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What Is a Drum and Bugle Corps?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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A drum and bugle corps is a variety of marching band. These groups typically employ a mixture of percussion and brass instruments. Some members also use props, ranging from stylized rifles to flags and ornaments, to accompany the music and present striking visual images. This style of marching band has its roots in the military, but a majority of modern corps are not comprised of military personnel, although the major military academies still maintain drum and bugle corps units.

Military units have long made use of musical instruments to help troops keep pace while marching or to direct and inspire troops on the battlefield. Instruments used by the military needed to carry through the din of battle. They also needed to be portable and durable. Drums and simple brass instruments, such as bugles, meet both of these requirements and have been used to aid marching soldiers since the era of the Roman Empire.

The modern drum and bugle corps appeared early in the 20th century. The first corps used instruments common to the armed forces of the day — drums and bugles. These instruments were accompanied by soldiers performing elaborate versions of the standard marching drills of the day, complete with stylized displays of rifles and sabers.

After the First World War, drum and bugle corps became more common in the civilian sphere. Patriotic groups sponsored competitions and encouraged these bands to form and to take part in celebrations on national holidays or at sporting or civic events. Some modern drum and bugle corps organizations are still affiliated with patriotic or military organizations, but many are now largely independent and rely on sponsors or ticket sales to fund their activities.

Since the late 20th century, drum and bugle corps have generally moved away from a strict focus on military drill and appearance and have become more theatrical in nature. All varieties of marching band have placed more and more emphasis on showmanship, and this trend can be seen in drum and bugle corps movement as well. A great deal of choreography, planning, and practice is required for a successful modern drum and bugle corps routine.

These modern groups are typically made up of young people, often young men. The larger and more successful corps travel and compete extensively. The instruments used by modern groups are still brass and percussion, but simple cavalry bugles have been replaced by the full selection of marching band brass instruments.

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Discussion Comments

By Emilski — On Dec 12, 2011

I got the chance to see the DCI finals a couple of years ago, and it was a fun experience. I was always in marching band in high school, but didn't know anything like this existed. My friend who is really into that stuff took me to go watch it.

The thing I noticed is that a lot of the bands are from the Midwest. I think there were a couple each from Illinois and Indiana as well as Wisconsin and a couple of other nearby places. There were some that were more spread out like California and Texas, but you would expect there to be more teams from those larger states.

That brings up my question of, how do the teams get started? Did the drum corps thing start in the Midwest, so they just have more bands? If you wanted to get a new group together, how would you do it? I think at the one I went to, there were probably only 12 bands or so.

By Izzy78 — On Dec 11, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I agree, they are really fun to watch. I got a chance to go to see one of their competitions when I was in high school. It is very impressive the things they can do with only brass and percussion instruments. I always played the saxophone, and I always thought it would be cool if I could have a chance to play in one of those bands.

Besides just having the music, a lot of the performances are based off of visual appeal, now. They have color guards and sort of have stories to go along with the music that is acted out by the performers.

I think my favorite part of the corps are the "pit" percussion people. The ones that play the bells and marimbas and things like that. I think they really add a lot to the music, and it wouldn't really be the same without them.

By cardsfan27 — On Dec 11, 2011

@kentuckycat - I am not really sure about the military drum and bugle corps. They have a lot of different ensembles, so I would have to guess they probably do have some sort of group. They probably play traditional military music, and I can't see them doing a whole lot of performance.

What the article sort of mentions by the theatrical drum corps isn't associated with the military. There might be more, but the main one is called Drum Corps International. Basically, it is a group of bands the compete and perform every year against each other. They basically do the same sorts of marching band routines as a high school or college band would do, except they just use brass and percussion instruments.

As for getting into one of them, I am not sure what the process is. There would obviously be some sort of audition process, which I'm sure would be very difficult, since the bands are very good. If you ever get a chance to see one of their competitions, do it.

By kentuckycat — On Dec 10, 2011

Is there anywhere that someone could go to watch a drum and bugle corps perform? I know I have seen a couple of military bands perform before, and I think it would be interesting to watch something like this. I assume that the military itself still has them, right?

What types of music do they usually play, and what instruments are involved? It says a bugle corps, but do they also have other types of brass instruments like tubas and trombones? How do you end up getting into one of these corps? Do you have to be in the military, or are there other outlets for joining one?

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