Military Band Music

Military band music is a genre that often goes unmentioned in the history of music, yet it is an essential link for understanding how we got to where we are. Military band music is especially important in understanding where rock music came from.

It’s no accident that one of the defining rock albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, has a military band theme. The influences ot the military band were part of the distinction between rock as defined by the Beatles and the earlier rock ’n roll styles.

I remember a music critic describing Paul McCartney’s melody in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as the “ultimate rock melody” — perhaps it is, but in compositional terms it is, quite simply, a trumpet melody.

That song and album had much to do with introducing the steady, unyielding, high-energy beat to rock. Today we think of this kind of a beat as a rock beat, but it was largely absent from the first decade of rock music and became commonplace only in the years after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And it is no accident that the loudest instrument in rock, the snare drum, is the loudest instrument in military band music. Rock is generally considered to have acquired the drum set from jazz, but how did the drum set originate? The precursor of the rock drum set was devised in the late 1800s as a way for a single musician to play the snare drum, the bass drum, and a pair of cymbals — the three main percussion instruments of a military band.

Military band music as a genre draws mainly on military and symphonic music. The military march was a staple of classical composer, either as a separate piece of music or a part of a symphony. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, military bands sought to take this classical music style and translate it to a ceremonial military setting with an emphasis on percussion and brass instruments.

Military band music will always be identified with John Philip Sousa, an accomplished musician who conducted the U.S. Marine Corps Band from 1880 to 1892. He left the military and formed his own band with the same look and style (and briefly, the same name), but taking it to a popular audience. It was hugely popular right up until his death in 1932.

Most of the musical traditions of the world are based on the rhythm of walking, but the rhythm of marching is a little different. It is more precise and insistent and can have the effect of hypnotizing large groups of people so that they think in sync with each other. The resulting groupthink experience is basically the same whether the people are the soldiers in Napoleon’s army or fans at a Who concert.

And so, if listening to rock music makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, at least part of that feeling comes from the march rhythm that rock borrowed from the military band.

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