Marching Band: an in depth look at the history of the sport
May 14, 2021
A group of musicians who play instruments, usually in a parade or sporting event. This is the simple definition of the sport Marching Band, but it goes much more in-depth than that. The history of the Marching Band evolves from military bands and all the way back to the ancient times of the Ottoman Empire.
The juxtaposition of using musical instruments in the military dates back to ancient times. Many armies would use percussion instruments (snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums, cymbals, etc.) and woodwind instruments (clarinets, alto saxophone, tenor saxophones, flutes, and piccolos) as signaling devices that could pierce through the battlefield and communicate basic commands to soldiers.
The earliest of these military marching bands on documentation is from the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century, according to hub.yamaha.com. As they conquered territory from North America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, they brought the legacy of the Marching Band with them. The concept spread through Northern Europe and the new world.
In the 1700s, they appeared in Revolutionary-era America with fife drums and drum corps.
As stated by hub.yamaha.com, “fifes are high-pitched wind instruments whose piercing tones are audible at a great distance.”
These marching bands were usually smaller, consisting of teenagers who were too young to be drafted into the war and were used as a means to communicate and music for drills when soldiers were marching.
Towards the end of the 1800s, the marching band expanded its repertoire and instrument usage thanks to composer and conductor John Phillip Sousa. He is also credited for the invention of the Sousaphone.
Sousa was also responsible for conducting the Marine Band, which would play at presidential inaugurations and other state events. During his time, the marching tempos greatly increased from 92-110 beats per minute (bpm) to 120 bpm.
Moving forward into the twentieth century, around 100 years ago, competitive drum corps became more and more popular and were consistently sponsored by the American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars. The first of which was known as the Senior Corps, which was open to any age so that World War I veterans could partake.
In the 1930s, in addition to Senior Corps, Junior corps were also introduced with a maximum age of 21.
“From after World War I until the mid to late 1960s, drum corps didn’t change very much,”
— Dennis DeLucia
However, there were many key restrictions that these marching bands needed to follow and by the late 1960s, people became frustrated. There were also restrictions in instruments and tempo in drum corps.
So, by 1974, some changes were made to greatly improve the Marching Band. The Drums Corps International (DCI) allowed Marching Bands to use one xylophone and one set of marching bells.
In the early 1980s, the DCI allowed the use of pit percussion. This allowed Marching Bands to have stationary musicians, known as “front ensemble” This “pit” was where the instruments that were too large to carry during marching would be.
In 2004, amplification was verified by the DCI, meaning that instruments that were quieter could be miked up in order to be heard. Rhythm section instruments, electric guitars, and basses were also verified during this time.
If you have any music experience, you would be familiar with the company known as Yamaha. In the 1980s, they became the driving force of Marching Bands in the United States. Yamaha’s products had an air seal system for drum construction. This helped make the drums perfectly round, which made them easier to tune; critical for school bands.
The company also made an effort to discover what kind of gear these musicians needed and developed the products that matched these needs.
In 1992, Yamaha became the first drum manufacturer to release drums in a variety of colors, according to hub.yamaha.com. Now marching bands have the opportunity to order instruments that match the color of their uniforms, which greatly increases the production of marching bands’ performances.
Today, marching bands fall into two categories. One is simply “marching bands,” what you find in high schools, colleges, and the military. The other is drum corps which is nationwide.
I got the opportunity to interview my friend Lauren, who plays the trumpet in the Sartell High School marching band: