The Deceptive Cadence

by | Jan 22, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

What does it mean to write a deceptive cadence?

First things first, there’s this thing in music theory called a deceptive cadence. I learned about it from this TED Talk:

My piano teacher at the time sent me the TED Talk when I began learning to play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor (Op. 28 No. 4), the piece at the heart of Zander’s talk. But while watching the TED Talk certainly deepened my understanding of the prelude and how it worked, I continue to think about this TED Talk years after my playing has lapsed.

If you haven’t watched it yet, please do, and then let’s talk. It is very much worth the twenty minutes: it’s funny, humane, and exuberant. It’s beautiful, honestly. I think I cried three times when I watched it this morning in preparation to write this prompt.

I’d forgotten that Zander uses a literary example–Hamlet–as a way to explain the deceptive cadence. And it’s funny that I forgot that because I’ve been thinking for years about what the literary application, or equivalent, of the deceptive cadence might be. I’m glad I forgot, though, because otherwise I would have taken for granted the idea that the literary deceptive cadence is a delay of the resolution of the plot. An approach to the resolution, but then a retreat, again and again, until the end.

I think there could be more to it than that. Or maybe other ways that writers can apply the concept to their work. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a plot device. It could be in the rhythm of the sentence or the tension of the line.

This week’s prompt will have to do with the deceptive cadence, but before that, I’d like to draw a few other ideas out of Zander’s talk that resonate to me as a writer.

Limit impulses: At the start, Zander demonstrates how the trajectory of learning to play piano has to do with checking one’s impulses. The first year, an impulse on every note. Then every other, then every 4, every 8, then on the whole phrase. As writers, are we crowding every sentence with impulses? Every paragraph? Can we recognize where the impulses are in our own work, and subdue the urge to pack them in?

Be a one-buttock player: Are we too comfortable, too at rest on the bench as we write? How can we lift up a buttock and put our body into the movement of our drafts?

Let C make B sad: I love that line, “It’s just a B, with four sads.” How can we put things together to make a sad? How can one word or character or idea change another just by proximity?

Make other people powerful: How, as writers, can we think of ourselves as conductors, making no sound? How can we put the power into the words and lines instead of keeping the power for ourselves? Or is the audience who we should empower, the audience making the sound? 


Write a deceptive cadence. Draw a long, long line from B to E. Think about where home is in your poem, your scene, your essay or story. Then find inconvenient detours. Delay the resolution. This builds anticipation and tension. We want to get home, but it isn’t time.

In a story, this might have to do with a character’s development. They seem to be reaching some kind of awareness or decision but can’t quite get there, yet.

Or maybe it’s a scene with dialogue in which the speakers seem on the verge of understanding, of communicating something real, but they can’t, quite.

In a poem, try enjambment. Let every sentence or phrase continues past the end of one line onto the next line or even the next stanza, with no punctuation.  Let the reader think, line after line, that one kind of resolution is coming, but it’s not, yet. The only end-stopped line is the last one. Home.

Or maybe you have a different idea about a literary deceptive cadence. I’d love to hear it. I mean it when I say I’ve been thinking about this for years. A decade. Maybe I’ll never get there. Which I suppose would be appropriate.