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Early U.S. Bands – Part 3

Posted on: February 1st, 2008 by hauleymusic No Comments

In addition to field music, the United States military also had bands that were used for ceremonial purposes and to raise soldier morale. Like field music, this tradition has its roots in European military practices. The first outdoor, or military, bands were made up of woodwind instruments. These bands, known as Harmoniemusik, primarily used oboes, horns, and bassoons. These instruments usually had to be imported, but a few were manufactured by makers in the United States. An oboe by Jacob Anthony of Philadelphia, and a bassoon by John Meacham of Albany are rare surviving examples of instruments that were typical of those used in Harmoniemusik bands. In Europe, a craze for Turkish music at the end of the eighteenth century introduced the bass drum and cymbal into these ensembles, and these instruments soon found their way into American bands as well.

Noticeably absent from these military bands are the brass instruments familiar to audiences today. At the time, only natural brass instruments, those without keys or valves, were available. Natural brasses could only play the notes of the overtone series and so were not as useful as woodwinds in ensemble playing. In 1810, Irishman John Halliday invented a keyed bugle that allowed a brass instrument to play all of the chromatic notes that previously had to be played on an oboe or clarinet. In Europe, a great flurry of invention created brass instruments of all varieties, first with keys and later with valves and pistons. Although musicians in the United States were slower to adopt these new designs, immigrants brought these newer instruments, along with their taste for brass bands, to the United States in the decades before the Civil War.

By the start of the Civil War, many towns and villages had their own bands, and often sent them along with their militia units. The bands, like the young fighting soldiers, were a symbol of pride for communities large and small across the North and the South. For their part, the soldiers and officers wanted them because they were key to maintaining high morale and were also the primary source of entertainment.

Brass bands of all types were used during the Civil War, but a peculiar type of brass instrument, known as an over-the-shoulder horn, became associated with bands of this era. The tubing on these instruments bent around, and featured a bell that pointed over the player’s shoulder. This allowed the band to march in front of the soldiers, and the sound would be directed back behind the player toward the marching troops. Entire bands of over-the-shoulder brass instruments, from tubas to cornets, were used during the Civil War.

After the war, many veterans returned to their homes in both the North and South. Many others chose to settle in the great expanses of the American West. In both cases, these former soldiers brought their love of military brass music with them, and organized bands in communities large and small across the continent. The American band movement, which would culminate with the great bandleader John Philip Sousa around the turn of the twentieth century.


Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Military Music in American and European Traditions”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (October 2004)

Garofalo, Robert, and Mark Elrod. A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments & Miltary Bands. Charleston, W.Va.: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co., 1985.