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A summary of the history of the ensembles that led to the modern concert, marching, and jazz bands of the U.S.


The term band , referring to a group of musicians playing together, is a very generic one. It can refer to anything from a couple of guitar players with a singer to a large group of brass, woodwind, and percussion players. This overview will only deal with the history and development of bands related to the modern European-American tradition of concert and marching bands.

Bands in early europe

The modern tradition of both concert and marching bands has developed over the centuries out of an even older tradition of military music. There is much evidence of trumpets , horns , and drums being employed for military purposes in ancient times in many places, including Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. Throughout ancient and medieval times, however, these instruments were mainly used by armies for signaling, not really for playing music. When a tune was wanted for marching, instruments such as flute or bagpipes were preferred. In the middle ages, this led to different musicians being hired as needed by different companies: cavalry required trumpets, horns, and drums, while footsoldiers hired fife and bagpipes players.

Until about the seventeenth century, "band" was a generic term for any group of musicians playing together (much as it still is now). There was not even any differentiation between "band" and "orchestra", or any attempt to standardize the instrumentation of musical groups. Composed music was generally for small consorts of similar instruments, for example a group of recorders of various sizes, or a group of trombones . The modern string quartet is a good example of this sort of consort. Larger ensembles of mixed instruments played popular songs and dances, probably with little or no written music, improvising their parts as early jazz musicians did and as many musicians in traditions around the world still do.

One type of ensemble of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that can be considered a precursor to the band tradition were the municipal, town, or tower musicians. These groups grew out of the tradition of announcing the hours of the day by musical signals, and their duties gradually expanded to playing chorales from the city tower and to providing music for festivals, state occasions, weddings, and church services. Typical instruments for this kind of group included trombones of various sizes, and cornetts. The latter were not the trumpet-like instrument of today, but a wooden instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece like a trumpet but with finger-holes like a recorder. Tower musician groups disappeared by the early eighteenth century, replaced by other wind groups.

Military bands

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also saw the beginnings of a true, standardized, military band tradition. As mentioned above, in earlier times, militaries would simply hire whatever musicians they felt they needed for signaling and marching. It was sometime during this period that a desire to keep better time in marching led to the designation of a "chief drummer", eventually known as the drum major . The most important development at this time, however, was the formation under Louis XIV of France of a regularly constituted military band. These first military bands were oboe bands, which may seem surprising. Recall, however, that flutes and bagpipes had long been the instruments of choice for accompanying marching. Also, the oboes of that day had a much louder, outdoors-appropriate sound than today's more refined concert instrument.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, A parent's guide to band. OpenStax CNX. Jun 25, 2007 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10428/1.1
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