Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Military Music in American and European Traditions

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  • Military Field Music: European Traditions
    Musical instruments have played an important role in the military of many cultures for thousands of years. In Euro-American culture, drums ordered the daily lives of the average soldiers, providing cadences for marching and signals for battle, as well as marking routine activities such as meal and bed time. The drum most associated with the military was a snare drum. Known as a side drum because it hangs on a sling at the player's side, the cylindrical instrument has two skin heads: the batter head (top), which the drummer beats with two sticks, and the snare head (bottom), so named for the gut twine that when placed against the head gives the instrument its characteristic "buzzy" sound.


    In Europe, a craze for Turkish music at the end of the eighteenth century introduced the bass drum and cymbal into these ensembles, and these instruments soon found their way into American bands as well.

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    The side drum is first known to have existed in Switzerland, perhaps as early as the fourteenth century, and was soon found throughout Europe. In art, the side drum is often depicted with other military equipment, as a symbol of war. A woodcut from 1544 by Hans Sebald Beham, Nuremberg, pairs a drummer with a standard bearer (41.1.90). In the Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter, ca. 1645–46, David Teniers (the Younger) depicts a drum with other discarded military equipment (64.65.5). An example of this type of large military side drum is decorated with the cipher of Frederick Augustus (the Strong), elector of Saxony and king of Poland (r. 1693–1733), and was probably an actual instrument used in his army (14.25.1618).

    The side drum could be played alone or with a fife. The fife is a small flute that provided melodic tunes to accompany the rhythmic signals and cadences of the drum. The fife was usually made of a single piece of wood, with six finger holes that could provide for a diatonic scale. The traditional pairing of the drum and fife developed from the medieval practice of a single player performing on a tabor (small drum) and pipe to accompany dances.

    Military Field Music: The United States
    European military instruments were brought to the New World and used in much the same way as they had been in the mother countries. As militias formed in the towns and villages of colonial America, drummers played an important role in summoning men from rural areas to take up arms. Revolutionary War drummers and fifers were used in battle to signal the soldiers to fire. In the hazy fog of battle, visual command was impossible and musical instruments were the only way to convey orders to the troops.

    The combination of the fife and drum became known as military field music. By the time of the Civil War, each company had its own field musicians, one fifer and one drummer, to provide the daily signals telling the soldiers to wake up, eat, and go to bed. The drummers and fifers of a regiment gathered to create the larger drum and fife corps, which provided the cadences and signals for more formal occasions.

    Drums (2010.138.1-.4), like banners and flags, were important symbols of a military unit. They were often decorated with the unit's insignia, coats of arms, or national symbols. In the United States, the eagle, a proud symbol of the nation, was a popular decoration on everything from carriages to buttons beginning in the late eighteenth century, and was also emblazoned on drums (58.82). The drums became known as eagle drums and by the 1840s, the United States Army was attempting to standardize these decorations. Eagle drums were especially popular with the Union Army during the Civil War (89.4.2162).

    A third musical instrument was introduced into military field music in the nineteenth century. The military bugle was first used around 1800 in England, and introduced to the United States during the War of 1812. Bugles are brass instruments characterized by a conical bore tubing, usually wound once around, and wide bells. Cavalry units in the United States adopted the bugle for their field signals. Later in the century, the bugle began to replace the more traditional drummers and fifers for infantry use. Many of the calls originally performed on drums were adopted as bugle calls. The most familiar of these is "Taps"; originally named for the action of the drummer playing on his drum, this term now refers to a bugle call.

    Military Bands
    In addition to field music, the United States military also had bands that were used for ceremonial purposes and to raise soldier morale. Like field music, this tradition has its roots in European military practices. The first outdoor, or military, bands were made up of woodwind instruments. These bands, known as Harmoniemusik, primarily used oboes, horns, and bassoons. These instruments usually had to be imported, but a few were manufactured by makers in the United States. An oboe by Jacob Anthony of Philadelphia (1997.272) and a bassoon by John Meacham of Albany (89.4.884) are rare surviving examples of instruments that were typical of those used in Harmoniemusik bands. In Europe, a craze for Turkish music at the end of the eighteenth century introduced the bass drum and cymbal into these ensembles, and these instruments soon found their way into American bands as well.

    Noticeably absent from these military bands are the brass instruments familiar to audiences today. At the time, only natural brass instruments, those without keys or valves, were available. Natural brasses could only play the notes of the overtone series and so were not as useful as woodwinds in ensemble playing. In 1810, Irishman John Halliday invented a keyed bugle that allowed a brass instrument to play all of the chromatic notes that previously had to be played on an oboe or clarinet. In Europe, a great flurry of invention created brass instruments of all varieties, first with keys and later with valves and pistons. Although musicians in the United States were slower to adopt these new designs, immigrants brought these newer instruments, along with their taste for brass bands, to the United States in the decades before the Civil War (89.4.2326).

    By the start of the Civil War, many towns and villages had their own bands, and often sent them along with their militia units. The bands, like the young fighting soldiers, were a symbol of pride for communities large and small across the North and the South. For their part, the soldiers and officers wanted them because they were key to maintaining high morale and were also the primary source of entertainment.

    Brass bands of all types were used during the Civil War, but a peculiar type of brass instrument, known as an over-the-shoulder horn, became associated with bands of this era. The tubing on these instruments bent around, and featured a bell that pointed over the player's shoulder. This allowed the band to march in front of the soldiers, and the sound would be directed back behind the player toward the marching troops. Entire bands of over-the-shoulder brass instruments, from tubas to cornets, were used during the Civil War.

    After the war, many veterans returned to their homes in both the North and South. Many others chose to settle in the great expanses of the American West. In both cases, these former soldiers brought their love of military brass music with them, and organized bands in communities large and small across the continent. The American band movement, which would culminate with the great bandleader John Philip Sousa around the turn of the twentieth century, had begun.

    Jayson Kerr Dobney
    Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art