At its core, Marine music and military music in general exists largely because of music’s immense impact on the rhythm and conduct of war. Drums have been used in organized war since ancient times for uniformity and intimidation. The earliest documented use of a bugle in battle dates back to 1191, when trumpet calls signaled the start and stop of a Christian cavalry charge in Syria during the Third Crusade. More recently, soldiers of the 17th Century functioned as a single, autonomous unit; the soldiers’ effectiveness relied on their conformity to each other. Since oral commands were often not heard-or worse, misunderstood-through the gunfire and explosions of the battlefield, the voice of the trumpet and cadence of the drums were utilized as a clear, unambiguous way to give orders. Over time, European armies standardized a set of calls. For soldiers, being able to recognize these calls and know what they meant was as basic a skill as loading a musket.
The inception of American Military bands dates back to the British era, before the American Revolution. Originally, bands performed and marched at slower tempos in keeping with British tradition. However, after the American Revolution ended in 1781, American military bands adopted the faster tempo of French military bands, to emulate the faster march tempo of the French in combat. Instrumental positioning, although inspired by British tradition, became a mix of French and German influences as well.
The very first Marine Corps drummers and fifers (flautists) were enlisted from the birth of the Corps, as part of the 1st and 2nd Battalion of American Marines authorized by Congress on November 10, 1775. On their drums was a rattlesnake with the inscription “Don’t Tread on Me.” In the early Navy, each ship’s Marine guard included two drummers and one fifer. For the next century, drummers and fifers served in many notable engagements such as the Battle of Tripoli, the War of 1812, and the storming of Chapultepec. The stirring music arose to its greatest heights during the Civil War, and many memorable tunes were written during those four long years of war.
On July 11, 1798, President John Quincy Adams approved the first Marine Corps Band, the oldest organization of its kind in the country. The “Marine Band” consisted of one drum major, one fife major, and thirty-two drummers and fifers. Their first public concert was on August 21, 1800 at Washington D. C. On March 4, 1801, the Marine Band performed for Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration. It was Jefferson who gave the Marine Band the title “The President’s Own,” and the Band has played at every presidential inauguration since. For more information on the U. S. Marine Band, please visit their website at marineband.marines.mil.
Drums and fifes were the only musical instruments used by our military forces during the Revolutionary War era. During the Civil War, however, some bands began to include brass, and by 1875 the Army discontinued the use of the fife and instead adopted the bugle. These now evolved bands were the first to perform concerts for entertainment in addition to their drill and marching events. Bands began to increase in instrumentation, to include more woodwinds. This morphed into modern-day military bands, which eventually led to more accessible marching and concert bands in high school and college.