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What Is a Fife and Drum Corps?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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A fife and drum corps is a musical military unit consisting of a fife, a type of flute, and a snare drum in most cases. This unit is commonly used to signal battlefield formations, advances, and attacks, as well as to provide music for the troops as they march. It was common in the early military units to have a unit consisting of two fifes and two drummers for each company of at least 100 soldiers. They provided entertainment for the troops by joining ranks and leading the march, while playing motivational music as well as hometown favorites to build up the marching troops' spirits.

A fife is a woodwind instrument that typically has six sound holes, although some versions may have 10 or 11 for added sound. It's commonly made from hardwood, but some are made of metal. The type of drum used in the classical fife and drum corps is called a rope tension snare drum. There can also be limited use of a bass drum in the modern units; however, this drum is typically used only in shows where the drummers remain stationary. The unit commonly plays only that music which is written especially for this type of musical group.

Early American fife and drum corps competitions and performances were focused on the Revolutionary War period of dress. Tricorn hats, waist coats, and knickers were the period-correct style of uniform worn by the players as they mimicked the uniforms worn by the soldiers of that era. One of the oldest symbols in America depicting the fife and drum players is that of a trio of wounded men, one with a fife, one with a drum, and the other with a flag, marching as they played. This same trio has also been depicted marching in American Civil War garb.

Modern fife and drum competitions in the U.S. typically include both Revolutionary War and Civil War uniforms, with more frequent use of the Civil War-type clothing being displayed. Some Civil War re-enactment groups include the unit in the engagement, adding a sense of reality to the battle scenes. Some claims have the drum and fife players at the battle of Stones River in Tennessee holding the original Battle of the Bands®. Camped on opposite sides of the river, the band from the North and the band from the South played increasingly louder during the night before to the battle in an effort to motivate the troops.

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