Fife and drum corps

A Fife and Drum Corps is a musical ensemble consisting of fifes and drums. In the United States of America, fife and drum corps specializing in colonial period impressions using fifes, rope tension snare drums, and (sometimes) bass drums are known as Ancient Fife and Drum Corps.[1] Many of these ensembles originated from a type of military field music.


Fifes are an ancient wind instrument, referred to in Europe as the "Schweizerpfeife", or Swiss flute. Fifes have been in use by military organizations (in their modern form) since the 16th century. Fifes originally accompanied companies of soldiers, providing music while on the march and in camp. Drums have had a role in militaries going back farther in history.

The rise of the modern army began in the late 16th century and evolved throughout the 18th century. Drilling to precise and increasingly complicated geometric movements, armies adapted and trained fifers and drummers to signal preparatory alerts and execution signals as well as times of day for the troops. It became customary for each company of 100 or so men to be assigned 2 fifers and 2 drummers to sound signals, hours and alarms, as well as play popular music on the march. This pattern was also practiced in the U.S. services from the Revolutionary War up until the late 19th Century. When the companies of a Regiment or Battalion were gathered together, it was customary to assemble the fifes and drums from all the companies into a 'band' to march at the head of the column on parade. When a regimental military band (woodwinds and brass) were also present, the fifes and drums marched at the head, followed by the military band. This is still the custom with British Regimental bands. To this day, the drum major's preparatory command to move a British Army band is, "Band and Drums...". This is referring back to the segregation of the fifes and drums as a separate entity from a military band.

Fifes have always been an infantry musical instrument. Assigned at the company level with 1-2 fifes and 1-2 drums per company (or formed as a band at the regimental level), fifes and drums were used to regulate the daily activities of the troops. They signaled when the troops should rise in the morning and retire at night, when to eat, when to assemble, and to sound an alarm. The infantry used side drums (snare/field, long drum/tenor drum and the bass drum). When detached to the companies, the drummers used only the side drums. Cavalry and Dragoon (mounted infantry) units did not them, instead utilizing bugles to signal commands. The only remaining Fife and Drum Corps in the American Military is the Fife and Drum Corps of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), a ceremonial Army unit based out of Ft. Myer, Virginia, raised in 1960.

Modern non-military Fife and Drum Corps are organizations with volunteer or paid performers. Revenue is obtained through fundraising and by performing in town and city parades. Corps performance pieces often reflect the expectations of the audience for these venues (e.g., patriotic and Irish medleys for Memorial Day and St. Patrick's Day, respectively). Sometimes a Fire Department may have their own associated Fife and Drum Corps to march ahead of their fire trucks. Other corps may obtain revenue from reenactment performances. Several times per year various Fife and Drum Corps meet to compete, parade, socialize, and muster at a camp ground or meeting hall (in the winter).

As of today, the Marine Corps of the Royal Netherlands Navy employs a Fife and Drum Corps tracing back its roots to 1665 and possibly earlier. In Dutch, the 'Tamboers en Pijpers' are made up of fully trained professional Dutch Marines who play the drums ('Tamboer') or fife ('Pijper', derived from Pfeife as is Fife). Both categories are fully accomplished as Buglers for Dutch military ceremonial tasks. See (in Dutch) for more background.


A fife is a woodwind instrument in the transverse flute family, which sounds an octave above the written music and has 6 tone holes (some have 10 or 11 tone holes for added chromatics). Most fifes are wood - blackwood, grenadilla, rosewood, mopane, pink-ivory and other dense woods are superior; maple and persimmon are inferior, but often used, particularly as entry-level instruments. Some corps have used metal fifes. In Civil War corps, bugles are sometimes part of the instrumentation.

Rope-tension snare and bass drums are tightened using tugs or ears that apply pressure to the rope, which is transferred to the heads when the rope compresses the counter hoops, causing them to move slightly closer together. The drum heads used are usually made of lamb or calf skin, or plastic drum heads made by many drum manufacturers. Unlike in the British corps, the single tenor drum is not customarily used in American fife and drum ensembles.


The drums are beaten using two sticks. Visual effects may be created by flourishes of the drum sticks; for example, bass drummers may swing the beaters in a flourish while the snare drummers roll (or when the beating leaves sufficient time to flourish).

Songs are chosen based on a number of criteria, and can include both historically significant music and new pieces specifically composed or arranged to be played on fife and drum.

Most fife and drum corps march in parades, perform at concerts, in festivals and state fairs, and expositions. Some fife and drum corps focus on interpreting a specific time period and portray field musicians of the era at living history events and reenactments. Many corps perform together at musters, particularly in the North-East, but also nationally throughout the United States.

The typical uniform of the Ancient Fife and Drum Corps is a representation of some military uniform from the American Revolutionary War. Uniforms often consist of tricorns or cocked hats, waistcoats, knickers (knee breeches) or gaitered trousers, ruffled cuffs, neck stocks, and buckled shoes similar those by the Continental Army or Marines. More recently, American Civil War uniforms have risen in prominence, with uniforms and instrumentation based on Civil War units of either the Union or Confederate armies.

Common pieces

See also


  1. Clarke, James (2011), Connecticut's Fife & Drum Tradition, Wesleyan University Press, ISBN 978-0-8195-7141-0
  2. Sweet, Ralph (1981). The Fifer's Delight. Enfield, CT: Ralph Sweet.
  3. The Company of Fifers and Drummers Music Book. II. The Company of Fifers & Drummers.
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