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What is Cadence?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word cadence is used to describe several types of human activity including movement, language, and music. One definition of cadence is the natural pace and rhythm of language, determined by its inherent alternation of stressed or unstressed syllables. Typically, a speaker’s voice lowers or heightens when reading certain parts of a sentence. For example, a speaker’s voice falls at the end of a sentence read aloud.

When reading the following sentence aloud, the speaker’s voice will inherently stress the syllable then, while falling by the end of the last syllable tree: "Then, she sat quietly under the tree." Furthermore, a speaker will stress the word girl, while lowering his or her voice for the phrase who ran the race in the following sentence: "The girl, who ran the race, stopped short at the finish line." An exclamation point at the end of a sentence is an excellent example of cadence. In applying this punctuation to the previous sentence, an exclamation point changes the speakers modulation, sending the voice into a higher pitch: "The girl, who ran in the race, stopped short at the finish line!"

Cadence can also refer to the chords and beats that signal the end of a piece of music, while a drum cadence signifies a series of beats played in between music. Musical cadence can further be classified into perfect cadences, imperfect cadences, deceptive cadences, half cadences, and plagal cadences, all of which are determined by their individual harmonic progressions and solutions.

A military cadence refers to a chant or song vocalized during marching or parading. The military has long used cadences as part of its oral tradition. These cadences are often practiced in the form of call and respond during work duty, and correspond to the beats or steps of the physical activity being performed. For example, “Sound Off,” commonly referred to as the Duckworth Chant and used with marching, is chanted as follows:

Call: Sound-off
Answer: 1 - 2
Call: Sound-off
Answer: 3 - 4

Additionally, cadence can refer to movement such as the revolutions per minute when cycling. Lance Armstrong, the famous cyclist, for example, is known for keeping his cadence high, at about 120 revolutions per minute, while recreational cyclists pedal and turn the crank at about 70 revolutions per minute.

Another way that cadence can measure movement is in walking or running. The gait of the walker or runner can be measured in steps per minute and is used to determine physical fitness levels.

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Discussion Comments

By PinkLady4 — On Jun 26, 2011

If you have lived on an Army base, you have surely heard some of the marching or running cadences of the military men. One I remember was "hup, two, three, four."

So the story goes, marching cadences started during the time of the American Revolutionary War. Some of the soldiers had great difficulty keeping up to speed while marching. So those soldiers were ordered to attach a stack of hay to one foot and a piece of straw to the other. Then the leader would call out "hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot." This practice continued all through the Civil War.

By BoniJ — On Jun 24, 2011

For about 12 years, I taught English as a Second Language. As my adult students began to learn English, I noticed the different cadences they used when speaking English. Some of the Asian languages are tonal, that is, the voice goes up suddenly. I don't understand what the significance of this is. No matter what their native language was, one of the hardest things was to get the English cadence and rhythm so they could be understood when they spoke English.

One way to help them learn to use the cadence of the English language was to practice repeating "jazz chants." The chants were appealing to adults and had strong rhythm and cadence. This exercise worked quite well.

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