The History of Marching Bands – Part 1

No state fair, large civic or royal celebration would be complete without a marching band. For true pomp and exuberance, the marching band offers everything. The military style precision of the marching players together with the fantastic loud noise they produce cannot be ignored even if you wanted to.

A marching band adds panache to any ceremony, the brightly colored uniforms and tuneful marching music is a true spectacle to see, and in this blog we look at the history of marching bands and how they differ in Europe and America.

The History

The first true marching bands were military ones and were an important accompaniment to armies going to war. Either leading the army into battle or assisting them to march from one place to another. European and Middle Eastern armies were heralded into battle with horns blaring and drums pounding, it was enough to scare their foe into submission. The Ottoman army included jingling johnnies which were a type of percussion instrument together with oboes. Later on in history in the Napoleonic wars, armies were preceded by highly trained and very resplendent military bands and this was the first time the military marching band was seen.

European Bands

Musical instruments and bands have played an important role in military matters for thousands of years in Europe. In many Euro-American battles and wars, the drum was a soldier’s tannoy system, it provided signals not just to march but when to eat and go to bed. Most drums associated with military matters were snare drums which was sometimes also called the side drum. The drum has two heads made out of animal skin stretched tightly over the frame of the drum. The top head is sometimes called the batter head, with the snare part of the drum on the bottom. The snare is achieved by gut twine resting on the skin giving the peculiar fuzzy sound.

It is thought that the side drum was invented in Switzerland sometime in the 14th Century, and soon was the preferred instrument for many marching bands across Europe. The side drum has always been a sign of war, and it is depicted in many military paintings and artwork almost as important as the standard. The drum often was played by itself to beat the rhythm for the soldiers to march at, but often it had a fife accompaniment. The fife is a small flute-like instrument that could play shrill melodies that could be heard over the pounding drums.

American Bands

American bands were highly influenced by the European ones, and military instruments brought into the fledgling new world of America were soon adopted by the settlers. As America grew and militias were formed to protect communities, drums were used as a signal to call men from their farms and homesteads. In the Revolutionary War the fife and drum were used as an instruction to the soldiers to open fire. The battlefield was often covered in a thick smoke so visual commands such as flags were not effective. We continue our blog of the history of marching bands in part two of this blog.

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