Band Playing

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During the eighteenth century, the term "band" was used in several European languages to describe military and civic ensembles that featured oboes, bassoons, and clarinets. Horns and trumpets were employed less frequently. Ensembles usually ranged from six to eight members.

As Europeans settled in the colonies, they brought band instruments with them. The first documented performance of a military band was in 1714, when oboes and trumpets were used to celebrate the crowning of George I. The first documented civic concert of instrumental music took place in Boston in 1729. Moravian immigrants, well known for the importance they placed upon music, formed some of the first civilian bands in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

From Nationhood Through the Civil War

During the Revolutionary War, several American military bands were founded. The Third and Fourth Continental Artillery units had bands of exceptional renown. When state militia groups replaced the Continental Army in 1783, many of the militias formed small bands. They performed for ceremonial purposes and also at town dances and parades. In 1800, the U.S. Marine Corps established a permanent band that performed public concerts; this original band included two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, one bassoon, and one drum.

During the second decade of the nineteenth century, instrument makers developed valved brass instruments that were easier to play and more versatile. The keyed bugle was introduced in America in 1815 and enjoyed several decades of popularity. The bass drum and cymbal (which made their way into European and American ensembles through an enthusiasm for Turkish military, or "anissary" music) were gradually popularized. As a result, brass instruments quickly replaced woodwinds as the bands' basic element.

The Civil War saw the proliferation of many brass bands. Many militia bands enlisted as a group. The Union is estimated to have had 500 bands with 9,000 players. These bands consisted of anywhere from eight to twenty-four musicians.

The Rise of Amateur Band Playing

After the Civil War there was a dramatic rise in amateur band playing. Instruments became more affordable as American manufacturing replaced the importation of instruments from Europe; in addition, instrument quality increased. Both brass and woodwind instruments were sold in high quantities, reversing the previous trend toward the exclusive use of brass instruments. Local manufacturers implemented massive advertising campaigns that emphasized the positive effects of playing in a band: the health benefits of marching, the fact that women found bandsmen more attractive, and the ability of a band to draw a crowd for political or commercial reasons.

Amateur bands were funded and organized by a number of institutions. Many town governments funded bands, arguing that the presence of a town band reflected the town's high level of taste and civilization. Fraternal and sororital organizations formed bands, pointing to the positive moral influence of band playing. Bands were also formed around industrial ties (such as factory bands and railroad bands), by the Salvation Army (in 1878), and (after World War I) by American Legion posts and veterans' organizations. Bands were conducted by local music "professors" and rehearsed once or twice a week. Membership was generally restricted to adult males, though a small number of women's bands were formed around 1900. The standard size of a band rose steadily, peaking at about twenty members.

Role of Bands in Town Life

From 1850 to World War I (often called "the golden age of bands"), bands could be found in almost every town in America. In most communities, bands provided the main source of music outside the home. Bands performed a wide repertoire of music, from marches and dance music to arrangements of everything from the latest opera aria to Stephen Foster songs to European symphonic literature. They performed at paid political rallies, fairs, parades, picnics, and excursions. During the summer months, bands would perform at unpaid summer evening concerts once a week at the town bandstand. These events in the center of town drew large crowds.

During this period, rivalry between bands was high. Community bands fought to recruit the best players, and bands worked hard to have the most appealing repertoire, the best instruments, and the most exotic costumes. During the 1870s and 1880s, instrument manufacturers and chambers of commerce often staged competitions. Several of these competitions reached mammoth proportions, lasting three to four days and drawing crowds from great distances.

The Origins and Development of Band Playing in Schools

While the number of civic bands has sharply declined since World War I, bands can now be found in most educational institutions across America. The University of Notre Dame Band, formed in 1842, claims to be the oldest band in continuous existence. After the Civil War, bands were formed at the Officer's Training Corps, which could be found at most colleges and universities. The combination of military training and music making converged in the marching band, which, in the early 2000s, remained the most prominent type of school band. By 1900, it was common to have bands performing at half-time shows of sporting events.

The end of World War I saw many military band-leaders return to their communities and form bands in public high schools. These bands benefited from the increasing tendency toward publicly funded music instruction. Their popularity was also fueled by intense competition. In 1923, in a bid to increase sales, musical instrument manufacturers sponsored the first national school band contest. Organizations for the promotion of school bands were founded: the National School Band Association in 1926, the College Band Directors National Association in 1941.

Recent years have seen the rise of "wind ensembles" in many universities and colleges. This trend began in 1952 with the foundation of the Eastman School of Music Symphonic Wind Ensemble by Frederic Fennell. Wind ensembles generally have fewer members than bands, and their instrumentation is modeled on the symphony orchestra. These ensembles attempt to rival the symphony orchestra in terms of virtuosity, sophistication, and versatility.

See also: Choral Singing, Performing Arts Audiences, Piano Playing, Traditional Folk Music Festivals


Bryant, Carolyn. And the Band Played On: 1776–1976. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.

Hazen, Margaret Hindle, and Robert M. Hazen. The Music Men: An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Kreitner, Kenneth. Discoursing Sweet Music: Town Bands and Community Life in Turn-of-the-Century Pennsylvania. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Schwartz, Harry Wayne. Bands of America. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

Alexander Kahn