Creating Cadences

Photo of Notre Dame Band.
Many bands march to their own beats by performing signature drumline pieces passed on through generations.

Photo of the University of Texas Longhorn Band at Austin.As far back as the 16th century, military commanders ordered the percussion sections of their units to play drumbeats, or cadences, to maintain formation and keep soldiers marching forward in lock step while in transit. As a unit approached its enemy and its cadence grew louder, that thundering sound may have even struck fear in the hearts of enemy combatants as it heralded the imminent battle.

Today college and high school marching bands use drumline cadences for a variety of reasons like transitioning the band, exciting a crowd, or providing interludes between songs.

“Generally, [cadences] have to fill different roles,” says Sam Sanchez, assistant director of the University of Notre Dame Band. “Cheers are for cheering, parade cadences have to have enough beat to keep 375 band members in step, and features can do pretty much whatever they want as long as they are not too long—under three minutes—and they entertain the crowd.”

Cadences can be difficult to play, and they can employ several rudiments, but to be effective, they must have a rhythm that the average person can feel and understand, Sanchez adds.

Moving the Band

Photo of Michigan Marching Band Photography.The University of Michigan (UM) Marching Band employs one long cadence that comprises a series of several shorter cadences. When the band arrives at its destination, the drumline cuts its cadence. Because of its length, there are 11 designated stopping points. “There is never a period longer than 30 seconds to wait for an official end or halt to the cadence,” says Chuck Ricotta, UM’s drumline director.

The Perrysburg (Ohio) High School marching band has two drumline cadences that it can play separately or in succession. “They are used any time the marching band performs in a parade or marches to the stadium,” says Scott L. Schleuter, Perrysburg director of bands.

Larger bands may require several cadences, or one lengthy cadence, to transition from the stands to the playing field ahead of their shows. The Northport (New York) High School Marching Band is 330 members strong and has a catalog of 23 cadences to draw upon. “Getting us to and from anywhere takes us a bit of time,” says Lynn Cromeyn, marching band director at Northport. “Our entrance on the field is usually about a minute to a minute 20 seconds, so they are always playing cadences.”

Some of Northport’s 23 cadences have names; some are identified by a number. The aptly titled “Cadence Number One” has been a mainstay at Northport for 62 years and is the band’s default cadence. “We always go back to ‘Cadence Number One’ before we play anything,” Cromeyn says. “It’s the one that gets us into our roll-off. Pretty much my entire community knows it by heart.”

Exciting the Crowd

As military units of the past used cadences to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, today marching bands and pep bands use them to excite spectators at sporting events, prompting those spectators to cheer and possibly sow the seeds of doubt in an opponent’s mind. Most spectators are die-hard sports fans but not all. Those who attend sporting events to socialize often take their cheering cues from drum cadences. “I have had a few people who go to our football games but don’t really understand football tell me that they know when the team gets a first down because they hear that cadence,” Sanchez says.

Similarly, the University of Texas Longhorn Band at Austin plays specific defensive and offensive cadences—depending on the home team’s position—during football games, says Oni Lara, the percussion instructor and a graduate teaching assistant.

As part of its “stand cheers,” the Michigan drumline might play short excerpts of its lengthy cadence. “We have about 20 stand cheers, six of which are excerpts from our cadence series,” Ricotta says.

Setting the Mood

Like other songs that marching bands play, cadences evoke a particular mood. Michigan’s cadence has five distinct sections, each of which provides a different mood in a stadium, at a parade, or even in a pop song.

Michigan’s drumline plays “Taps,” the traditional opening of its cadence, when the band is marching onto the field at halftime. “This excerpt was famously used at the beginning of the Destiny’s Child [tune] ‘Lose My Breath,’” Ricotta says.

Its “Cheers” cadence, which is a series of three separate short cadences, is accompanied by vocals sung by the rest of the band. This cadence can last up to 45 seconds. The “Blue Beats” cadence, which Michigan has been playing since the late ’90s, was written by a drumline alumnus. Ricotta himself wrote the fourth Michigan cadence, called “Flex.” The band has been playing this cadence since the 2002 season. It can run up to two and a half minutes.

Lastly, Michigan’s “Alumni Honor” cadence is comprised of excerpts from traditional cadences. “We’ve played it in various formats since the late ’90s,” Ricotta says. “This cadence also features our center snare.”

Michigan’s drumline typically performs all five sections of the cadence back-to-back without interruption when the band is in transit or during parades; during its Stepshow, the “Cheers” cadence is omitted.

For fast, high-step marching, the Notre Dame marching band has three military parade cadences and three modern rock-style cadences. The latter three are accompanied by cheers that rally a crowd but can also be performed during parades. Notre Dame’s drumline also has slower cadences that are at 120 beats per minute, played during glide-step parade marching. “We use one of those cadences for official reviews and the other for when we get a first down,” Sanchez says.

Of the 23 cadences comprising Northport’s repertoire, its drumline plays just five or six during a given performance, using hand signals between its 40 members to communicate which ones to play. Cromeyn’s drumline features melodic instruments, like bells, as well as the typical battery instruments. “We have everything from jazz to pop songs [played] on the radio to Chuck Mangione,” Cromeyn says. “We have [an array] of varied cadences.”

No matter the event, Cromeyn’s band always plays to its audience. “If we’re playing for a younger audience, I’ll pick our later numbers because those are the more modern ones and are more recognizable to little kids,” she says.

When Northport marches in community parades attended by individuals—including alumni—of all ages, the drumline features its more traditional cadences. “They love to hear the older ones,” Cromeyn says.

Each year Northport features a new cadence written specifically for that season’s show. Typically Cromeyn’s band plays the first two songs of its show, then debuts its new cadence as a transition into its drum feature.

While drumlines are performing cadences or drum features, often other band members will join in with body movements, instrument movements, or vocals. At Notre Dame the band’s chants and movements often spread into the student section of the stands. The Perrysburg band has developed a set of horn movements; at Northport the entire band joins in with vocals and movements. “They have movements, they have vocals, … they swing their instruments from left to right,” Cromeyn says. “Depending on the cadence, the kids [make up moves]. If I like them, we use them.”

Writing Cadences

Like composing other musical pieces, creating cadences takes talent. At the high school level, a professional percussionist or teacher often writes the cadences, Cromeyn says. Each year she hires a percussion instructor from another school district to write the band’s new featured cadence. He writes it, teaches it to the drumline, and he’s gone by September. “He writes to the talents of the kids,” she says.

At the college level, where drumline members are more proficient on their instruments and may have been instructed in musical composition, students might write the cadences.

At some schools, traditional cadences have been played for so long that it’s unclear who composed them. Sanchez believes Notre Dame’s first three opening cadences in its marchout sequence date back to the 1920s. The next three cadences in its marchout sequence are from the 1970s. Keeping with the times, these cadences have more of a rock beat and were written by students. The band’s last six cadences were written by students in the 1980s. “Over the years all of the cadences in the marchout sequence have received some modifications and enhancements,” Sanchez says.

Like Notre Dame’s opening cadences, the Longhorn drumline cadences have not changed in decades. “Occasionally there will be a new cadence introduced but very rarely,” Lara says.

Notre Dame’s cheer cadences were all written by students and based on the cheers performed by its cheerleading team. These date back to the 1980s. Sanchez collaborated with Notre Dame students to write the features the drumline plays during its midnight drum circle. “We tend to add new features each year,” Sanchez says. “Some survive and keep getting played; others die away if they don’t work very well.”

Students, instructors, and directors use a variety of computer software—such as Finale, MuseScore, and Sibelius—to write the cadences. Some percussionists still prefer to write cadences by hand.

Through many centuries, cadences have evolved into an integral part of a marching band’s repertoire. “When done correctly, [cadences] are a show stopper,” Cromeyn says. “Everyone loves a drumline. I’ve put my drumline out there as its own entity, and people love them. People ask for the drumline to perform.”

Photo of Notre Dame band courtesy of Heather Gollatz-Dukeman.
Photo of  Michigan Marching Band courtesy of Michigan Marching Band Photography.
Photo of  University of Texas Longhorn Band courtesy of  Jerry Hayes Photography.

About author

Frank DiMaria

Frank DiMaria is a middle school computer teacher and a freelance writer currently residing in Fort Mill, South Carolina. On weekends he plays guitar for a progressive funk band called McGroover. His daughter, Briana, marched clarinet for the Fort Mill High School band, winning two state championships and a Bands of America regional. Frank worked pit crew for four seasons with Fort Mill.

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