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The Colonial Music Institute
Bringing History to Life Through Music

WERE THERE BANDS IN EARLY AMERICA?

 

Yes, there were bands in early America, but they didn’t have the same instrumentation as
marching or concert bands of today. The term “band” was applied to any group of
musicians, whether in an orchestra of strings, woodwinds and a keyboard playing in a
theater, or a group of loud brass and strident wind instruments playing outdoors. Some
reports simply state that “the musick played,” meaning the same thing as “the band
played.”

But the kind of music played by today’s bands, that is marches, patriotic tunes, music for
special events and ceremonies—this music was played in eighteenth-century America by
a “band of music” or “band of musick.” These terms referred to a specific group of
musicians usually associated with the army. 

Armies also had drummers and fifers who played signals to keep garrison activities on
time and signaled the troops in battle. Brisk marches and quicksteps kept soldiers moving
together in cadence and specific drum beats or tunes were used to send messages to all
the troops within earshot. These musicians were referred to as the “field music,” never as
a band or band of music. Most of the time, they played alone or in pairs for their own
companies. For special reviews or ceremonies, all the drummers and fifers would
practice the same music and play together. Drummers and fifers were paid by the army
and performed other military duties as well as playing their instruments. They were
soldiers first, then musicians.

Bands of music, on the other hand, were professional musicians who agreed to become
part of an army although they were not expected to carry guns or participate in battle.
Their pay, uniforms, instruments, and music were supplied privately by the officers of
the regiment. They supplied music when and where the officers wanted them to play,
usually for ceremonies in which the troops were massed for review and for private parties
and dances at which the officers of the regiment associated with the local citizens.
Parties like these often proved crucial to the well being of the troops—connections were
made with local merchants and financiers that provided needed money and supplies.
Good music greased the wheels of these negotiations; a nicely decorated hall and
memorable music and graceful dancing made an impression on local citizens, their
wives, and daughters. 

Music for the bands of music was specifically written for pairs of oboes, clarinets,
bassoons, and (valve less) French horns, a good combination for playing out of doors for
a large audience. The combination became known as “harmoniemusick” or “hautboys,”
reflecting the lead instruments in the ensemble. There were no drums. When they played
indoors for dances, concerts, or in the theater, some of the musicians laid aside their loud
instruments and played on violins, violoncellos, German flutes, or harpsichords, if they
were available.

The Band of Music, or military band, originally developed in the army of Louis XIV of
France, a monarch who purposefully used public ceremonies with music, dance, and
pageantry to enhance his power. British regiments were quick to pick up the idea and had
such bands by the end of the 17th century. These were soon heard in the American
colonies. In 1755, a parade in Philadelphia was “attended by a Band of Music” and the
following year, Benjamin Franklin, as commander of a militia regiment, was preceded on
parade by the “Hautboys and Fifes in Ranks.” It is likely that in this parade, the band of
music marched in one division, and a group of regimental fifes and drums in another. As
a pageant designed to enhance enlistments, the double whammy of loud music must have
made a powerful statement to the young lads of Philadelphia.

British regimental bands gave concerts and played in theaters and in churches in New
York, Boston, and Philadelphia before the Revolution. Americans were quick to form
bands of their own. Two exceptional American bands earned renown during the
American Revolution, those of the 3rd and the 4th Artillery Regiments commanded by
Colonels John Crane and Thomas Proctor. They played in many places as they traveled
with the troops, and they certainly impressed the citizens of many towns who then
wanted bands of their own. After the war, locally supported bands of music welcomed
George Washington in almost every village and town that he visited on his grand tour of
the United States in 1789. 

The history of the United States Marine Band echoes the evolution of America’s 18th-
century “band of music” into the much larger all-brass bands of the Civil War period,
and, of course, the music of John Philip Sousa, who was its director early in his career.

For more information:
Raoul F. Camus. “Bands,” in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, vol. 1, pp.
127–128.
Raoul F. Camus. Military Music of the American Revolution. 1976. Reprinted.
Westerville, OH: Integrity Press, 1993. 
For the history of the U. S. Marine Band see:
      https://www.marineband.marines.mil/ (the US Marine Band, a history)