Fife and Drum: a different ethnomusicology ensemble

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 15th, 2013. Filed under: Teaching, World Music Studies.

One of the intense pleasures of attending a music school in a large university is the opportunity to actually play music from other cultures, thanks to a department of ethnomusicology. The most common ensembles are gamelan from Indonesia, drum circles from sub-Sahara Africa, and various chamber music ensembles from East Asia and elsewhere. If the life-changing experiences were not enough, students are also awarded credit points for participation (given a certain level of commitment). The instruments in these ensembles require only rudimentary skills (although their execution can be honed to a fine edge) so the learning curve is entirely more forgiving, compared to WAM (Western Art Music) instruments.

But what about an ensemble closer to home? One seen through the same eyes of the ethnomusicologist?

Earlier I described a quintessential Canadian ensemble, with the violin at its core. Now I’m going to propose another ensemble that is definitely in left field, as far as ethnomusicology is concerned – The Fife and Drum.


The fife and drum ensemble has been at the core of European and New World military music from the 16th to the 18th centuries, before they were replaced by military marching bands. For example, they were central to both sides of the American Revolution. Yankee Doodle Dandy was a fife and drum tune composed especially for the occasion to mock the Americans. And one of the central icons of American resilience is the famous painting called the Spirit of ’76, showing a drummer boy, and two determined yet weary men playing a fife and drum, as they engage the Brits in battle.

When dignitaries visit the American President at the White House, they are always treated to a brilliant performance of fife and drum by the (well-paid) Old Guard Fife and Drum Band.

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The fife is a very simple flute, with only six finger-holes, three for each hand. That’s right; no keys. It plays in 2 major tonalities and one related minor tonality, using occasional cross-fingerings. It is the shy and un-sophisticated member of the flute family. All that is required of the player is to finger the notes, articulate each one with the tongue in the classic gesture of “tu” (as in French familiar form of you), and blow like mad. It is meant to be played loudly, all the time. No arty dynamic contrasts need apply.  Further, playing in tune is not an issue.

The drum is the field drum, larger and more thunderous than the usual marching side drum. It is so central to the tradition that the fife and drum ensemble is sometimes simply called a Drum Corp, and its leader with the mace, the Drum Major. Many drum students are only too familiar with a snare drum study book called the Drummer’s Heritage, compiled by Frederick Fennell in 1956. The book is still used to teach the rudiments of snare drumming, and two of its classic pieces, Three Camps, and Downfall of Paris, are found on countless assessments and auditions. As beginner drummers leaf through the book, they must wonder why there is so much flute music interspersed with the snare drum studies, not realizing that the book is also a primer for fife and drum ensembles. When Royal Conservatory of Music percussion students play the two classic pieces mentioned above for their practical music assessment, they always bring a flutist or better yet, a piccoloist (or sad to say, a pianist) to play the accompanying melody.

The most famous maker of fifes and field drums is Cooperman Drums which has an extensive collection of historically-minded percussion and fifes. Browsing through their catalogue is like time travelling combined with the excitement of a military musical adventure. When you follow the fife and drum links in YouTube you discover that the performance of fife and drum music is combined with precision marching in intricate formations. Memorisation is a requirement. You can encounter occasional stage performances of fife and drum, but they are never sitting down.


Up until the advent of the military band with its clarinets, trumpets, horns, etc. (likely an evolution of the Harmonie Band combined with the new fad in Turkish percussion) the dominant military band was the fife and drum ensemble.  Each group of 100 soldiers had one fifer and drummer, usually young boys, assigned to their unit, and all the various signals for daily life (e.g., wake up) and military maneuvers was signaled by the pair. When several companies marched together, they combined their fife and drummers to make up a fife and drum band. The signals were encoded in the drum part; the fifers simply provided a tune to elaborate and decorate the essential rhythm.  Like highland bagpipes, the combined sound of fifes was shrill and alarming, made even more effective because they were out of tune with each other. In effect, the pitch of each note of a melody was not a single strand of vibration (e.g., 440 Hz) but rather, a rope of pitches (from 435 to 445 Hz). Occasionally, the fifers are called upon to play bugles, the instrument of choice for cavalry musicians that must use the free hand to hold the reins of the horse.

My first exposure to a fife and drum corps was in Ottawa, on Canada Day. I was there with the National Youth Orchestra, and we flutists were on a break. The fife and drums of a Canadian regiment rounded the corner and stormed up the street, wreaking havoc on everybody’s ears while being thrilling and overwhelming to the bystanders. What most impressed our little knot of aspiring concert flutists was the degree of out-of-tuneness we avoided like the plague. For the fifers, it was a valued performance practice!

Fife and Drum in North America

Today, fifes and drums are found in two areas of activity; in the hands of re-enactors who populate historical forts throughout northeast North America, both in Canada and the US in the summer, and in clubs called, Ancient Fife and Drum Corps, found especially in Connecticut. The latter also dress in costume as re-enactors, often participating in re-enactments such as famous battles. They also march in town parades and most important, gather together every week for years to rehearse because they are avid hobbyist (i.e. avocational) musicians. The resulting close-knit bonds of friendships are often proudly displayed during competitions to choose the best marching fife and drum band.

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Then there are the marvelous fifers among the black people of Mississippi who formed the Fife and Drum Blues, with Napoleon Strickland at the height of the tradition. As can be expected, their music is loose and playful to the point of cheeky. Nevertheless, their brisk tempos belie the impression of casual performances.

Fife and Drum in Ireland

The Fife and drum appears further afield, in a controversial setting. The protestant Orangemen of Northern Ireland have adopted the fife and drum as their political and national call to arms. Every year on “the Twelfth”, the 12 day of July, Irish Protestants celebrate the Battle of the Boyne where protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic James II in 1690. Even today, the screaming sounds of fifes and the cacophonous roar of drums is heard on that tense day when the Orangemen marched through the catholic streets of Belfast and elsewhere during The Troubles (late 60s to late 90s). Orangemen have figured prominently in the history of Canada, from the Fenian Raids (1866-1871) to the modern-day parades through city streets until the early 70s. I once had a wonderful visit with the local Orangemen’s fife and drum band when they marched from their hall in Sapperton district, New Westminster to Hume Park. In order to hear their entire repertoire, I had to march with them along the entire route, parallel on the sidewalk!

Fife and Drum in Japan

Finally, the fife and drum band can be seen in the parallel universe of the Japanese traditional hayashi 囃子 ensembles, consisting of flutes (shinobue 篠笛), drums (taiko太鼓) and a modest little gong called a kane (鉦). The modern-day taiko ensemble is distantly related to this folksy phenomenon, but without the sweet little sound of the flute and the happy-go-lucky dums and tuks of the drums. Count yourself very lucky indeed if you are in Japan during a Shinto festival when the streets are filled with dancers, accompanied by a hayashi ensemble. The music for the hayashi has a very interesting layering effect where the downbeat is different for each layer, resulting in intense concentration and/or hilarity. For an entirely different mood, the hayashi ensemble can transform into a Noh drama hayashi, providing ritualized dance music in a mysterious and sombre atmosphere.

Fife and Drum at UBC School of Music?

The ensemble would be mostly visible in the greater community. Given that it is essentially a marching band, the corps would regularly play for the students by marching through the campus, perhaps at lunch time on Fridays, when students are celebrating the end of the week. Who would participate in the band? Percussion students would have a field day, playing their much loved instruments in such a spectacular setting. The flutists of the schools would likely enjoy “slumming” on a flute that is pure fun, with no career attachments. All students, including non-music students would be welcome if they can figure out how to make a flute face (i.e., embouchure) and march to the beat of the drum and the inner memory of their music.

So many possibilities. So much fun.


James Clarke (2011) Connecticut’s Fife & Drum Tradition

Stephen D. Mecredy (2000) Fort Henry: An Illustrated History

Raoul Camus (1976) Military Music of the American Revolution

Terence A. Lancashire (2013) An Introduction to Japanese Folk Performing Arts

The Regimental Drum Major Association (online military band marching manuals)


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