Aural resources: harmony and cadence

The following notes are mainly written for my students preparing ABRSM grade 6-8 aural tests. It is ideal to attend music theory class to learn more about harmony but most of my students are too busy to do so. Therefor I simplify the harmony course here.

Learning harmony is also good in piano playing. When we play the piano, we mainly focus on the pitches and rhythm of the piece. However, it is harmony that greatly helps in building up the musical flow. This enhance deeper understanding of the piece and composers’ intention. We tends to overlook this musical element. It is even more pity that we usually conduct such kind of aural training ONLY for exam and in a rush.

Nature of chords

  1. Chords are stalks of notes. There are many types of chords. Triads and seventh chords are the most common types. In aural exam only triads and dominant 7th chords are covered.
  2. Triads are stalk of thirds. They can form root position, first inversion and second inversion with the change of notes in their bass.
  3. There are four types of triads according to the interval-nature between notes in the triads: major-, minor-, augmented- and diminished- triads.
  4. There are seven types of triads named according to their position in the scale: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading note. As the notes of these triads are picked up from the scale, triads from major and minor scales are in different interval-nature even they are in the same position of the scale. For example, tonic and subdominant triads in major key are major-triad in nature and become minor-triad in minor key. In major key, submediant triad is minor-triad in nature and turns to major-triad in minor key. Supertonic is major-triad and diminished-triad in major and minor keys respectively. Only dominant triad still keeps the same and is in major-triad all the time.
  5. Primary triads are tonic, subdominant and dominant triads.
  6. Dominant 7th (V7) is the combination of dominant triad and add a major 7th from the root.



Cadence marks the end of musical phrases.

Tonic– Dominant preparation– Dominant– Tonic

There are four types of cadence: perfect, imperfect, interrupted and plagal cadence. Firstly I will teach students to identify between perfect and imperfect cadence.  Imagine you are driving a car. You have to stop when you see the traffic light turns red. In music it is perfect cadence that functions as red traffic light and gives you sense of completion. The chord progression is V(7)-I. Imperfect cadence is then the yellow traffic light. You will feel the musical phrase is going on at imperfect cadence. Musical phrases end on V in every imperfect cadence.

Interrupted cadence gives you a sense of  surprise.  It sounds like perfect cadence but ends on submediant chord, VI. Submediant and tonic chords share one common note, tonic but these two chords are opposite in nature. When it’s in major key, I is major chord and vi is minor chord, and vice versa.

The following is the cadence chart that I use to teach grade 6-8 aural. Mediant, leading note chords and other chromatic chords are excluded here. Also submediant triad is seldom used so I omit it here and only keep it in interrupted cadence.

In grade 6, candidates only need to identify between perfect and imperfect cadence. Besides identifying the cadence, candidantes are further asked to name last two and three chords in the cadence in grade 7 and 8 respectively. Here my strategy is to think backward from the final chord. I list out the possible combination of chords in the following chart:


Major key Minor key
Perfect cadence I, ii, IV- V(7)-I i, ii∘,iv – V(7)-i
Imperfect cadence ii, IV, V- I-V ii∘,iv, V- i-V
I, IV, V- ii-V i, iv, V- ii∘-V
I,ii, V- IV-V i, ii∘, V- iv-V
Interrupted cadence (gr 7-8 only) I, ii, IV- V(7)-vi i, ii∘,iv – V(7)-VI
Plagal cadence (gr 8 only) I, ii, V- IV-I i, ii∘,iv – iv-i


Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved


2 thoughts on “Aural resources: harmony and cadence

  1. Thank you Alice. My son is completing his grade 6 aural and was having difficulty with cadence. You’ve made it a lot clearer 🙂

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