Cells with the potential to form skeletal muscle are present in the chick embryo prior to gastrulation. Muscle differentiation begins after gastrulation within the somites. The role of cadherin-mediated adhesion in the commitment and differentiation of skeletal muscle precursor cells was examined by analyzing the expression of cell-cell adhesion molecules in cultures of epiblast, segmental plate, and somite cells and by determining the effects of adhesion-perturbing antibodies on the accumulation of MyoD and sarcomeric myosin. Cultured primitive streak stage epiblast cells downregulate E-cadherin and upregulate N-cadherin. This switch in cadherin expression also occurs in vivo as epiblast cells enter the primitive streak. Although MyoD protein is present in cells with N- or E-cadherin, only cells with N-cadherin differentiate into skeletal muscle. In contrast to the primitive streak stage epiblast cells, prestreak epiblast cells maintain the expression of E-cadherin in vitro. While the majority of prestreak cells contain MyoD, only a few synthesize myosin. Treatment of primitive streak stage epiblast cells with function-perturbing antibodies to N-cadherin resulted in an inhibition of myosin accumulation and a decrease in the percentage of cells with MyoD. Segmental plate and somite cells are similar to primitive streak stage epiblast cells in that most differentiated into skeletal muscle when cultured in serum-free medium. While function-perturbing antibodies to N-cadherin inhibited the accumulation of myosin in these mesoderm cells, the number of MyoD positive cells was unaffected in somite cultures and only partially reduced in segmental plate cultures. These results suggest that N-cadherin-mediated cell-cell adhesion is involved in both the commitment of muscle precursors and their terminal differentiation.