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Conor's ViolinAs my first book is finding its way to more readers, I’m meeting people who are intrigued by the title and interested to know what it means. The title is a musical term, so I thought I’d post an explanation and give an example of what it sounds like, and how to distinguish it from other types of cadences.

Searching for the term online, you will get some very dry and overly technical definitions about cadences. If you enjoy math they might make a lot of sense to you, but for those who are more comfortable with words than figures, an easier explanation is to say that musical cadences serve some of the same functions as punctuation in a written narrative, and they create a certain type of effect.

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An Open Cadence functions like a comma. It’s when the music takes a short breath before continuing on with the narrative. When you are reading, just as you understand a comma is only a brief pause in the action, when you hear an open cadence your ear can discern that the music isn’t finished yet. It hasn’t quite made its point and you can tell something has to follow for it to make sense. Here is an example from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.


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So, as you might have guessed, a Closed Cadence is one that functions like a period. The musical piece itself might not be finished, but you can recognize a particular phrase is finished. The closed cadence might be subtle enough for just a quick resting point before the piece continues, or it might be quite dramatic, as at the conclusion of Beethoven’s 5th. When you listen to this final closing cadence, you have a sense of satisfied completion. You know it’s safe to clap, now. Nothing could possibly come after it.

A Deceptive Cadence doesn’t do either of these things. Instead of giving you that expectant pause from an open cadence, or that sense of completion from a closed cadence, the deceptive cadence misleads you. The notes are progressing in a direction you think you recognize, but just as you think you’ve guessed what the next chord will be, the music goes off in a different direction altogether. To continue the analogy to writing, a deceptive cadence is like the ellipsis ( . . . ), that moment of uncertainty in the narrative, where anything might follow.

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Again, in Beethoven’s 5th, there is a deceptive cadence, and it’s a great one. This time, you will hear a series of 4 notes repeat (ba-ba-ba-BUM, ba-ba-ba-BUM) and then on the third repetition you’ll hear ba-ba-ba-BA-ba . . . and you think you are about to hear that final, satisfying BUM, to complete the phrase (known as a “tonic” note or chord), but  instead, Beethoven takes you down a rabbit hole. Where you expected a definitive “BUM”, you get a mysterious, elongated passage that seems to stretch forever, and suddenly you’re lost. You don’t know where he’s going next. Eventually he brings you out into something bright and definitive, but to get the entire effect, you’ll have to listen to the whole movement. Here is just the deceptive cadence and the very beginning of the emergence.

When I first learned about this term, I thought it epitomized the experience of my hero, Conor McBride. He’s pursuing an elusive mission where the answers keep slipping away from him and the direction changes without warning.