What is a Coda? Definition, History, and Examples

If you study classical music, especially symphonies and sonatas, you will definitely hear the term “coda.”

In this post, we’re going to answer the question, “what is a coda in music?” We’ll go over the meaning of the word “coda,” what the symbol for a coda looks like, and the history of the coda in music.

Let’s start with the definition of coda.

Coda Definition

Coda actually comes from the Latin word for tail, “cauda.” This gives you a little hint of how codas work.

The meaning of the word “coda” is to end, or to finish off a song, sonata, or symphony.

In music, we have lots of different structural forms. We have musical phrases, passages, and themes. These are like the sentences and paragraphs that make up a book.

A coda is a type of musical punctuation. It’s a passage at the end of the music that brings the song to a close.

Basically, a coda is a longer form of cadence. But while a cadence might last one or two bars, a coda can last longer– even as long as an entire section!

Also, make sure that you don’t mix up codas with codettas. A codetta (meaning “little tail”) is usually shorter than a coda, and it wraps up the end of a passage, whereas a coda is longer and wraps up the entire piece.

For a classical example of the coda, listen to the final movement of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 41 in C, K 551.” This is an example of a coda that wraps up several different movements at once.

Even though most codas are found in classical music, there are some songs written in the past century that end with codas. You can find codas in any music style, from pop to rock to folk music.

One example of a coda in more recent music is at the end of the Beetles’ song, “Hey Jude.” The last four minutes, with the “na na na” section, is technically considered a coda. Take a listen:

Hey Jude

Music Symbol for Coda

In your sheet music, you might see a symbol that looks like an O, with a cross running through it, like this:

coda symbol sign in music (image by Wikimedia Commons)

This sign usually goes at the end of a repeated section (a section in between two repeat signs). Above the music, you will also see the words “Al coda,” which means “go to the coda.”

Here’s an example of a coda in sheet music:

sheet music coda example (image by HelloMusicTheory)

Let’s label the first bar A, and bar 2 is B, bar 3 is C, and then the final bar (the one with the whole note) is D.

Notice how the words “al coda” are in between bars B and C.

To play this music, you start by playing A, B, and C as written. Then, you repeat B, but then the al coda makes you skip to the coda symbol, and you play D.

So the pattern of this song would be A B C B D.

The coda symbol marks the very end of a piece. When you play the music the first time, you repeat the sections as written. During that repeat (your second play through), then you jump to the end when you see the words ‘al coda.’

History of the Coda in Music

The coda was invented in the 12th century, when it was used at the end of the sacred Latin songs called “Conducti.”

In these songs, the coda meant that the singers would sing one syllable with lots of different notes. (Think of “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” when the word “gloria” is sung over many different notes.)

Eventually, as sonatas became popular, the coda evolved into the musical marking that we know today.

A famous example of the coda in a sonata can be found in Beethoven’s eighth symphony.

Symphony No. 8 in F major op.93

Beethoven was known for his long codas. The coda in this symphony is dozens of measures long, and it lasts for a total of :51 seconds.

Since Beethoven’s codas were so much longer than normal, here’s another example of a coda in classical music. This one is from Mozart’s “Sonata No. 7 in C Major.”

Sonata no. 7 in C major

In this piece, you can hear a very typical coda. It has a handful of bars that are based around the tonic note, and it ends with a couple of extended cadences.

This type of coda helps signal to the audience that the music is ending, while also giving it a more emphatic ending than if Mozart simply played a couple of chords.

Summarizing The Coda

Codas can be found at the end of a piece, when the composer wants to repeat a certain section with a different ending.

You can find any codas in your music by looking for the words, “al coda,” as well as a little coda sign printed above the music staff.

Most of the time, you will find codas in classical music, such as symphonies and sonatas. However, there are some pop and rock songs that use the coda as well.

Hopefully this helps you understand more about codas and how to play them!

Do you have any questions about codas, or about music theory in general? Let me know in the comments below!

Jessica Roberts
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