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Music Within a Key

Module by: Anthony Brandt. E-mail the author

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In Common Practice music, music within a key consists of harmonic progressions that lead towards and away from the tonic.

One chord above all others leads to the tonic: the dominant, which is built on the fifth scale degree. The dominant chord presents a harmonic request, which is fulfilled by the tonic.

Cadences are harmonic arrival points: They typically act as the punctuation at the end of a musical phrase. A cadence to the dominant is called a half cadence.

The opening phrase of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Sonata in f-minor, opus 2, no. 1 ends in a half-cadence.

This excerpt from Gustav Holst’s The Planets ends with a half-cadence.

Because they are making a request, half-cadences sound incomplete and create a feeling of expectation. A long wait or “stand” on the dominant heightens the anticipation. In this excerpt from his “Emperor” Concerto, Beethoven elaborates on the dominant harmony, stretching it out before finally resolving it to the tonic.

A cadence to the tonic is called a full cadence. Here is a full cadence in Major from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello.

This excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg consists exclusively of full cadences in Major.

Here is a full cadence in minor from Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

Many classical themes consist of a half-cadence followed by a full cadence. In this excerpt from the third movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, “Haffner,” the two cadences are characterized differently: The half cadence is forceful and majestic, while the full cadence that follows is calmer.

In this excerpt from Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, the oboe’s plaintive melody ends in a half-cadence. The piano answers with its own version of the melody, this time ending in a full cadence.

In Schubert’s song “Der Leierman” from Die Winterreise, the voice’s somber melodic statements are echoed by the piano, whose progressions end exclusively in half and full cadences. The excerpt begins with two half-cadences followed by two full cadences. See if you can follow the rest of the cadences. How does the excerpt end?

Cadences to the dominant and tonic help establish and solidify a key. We will now study three features that add harmonic complexity: postponed closure, chromaticism and dissonance. These can contribute to destabilizing a key, making it easier to leave; and they also establish bridges between keys, facilitating more far-reaching harmonic trajectories.

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Musical Examples
  1. Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in f-minor, opus 2, no. 1 - I, Seymour Lipkin, piano
  2. Gustav Holst, The Planets, 'Jupiter', Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
  3. Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, 'Emperor', Edwin Fischer, piano, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor
  4. Giuseppe Verdi, 'Ave Maria' from Otello, Renata Tebaldi, soprano, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan
  5. Richard Wagner, 'Prelude' to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester, Sir Roger Norrington, conductor
  6. Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in e-minor - IV, Milwaukee Symphony, Andreas Delfs
  7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 35 'Haffner,' - III, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm
  8. Robert Schumann, Piano Concerto - I, Murray Perahia, piano, Symphonieorchestrer des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Sir Colin Davis, conductor
  9. Franz Schubert, 'Der Leierman' from Die Winterreise, Dietrick Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Hermann Reuter, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in f-minor, opus 2, no. 1 - I, Seymour Lipkin, piano (0:14)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in f-minor, opus 2, no. 1 - I, Seymour Lipkin, piano (0:14)
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Newport Classic
Gustav Holst, The Planets, 'Jupiter', Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor (0:27)
Gustav Holst, The Planets, 'Jupiter', Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor (0:27)
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EMI Classics
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, 'Emperor', Edwin Fischer, piano, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor (0:36)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, 'Emperor', Edwin Fischer, piano, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor (0:36)
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EMI
Giuseppe Verdi, 'Ave Maria' from Otello, Renata Tebaldi, soprano, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (0:18)
Giuseppe Verdi, 'Ave Maria' from Otello, Renata Tebaldi, soprano, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (0:18)
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Decca
Richard Wagner, 'Prelude' to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester, Sir Roger Norrington, conductor (0:20)
Richard Wagner, 'Prelude' to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester, Sir Roger Norrington, conductor (0:20)
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Faszination Musik
Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in e-minor - IV, Milwaukee Symphony, Andreas Delfs (0:20)
Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in e-minor - IV, Milwaukee Symphony, Andreas Delfs (0:20)
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MSO Classics
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 35 'Haffner,' - III, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm (0:16)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 35 'Haffner,' - III, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm (0:16)
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Deutsche Grammophon
Robert Schumann, Piano Concerto - I, Murray Perahia, piano, Symphonieorchestrer des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Sir Colin Davis, conductor (0:40)
Robert Schumann, Piano Concerto - I, Murray Perahia, piano, Symphonieorchestrer des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Sir Colin Davis, conductor (0:40)
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CBS Masterworks MK 44899
Franz Schubert, 'Der Leierman' from Die Winterreise, Dietrick Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Hermann Reuter, piano (NaN:NaN)
Franz Schubert, 'Der Leierman' from Die Winterreise, Dietrick Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Hermann Reuter, piano (NaN:NaN)
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Audite Musikproduction