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What Is a Drumline Cadence?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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A drumline cadence is a musical arrangement for percussionists that is usually played to maintain the correct rhythm in a drum corps or marching band. The tempo of the drumline cadence provides all performers the speed at which they should be stepping in unison when this type of marching ensemble is moving in formation. Different marching groups typically have their own unique cadence that is sometimes specifically written for their percussion section. Both parade and field show performances are often preceded by the ensemble marching to the drumline cadence before beginning to play their selected pieces.

The origins of the modern drumline cadence are usually traced to similar drum beats used in military marching. These cadences are intended to help recruits keep in step when either marching or even running in formation. Military cadences are either played on a percussion instrument or chanted vocally during basic training exercises. The types of drumline cadences used for marching music ensembles are sometimes more rhytmically intricate, depending on the group. Various versions of the same basic cadence can also be adapted for drum corps, pipe bands, or indoor percussion ensembles.

Marching percussion sections usually use a drumline cadence to practice the fundamentals of drum technique, as well as to keep the rest of the ensemble in time. The typical cadence is written with combinations of each of the four specific strokes used to strike the drum surface and produce the desired notes. Each of these strokes are designated the up stroke, the down stroke, the full stroke, and the tap. Combining at least two of these strokes in succession will produce rhythms with changing accents on different notes. The more varied the drum stroke combinations, the more complex the resulting cadence generally sounds to the listener.

Since different marching ensembles often compete with one another in field show performances and parades, the percussion section of each one often wants an intricate drumline cadence to stand out from the rest. Professional musicians often compose drumline cadences, although some percussion instructors or even experienced performers can write signature cadences as well. The process of writing a marching percussion cadence typically requires a good working knowledge of rhythm, tempo, and drum stoke technique. Musicians with experience in writing cadences often recommend starting with a basic structure of quarter notes and then adding more complicated variations as the drum section masters the basics of a new cadence.

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Discussion Comments
By jmc88 — On Sep 04, 2011

@cardsfan27 - The drums you're thinking of are called toms. In the band, they are usually called quads because they typically have the four drum heads you mentioned.

A lot of people think playing a bass drum would be easy, and it is to a certain extent, but some might argue otherwise.

A lot of the difficulty in playing the bass drum is that you have to be in sync with all of the other players. Since a bass drummer doesn't play every single stroke like some of the other members of the section, they have to be ready to jump when it is their turn to hit their beat. Hitting the drum itself isn't that hard, but being able to remember the counts for your part can be very difficult.

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 03, 2011

I have seen a few drumlines play. I really like the drums that are a set of four or five smaller drums all together. Does anyone have any idea what I'm talking about?

I've always kind of thought the big bass drums were overrated. At least to me, it doesn't seem like they would be that hard to play. Maybe I'm wrong.

How many hours does it usually take before a drumline perfects a cadence? What are the hardest and easiest parts of learning it?

By matthewc23 — On Sep 02, 2011

@Emilski - You are right about that. Where I go to college, the drumline members are outside every morning at 8 am and back at 4 pm working on their cadence and drumming skills. Rain or shine, they are there.

I was never in band and don't know much about music, but I think listening to the percussion section is one of the ways anyone can relate to a band, since anyone can pick up a beat. Not to mention, the drum rhythms sound very hard to play, so I think that gets them more respect, too.

At least our band has the percussion section do a lot of moving and acting on the field. The cymbal players even do a set of cartwheels in one part of the performance.

By Emilski — On Sep 01, 2011

When I was in marching band in high school, the drumline cadence was one of the biggest parts of the whole band. Our drumline spent hours and hours after school trying to make sure it was perfect. I don't think you can underestimate how important it is.

A lot of people judge a band by the quality of the percussion section, so the cadence has to be good. Besides that, a cadence is a sort of calling card for the band. Different bands have different styles, so before you even hear the band play, you can have a sense of their style just by hearing the cadence and seeing how the percussion section acts.

Once I got to college and started watching marching bands, you could tell they only got more serious about it.

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