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41st Fife and Drum Corps.

A brief history of military music

Music has always been a part of military life. Armies marched to the familiar tunes and beats and used music to mark important events. Military music can be traced back in history to the Far East and the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. They developed communication systems using musical instruments such as the drums, pipes and horns to signal daily routines for their soldiers. By the sixteenth century most European armies adopted the fife, the rope tension tenor snare drum and bugle horn. These instruments are still in use around the world today. European armies developed drum rudiments in the seventeenth and eighteenth century into the system drummers recognise today. Armies utilised beatings to regulate military encampments, battle and marching. The fife predominated as the accompanying instrument while bugle horns were used for the direction of artillery, cavalry and light troops.

The drum is made from a single ply of wood that is soaked in water and steamed round to create a shell. Tacks and glue are used to hold the shell together. Calfskins and sometimes goatskins were used on the top and bottom of the shell as drumheads. Wooden hoops with a slightly larger circumference than the shell were placed over the heads and were pulled towards each other with a single length of linen rope run through the hoops. Tension was increased by pulling down two pieces of rope bound together with leather ears' so that the hoops pulled the heads tight. Snares were added made of dried animal intestine. When placed against the bottom head they create a sharp snap' that increases the volume of the drum.

The fife was preferred on account of the strength of Tone, and distance it can be heard. (Potter Fife, 1815). Fifes are simple wooden tubes with a cork in one end. Next to the cork is a blowhole followed by six smaller holes for the fingers. Metal ferrules are attached to the ends to keep the wood from being crushed. The fife can play well in two scales and has nearly a two-octave range. Thousands of songs and calls were written down by Fife Majors preserving much of the popular music in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Fort George Parade Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Fort George Parade Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
© Parks Canada

The bugle horn is made from a sheet of metal rolled into a tube. To decrease the overall length the tube is wrapped around in a circle or an oval making it lightweight and portable. The piercing tone of the fife, drum and bugle made it possible for the drummers to be heard over the noise and confusion of battle. The term drummer was used to describe anyone sounding signal instruments.

British regiments prized their corps of drums who were traditionally comprised of professional drummers. They led their regiments in parades and wore highly decorative uniforms. Their music along with their peculiar appearance was key in drawing crowds to recruiting parties. The most distinguishing aspect of their uniform was the coat. During the War of 1812, drummers in the British army reversed their coat colours so that the body of the coat was the facing colour of their regiment. For example the 49th Regiment of Foot had red coats with green facings on their cuffs and collar. Consequently the drummers wore green coats with red cuffs and collar.

By the 1750's the demands of large European armies meant its field music grew. By the Napoleonic period boys as young as ten were recruited as drummers. Often they were the sons of soldiers or orphans. Soldiers who could no longer serve in the ranks could find themselves in the drums serving out their final years as well. Although a drummer made more money than a private it was still somewhat degrading to be considered a drummer boy. Their main responsibility was to beat signals. Along with regular pay the drums were given a soldier's ration of food and were assigned their own sleeping space. They were also subject to the same military discipline as the soldiers.