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Jul 19

Music Notes: Military Field Music

Posted on July 19, 2017 at 11:29 AM by Elizabeth Land

Notes from the Music Staff logoStaff Note: Notes from the Music Staff is a series of posts discussing what the York County Library offers music fans. From our widely varied collection of music CDs to our nonfiction and fiction books covering all aspects of music, we've got something for everyone and we want to share our love of music with you!

Tomorrow, November 11, is Veterans Day, so we thought it was fitting to look into a specific subgenre of military music: Field music. 

Spirit of 76 was painted by A.M. WillardIn European and American culture, drums ordered the daily lives of soldiers, providing cadences for marching and signals for battle, as well as marking routine activities such as meal and bed time. The drum most associated with the military was a snare drum known as a side drum because it hangs on a sling at the player’s side.

The side drum was played alone or with a fife, a small wooden flute with six finger holes on a diatonic scale. The traditional pairing of the drum and fife developed from the medieval practice of a single player performing on a tabor (small drum) and pipe to accompany dances. In Colonial America, drummers summoned men from rural areas to take up arms. Revolutionary War drummers and fifers, who appear in in the famous Spirit of '76 painting by A.M. Willard (at right), signaled soldiers to fire. In the hazy fog of battle, visual command was impossible and musical instruments were the only way to convey orders to the troops. The combination of the fife and drum became known as military field music.

A 3rd instrument — the bugle — was introduced around 1800 in England, and to the U.S. during the War of 1812. Bugles are brass instruments with a conical bore tubing, usually wound once around, and wide bells. Cavalry units in the United States adopted the bugle for their field signals. Later in the century, the bugle began to replace the more traditional drummers and fifers for infantry use. Many originally performed on drums were adopted as bugle calls. The most familiar of these is “Taps" (below left) Originally named for the action of the drummer playing on his drum, this term now refers to a bugle call.
Learn More

Taps Notes from a Nations Heart

Get more information about Taps, as well as plenty of recordings of military music at the York County Library.


  1. "The Story of Taps" — U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  2. Taps: The Bugler's Cry - The Origin of Sounding Taps — Historian Jari Villanueva (Video)
  3. Bugle Calls — U.S. Army
  4. Fifes, Drums, & Kentucky Rifles — American Military History Podcast