“Chord progression” means “series of chords which follow each other”. For example, I-IV-V-I is a chord progression.

A cadence is a combination of specific chords which tells the listener that a section or phrase of a piece, has come to an end. Cadences also often use slower note values than used earlier in the phrase.

There are three cadences that you need to know for Grade 5 Theory. They are:

V – I: perfect cadence

IV – I: plagal cadence

* – V: imperfect cadence

 As you can see, all cadences finish with either chord I or chord V. This is very important to remember!

In an “imperfect” cadence I have used an asterisk for the first chord, because, in fact, almost any chord can be used before V. Most commonly, you will find I, II, IV or VI. You don’t need chord VI in Grade 5 theory, so the there are three different imperfect cadences to know at this grade: I-V, II-V and IV-V. 

Here is an example in C major. The first phrase ends with cadence 1, and the piece ends with cadence 2.

C major cadence example

Cadence 1 moves from a chord of D minor to G major- or II-V (imperfect).

Cadence 2 moves from a chord of G major to C major- or V-I (perfect).

Here are the same cadences from above, but fitted to a melody line and with some added notes to make the tune more interesting.

Cadence in melody

Pre-Cadence Chords

In Classical music, (roughly from 1750-1900, when fashions changed), composers used standard chord progressions in their music, which means there are certain chords which are much more likely to follow each other than others. In your music theory exam, you will be tested on your knowledge of these common progressions.

  • The tonic chord (I) can move to any other chord.
  • The dominant chord (V) normally only moves to chord I. It does not move to chord IV or II.
  • The subdominant chord (IV) can move to any other chord, but is less likely to move to chord II.
  • The supertonic chord (II) can move to any other chord except chord I.

The following progressions should be avoided:

  • II-I
  • V-IV
  • V-II
  • Any two identical chords placed together (because this is not strictly a progression!)

This means that the chord which comes before a cadence is restricted in the following ways:

Perfect Cadence Progressions
Imperfect Cadence Progressions
  Not allowed:
IV-II-V (not common)
II-IV-V (not common)  
Plagal Cadence Progressions
  Not allowed:
II-IV-I (not common)

Questions on Cadences

Watch the video to find out how to answer the Cadence Questions in the ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory exam. (Transcript below video!)

You will be asked to identify one or more cadences in your grade 5 exam.

The key will be given.

The two chords that make up the cadence are marked with a bracket.

Remember that the perfect cadence is V-I, plagal is IV-I, and imperfect cadences finish on chord V.

Name the cadence marked with a bracket:

name the cadence

Although the bracket is placed over the top of the chords, you actually only need to look at the two bass notes – the lowest notes in each chord – to discover the answer.

In this question above, the final two bass notes are A and D. These are the 5th and 1st notes of the D major scale, so the chord progression is V-I and it’s a perfect cadence.

Here is another example.

Name the cadence marked with a bracket:

name the cadence

The key is Ab major. The bass notes in the cadence are Db and Ab, which are the 4th and 1st notes of the Ab major scale, so the progression is IV-I and it is a plagal cadence.

In a second type of question, you are asked to suggest chords to fit two cadences in a melody.

Usually, one of the progressions also includes a pre-cadence chord.

suggest chords and cadence question

First, check the key signature so that you know what key the music is in. These questions will only be in major keys, so this one is in G major.

On your scrap paper, make a note of the tonic, supertonic, subdominant and dominant triads in this key, and remind yourself again which chords make up the three main cadences, perfect (V-I), plagal (IV-I) and imperfect (ends on V).

jot down the chords in the key

Chords 1 and 2 (in the question) make up the first cadence. Start with chord 2, because this is the chord that the cadence ends on, and it can only be chord I or V. Match the note (or notes) in the melody to the correct triad. In this example, the note is A, so it must be chord V, and we now know we are looking at an imperfect cadence.

Now look at chord 1. This could be any other chord, except for another chord V. The notes under the bracket are C, B, A and E. Three of these notes belong to chord II, but the B doesn’t fit. This doesn’t matter, because the B is an off-beat note which is a step (2nd) away from the note before and after it. Off-beat notes which move by step are “decoration” notes, and don’t need to be in the chord. So, this is chord II.

Now look at chords 3, 4 and 5.

chords 3, 4 and 5

Chords 4 and 5 form the cadence, and chord 3 is a pre-cadence chord. As before, start at the end, with the last chord, which must be I or V: G is only found in chord I.

Chord I can only be preceded by chord V or chord IV, not chord II.The 4th chord contains the notes D and F#, so this is chord V. The 3rd chord has the notes C, D, E and G. As before, three of these notes belong to a chord – chord IV, but the D does not fit. The D is a decoration note, because it’s on an off-beat, and it moves by step both going towards the note, and away from it, so it does not need to be in the chord. The progression is IV-V-I.

Working Through a Question

Suggest chords for the following two cadence progressions:

example music theory exam question on chord progressions and cadences

Key: Bb major. Write out the chords:

I: Bb-D-F          II: C-Eb-G         IV: Eb-G-Bb     V: F-A-C

Chord C: Bb fits with either I or IV. No cadence ends on chord IV, so it must be chord I.

Chord B: The F and A fit with chord V. It is a perfect cadence.

Chord A: G, C and Eb fit with chord II. The D is on an offbeat can be ignored. This is chord II.

Chord E: D only fits with chord I.

Chord F: Eb fits with chords II and IV, but only IV-I is a valid cadence (II-I is not a cadence). It is a plagal cadence.