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Predicability: deceptive cadences

When a song ends, the last few chords are always predictable. And they’re predictable because songs usually end with the I chord.

But not always…



In the last decade or so, cadence has come to mean the rhythmic nature of someone’s speech.

Cadence also refers to the way things end. Specifically, it refers to two or three chords that resolve to the I chord. Here are some very standard cadential patterns…


  • ii – V – I (D minor – G – C)
  • IV – V – I (F – G – C)


…and some not so standard cadential patterns.


  • IV minor – bVII – I (F minor – Bb – C)
  • ii – bII – I (D minor – Db – C)


Notice that they all end on the I chord.


Not going to the I chord: deceptive cadences

Some cadences are called deceptive. They lead you toward the I chord, but take you elsewhere.

Let’s take one of the standard cadences (ii – V – I) and resolve it to anything but the expected tonic chord.


  • ii – V – iii (D minor – G – E minor)


Here’s another one.


  • ii – V – vi (D minor – G – A minor)


Here’s one that is not a cadence in any standard way.


  • ii – V – bIII (D minor – G – Eb)


It’s not a cadence because there’s no strong sense of ending.



The iii chord and the vi chord sort of remind us of the I chord, while making us feel something different. How do they do this?

Through relations, of course. And what are those relations?



  • The I chord in the key of C has the following pitches: C E G.


  • The iii chord in the key of C has the following pitches: E G B.


  • And the vi chord in the key of C has the following pitches: A C E.


Do you see how the iii chord and the vi chord are related to the I chord?

Compare the pitches and you’ll see that the I chord and the iii chord share two pitches: the E and the G. And the I chord and the vi chord shared the C and the E.


Chord meshing

I love this kind of thing in harmony. Chords meshing with chords…

When you play the final chord of the cadence, you can add pitches from the other chords. This adds color and a different sense of closure.

Here’s what I mean.

Say you want to end on the iii chord. Do that and then find a way to add the C (just the note, not the whole chord). Just to be clear, you’re meshing the E minor chord with the C chord. Those two chords meshed together give you E G B, and C.

Try this. Play an open-string E minor chord and then add the C on the 1st fret of the second string.

emin w c1

Doesn’t sound that great.


But this…

emin w c2

Your first finger goes on the A string at the 3rd fret. That’s the C. The triangular shape on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings is the E minor chord. The whole thing is a C major 7 chord.

Chord meshing makes new chords!

Try this with other chords that have common tones. Mesh the E minor chord with the A minor chord and you get A C E G B: an A minor 9 chord.

Here’s an example of how to work this E minor/A minor mesh into an arpeggiated idea.


emin amin mesh


It starts and ends with the E minor chord (E G B), inserting notes of the A minor chord (A C E) along the way.

This is the kind of thing that you can use to extend an ending. Adjust the length, rhythm, number of notes, etc. to suit your needs.


Compare everything

Now write down the notes of all of the chords in the key of C. Compare them. See which ones share commons notes, and then write chords or licks using those notes.

Think of these things you’re writing as song-enders. People remember endings. Make them distinctive.



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Predictability and chord patterns


Predictability isn’t a bad thing.

Endless predictability is.


Two things make music boring:

  1. too much predictability
  2. not enough predictability


Every time you write something, you need to find a balance between predictability and novelty.

So how do you do that?


The proper mix

Figure out what musical characteristics create predictability. There are quite a few, but for me chord patterns spring to mind immediately.

All chord progressions are built from chord patterns, which are short progressions of chords (two to eight chords) that can be used to build an entire song.

I’m going to use roman numerals for the rest of this post. If you need some information on that, here’s a link


Common chord patterns

V – I (G to C in the key of C) is probably the most common chord pattern.

I – IV – V – I (C – F – G – C) is another one.


Here’s a longer one that I know you’ve heard before:

I – vi – ii – V – I (C – A minor – D minor – G – C)

Longer yet:

I – ii – iii – vi – IV – V – I (C – D minor – E minor – F – G – C)

One more:

I – III7 – IV – iv – I (C – E7 – F – F minor – I)


Finding patterns

Play around with these to see how familiar they are to you. Then look at some of the songs you know, or have written. See if you can match the chords in those songs with roman numerals. The harder this is, the more the song is exhibiting non-functional tendencies (see my last post on functional and non-functional harmony).


Pretend that this progression in the key of C is from one song:

C – F – G – C

I – IV – V – I

And that this one in the key of F is from another:

F – Bb – C – F.

I – IV – V – I

Notice that both have the same I – IV – V – I  pattern. Without roman numerals, the pattern can be difficult to see.


If you have something weird like C – Eb – D minor – F – Bb – G – C, just think in the key of C: I – bIII – ii – IV – bVII – V – I (bIII and bVII are flatted chords, in case the symbol looks confusing).

Ultimately, this is an awareness exercise. It helps you see where you’re repeating yourself. You need this awareness if you’re going to break out of those inevitable situations where you feel that everything you write is stale.



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