[Smt-talk] Nature and Labeling of the Cadential Six-Four

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Fri Feb 10 16:31:25 PST 2012

Dear Colleagues,

Intrigued by Dr. Purin' implication that the cadential six-four is nothing more than a V chord with two non-chord tones, I wanted to address this widely spread concept with the deliberations below.

Is the cadential six-four a tonic? No. Is it a dominant? No. This is a sonority which is caught right in the middle of a process of conversion from tonic to dominant. It has initiated a dominant momentum, but has not completely lost all of its tonic function. Therefore, the tension in the cadential six-four does not come from a dissonance, but from the conflict between the outer tonic structure and the strongly implied dominant function in the bass; the bass note is placed bellow the fundamental (the root), and it strives to become a fundamental on its own. The cadential six-four is best viewed as a tonic over a dominant bass, a short organ point upon which the tonic occurs. This concept allows us to explain all the possible occurrences of this sonority, some of which cannot be explained adequately otherwise.

I will offer you some simple empirical evidence which defies the notion of the cadential six-four as a dominant with two non-chord tones.

1) When the cadential six-four is embellished by suspensions and other non-chord tones, its structural equality with the tonic is called for. For example, in C major, introduce a 9-8 suspension over the tonic, but harmonize with the cadential six-four instead. You will hear a dissonant suspension over the cadential six-four, which resolves into the tonic note. Ask yourself the question: which chord is the tone "D" suspended over? If your answer is "V", you will have to explain why "D" - which is a member of V - sounds like a dissonant suspension, and why "C" - which is deemed to be a non-chord tone to "V"- sounds like a consonant resolution? How can a chord tone sound like a dissonant suspension, and a non-chord tone sound like a consonant resolution? The truth about this example is that we hear a collision between an outer tonic structure and an element which is foreign to that structure. Therefore, the resolution of this suspension occurs within the tonic component of the cadential six-four.The bass tone, as a pedal point, does not undermine the perception of a resolution which occurs within the tonic realm.

2) When we compare the cadential six-four to a genuine dominant chord with suspensions, the difference is striking. Try to connect the cadential six-four directly to the tonic, and pretend that you are performing an authentic resolution. You will be very disappointed to discover that what you are producing is an arpeggiated six-four which comes on an accented beat. This is why no piece of music will ever end with such a fake "authentic cadence". Now introduce a genuine dominant with suspensions - for example V13 sus 4 - and resolve it directly into the tonic without taking care of the suspensions within the dominant chord itself. The result will be a genuine authentic resolution. The reaction of a colleague to whom I suggested this experiment was: "How could you expect from a dismembered sonority (the cadential six-four placed directly before the tonic) to behave like a fully-fledged dominant? I could not; it was him who claimed that the cadential chord was a V with suspensions. Now he was able to see that a genuine V with suspensions does not behave like a cadential six-four; it does not need to be followed by " a clearer dominant" to reveal its dominant function. Inference? The cadential six-four is not a genuine dominant.

3) When the cadential six-four is arpeggiated up and down for several measures (as is the case in many instrumental concertos, for example) we do not necessarily hear a bunch of non-chord tones over a dominant bass; we hear an arpeggiated tonic over a dominant bass.

4) Dissonant chords resolve into the cadential six-four in an identical manner they resolve into the tonic. For example, resolve D#o7 into I, I6, and I6/4 and you will notice the same behavior. D# points upward and resolves upward. On the other hand, when this same chord resolves into V, its root is F#, then Eb points downward and resolves downward. The difference in behavior shows a difference in function. This is why I do not automatically prescribe a secondary dominant function to all chords which contain a raised fourth scale degree, but I take into account the manner they resolve. When they resolve into a tonic structure (I, I6, and I6/4), they neither tonicize a secondary triad, nor is their resolution deceptive. This is why they do not function as secondary dominants but as altered subdominants. This is why I find erroneous the explanation that D#o7 resolved into I6/4 is a misspelled VII dim. 7 of V. It is "a common tone diminished seventh chord" - an altered subdominant chord. 

5) Occasionally (rarely), the cadential six-four may be followed by chords other than V. When the cad. 6-4 is followed by I6, then it could be explained in the light of a tonic arpeggiation on an accented beat (arpeggiated six-four). This happens rarely but sounds nice and allows us to avoid temporarily the dominant and to continue with subdominant chords.

6) In the light of the above arguments, labeling the cadential six-four as V6-4 could not be more confusing. The only genuine V6-4 chord in tonal music is the second inversion of the dominant triad. Some theorists use this label to designate two different sonorities (V6/4, on the one hand, and the cadential 6/4 on the other) without even being aware of that, and by doing this they keep confusing their students. This is why sometimes students ask: which is the real V6/4? My only answers to this question is: the second inversion of the dominant triad.

How to label the cadential six-four? I use "cad. 6-4" or I 6-4. The latter could have a bracket with V to suggest that a dominant momentum is initiated in the bass, and the eventual prevalence of the dominant function is a natural process. Occasionally, when the credential six-four is introduced like a cadential (on a beat which is more accented than the following beat, and after a subdominant chord or tonic, or VI) but is not followed by V, the simple I6-4 could be used, implying a more unusual arpeggiated six-four, for instance.

I find it unfortunate that in Schenkerian theory the cadential six-four does not exist even on the foreground analysis. This prevents a Schenkerian analyst from analyzing all the diverse forms of embellishments of the cadential six-four without falling into contradiction with the aural effect of those resolutions. As I mentioned, those resolutions reveal aurally the structural equality of the cadential six-four with the tonic, and therefore they occur at a tonic level (within the tonic component of the cadential six-four). At a deeper level, of course, the dominant function eventually prevails, because it is in the bass.

Thank you for your time to read this lengthy letter.

Best wishes,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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