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What is Fife and Drum

by William Hart II


Fifer extraordinaire, and Fife and Drum activist.

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Fife and drum is a form of folk music that has its roots in the military music of the American army. It was Used by militia companies in the days of the colonies, through the American revolution and until the end of the Civil War. Today, freed from its ties to the military, fife and drum now plays music from a variety of genres and sources. A tune from the 1700s can be followed by a tune written in the 21st century.  The Colonial Navy of Massachusetts repertoire includes traditional military marches from the 18th century, popular songs of the 1800s, Irish music, and songs from the sea, transcribed for the fife, all played at a stirring, marching beat.

The instruments:

The fife is a simple form of flute. It has six open holes but no keys. Centuries of design and engineering improvements have developed an instrument with the ability to play very loudly in the high register, enabling the instrument to be heard for long distances. A concert flute player could pick up the instrument very quickly, but will be surprised to learn how loud it is and how much air it takes to play.

The drums we play are of two kinds, snare drum and bass drum. They  are generally described as “rope tension, wood shelled rudimental drums”.  The large wooden shells, much larger than orchestral snare drum or marching band drum, create the deep, booming sound that has existed essentially unchanged for centuries. Ropes, tightened by leather pieces called ears, provide the tension for the drumheads.  The bass drum, also with a wooden shell tensioned by rope, is played using two hands. This style, known as rudimental bass drumming, is unique to fife and drum. Both snare and bass drum play rudiments. Rudiments are rhythmic patterns that function like words,  strung together to create a meaningful musical phrase. Not simply keeping the beat, rudimental drum parts are melodies in and of themselves.


When marching in parades, we keep it simple – strong, rousing tunes that, as Sousa once said, would make a man with wooden leg want to get up and march. In performance, we play more complicated arrangements, often using two and three part harmonies. Simple or complex, it’s always played with passion, for we love this music.

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