Musical decisions in hit songs are dictated by their own internal context, not by generic "rules". Cadences in pop music are a great example.
One of the current conventions in pop music is to avoid cadences. That is, there are plenty of vocal melodic cadences, but the types of traditional cadences (authentic, plagal, half, etc.) in which the melody, harmony, and meter all join forces and “agree” on a resting point is quite rare these days.
But every “rule” or convention depends on context, and there are circumstances in which not only is it okay to break the rules, but it’s necessary.
So for example, when a song like Bebe Rexha’s and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be” tries to convey a retro feel, not only does it include cadences, they are all over the place. In fact, the main hook (“If it's meant to be, it'll be, it'll be, Baby, just let it be”) is a complete musical phrase that ends in a plagal cadence and is repeated over and over in the song (11 times, to be exact).
Likewise, the Kygo/Selena Gomez collab "It Ain’t Me" feels like a retro song in the verse and prechorus before it morphs into a EDM-y club banger, complete with a buildup-drop sequence and chopped vocals. The verse and prechorus feature a prolonged functional progression with very strong cadential tendencies, but when the EDM-y chorus arrive, the chords are rearranged so that the feeling of harmonic functionality is weakened, and the cadences disappear.
One last example of a context-appropriate cadence is Tove Lo’s Firebomb. In this case, it’s not a retro sound that makes the cadence necessary, but the over-the-top, drawn out intensity throughout the first minute and 23 seconds. There’s even a pseudo-deceptive cadence going from the prechorus to the chorus (1:09)—The IV chord, along with the vocal melody, sound like they will both finally resolve to the tonic, but while the melody does so, the harmony goes to a cadential 6/4 chord (for those unfamiliar, it’s a type of suspended dominant chord), and then goes back in the cycle to a I6 and a IV, and finally at the end of the chorus, it resolves to I. To emphasize the cadential feeling even further, this is followed by a transition that rests on I for four measures, which is extremely rare in today's pop world.
There are, of course, more examples of cadences in pop music, but the bigger takeaway for me is that you can learn a lot by trying to understand why a musical convention is followed or broken, whether it’s a cadence, an intro that’s longer than the norm, a song with only one verse, or anything else.
Top40 Theory is a project aimed at providing advanced music theory knowledge and composition tools to pop songwriters and producers. Join the small but growing community of highly accomplished songwriters, producers, theorists, and composers at the Top40 Theory Facebook group. You can also follow Top40 Theory’s Twitter account and Facebook page, as well as join the mailing list via the form located in the sidebar, to receive updates about new posts and other pop music theory related musings.
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Asaf Peres is a music theory Ph.D. who researches and writes about pop music.
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