Cadential 6/4 – How Do You Use It?

By Jade Bultitude
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The cadential 6/4 is a melodic and harmonic formula that appears at the end of phrases in music of the common practice period. The common practice period is the period of western classical music that used the tonal system.

The cadential 6/4 is a decoration of the dominant chord of the key the piece is written in. Remember the dominant is the fifth chord of the scale.

To decorate this chord we displace the 3rd and 5th to a step above. As we delay the completion of the dominant chord we create harmonic tension in our music.

How to write the cadential Six Four chord

In order to write a six four chord you must first find the dominant chord (chord V) of the major or minor key that your piece of music is written in.

Make sure this chord is sat on a strong beat with the root of the chord doubled. Remember the root of the chord is simply the main note of the chord.

You will then move the third and fifth of the chord to a weaker beat.

Now on top of the chord you will place notes a step above.

Example

Let’s look at an example in the key of C major. What is the dominant note of C major?

C Major Dominant Label

What is the dominant note of C major? The dominant note (fifth note) is G.

What are the notes in the chord above G?

The notes above G to make the chord are B and D. This is the dominant chord of C major. 

Now we simply move the B and D to the weaker beat of the bar.

Now we write the notes one step above B and D on the strong beat. These will be C and G!

Notice now that the chord on the main beat of the bar is a second inversion chord of the tonic triad (Chord I) in C major and then it resolves to Chord V.

How might this work if we were in a minor key?

Example in a minor key

Let’s look at an example in a minor.

When writing a cadential six four in a minor key we have to simply make sure that the third of the dominant chord is raised by a half step (semitone).

By raising the 3rd of the chord we create a stronger pull to the tonic which is essential in tonal music.

What is the dominant of A minor?

The fifth note of A minor is E. What is the chord above E?

The notes above the note E are G and B. Remember we now need to raise the 3rd of the chord (G) by a half step (semitone). This means that the G becomes a G sharp!

Now we must displace the 3rd and the 5th of the chord to the weaker beat.

Now we simply place notes a step above on the stronger beat. This will be an A and a C.

Where is the cadential 6/4 used?

The cadential six four is a harmonic formula that most usually occurs at the end of musical phrases. At the end of musical phrases we have chord progressions called cadences. The cadential 6 4 is used to decorate perfect cadences.

A perfect cadence uses the chords V-I. And so the cadential 6/4 will decorate the dominant chord, moving from an inversion to the root position chord.

Labelling the cadential 6 4 chord

The way we label the cadential 6 4 chord is by using an old method which originated in the baroque period (1600-1750). This method is called figured bass.

Figured bass is simply figures (numbers) written underneath a bass line. The performer is then expected to use these figures to fill out the harmony.

To play figured bass you simply play the specified number of notes above the provided bass note.

Let’s take the labelling 6/4.

A perfect cadence uses the chords V-I. And so the cadential 6/4 will decorate the dominant chord, moving from an inversion to the root position chord.

The bass note here is a G. Four notes above G is C. Six notes above G is E.

Simply using the figures we can work out what notes to play! 6/4 is simply just another way to say ‘second inversion chord’.

To label the cadential 6 4 progression with figured bass we will use the figures 6/4 to 5/3.

5/3 is simply just another way to say root position chord.

It is also possible to label a cadential 6 4 progression using the Roman numeral system. As discussed the cadential 6 4 progression is on the dominant chord of the scale. By displacing it to the weaker beat of the chord we then have a second inversion of the tonic chord.

We would therefore label it as Ic – Va in major keys or ic – Va in minor keys.

Using the key of C major, we have a second inversion c major chord followed by a root position dominant chord (G major chord).

If you would like to know more about the Roman numeral labelling system then make sure to check out our other blog posts.

How do I use the cadential 6/4?

If you are to use the cadential 6 4 correctly then you must ensure you have a few things:

  1. The tonic of the Ic chord must move to the third of the Va chord
  2. The third of the Ic chord must move to the fifth of the Va chord
  3. The fifth of the Ic chord becomes the root of the Va chord

It is important to remember that as long as the note is kept the same at the root then it does not matter which octave this is written in.

The Passing six four progression

The passing six four is another type of chord progression where you can use a second inversion chord.

In the cadential six four the bass note stays the same for both of the chords. However, for a passing 6 4 the bass note must move by step. The second inversion chord will land on a weak part of the bar.

The passing six four progression will make a three note step either up or down.

To create this type of six four progression is to simply have a chord and its first inversion. We will use the c major chord.

In between these two chords, I and Ib, we will place the second inversion chord in-between. As we need to create this step line up or down the bass note must be a D. This means this has to be the dominant chord (V) in second inversion.

Pedal six four

The final type of six four progression is the pedal six four (otherwise known as the neighboring six four).

In this type of progression the bass note will stay the same for all three chords. The six four chord will be the chord in the middle.

We will use the key of C major and the bass note we will sustain will be C.

The first chord will be chord I in C major

The second chord, because this chord has to be second inversion and the bass note is C, will be chord IVc.

The third chord resolves us back to chord I in C major.

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AUTHOR
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations. She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.