to discount rhythmic or metric placement, words, melody, or other influential musical occurrences. Don’t forget that musical/emotional impact either: if the cadence sounds open/continuing even if it has the chord we think of as closed, we want to acknowledge that emotional feeling of continuation regardless of notes.


Next lesson: Defining the harmonies that make cadences sound open or closed


Main Ideas:

Form: the large scale way a piece of music is put together. Formal Analysis describes various sections for a piece of music, and how they interrelate.

Cadence: A feeling of breath, hold, or punctuation, caused by various musical parameters including (but not limited to) rhythm, meter, melody, chords, and words.

Closed Cadence: A place where the musical idea feels complete. Period or exclamation mark in the punctuation analogy.

Open Cadence: A place where the musical idea is pausing for breath, but continuing on to a second part of an idea, or another idea entirely. A comma, question mark, or colon.


[*] A movement is a stand-alone part of a larger piece, a symphony or a sonata, like a set of pieces that go together, and are typically played without interruption.

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