How the marching band became a staple of American music education

November 24, 2021, 5:31 p.m. | Updated: November 25, 2021, 5:01 PM

Marching bands are a staple of American music education.

Photo: Aliyah


In America, high school football games conjure up images of players with padded shoulders, choreographed cheerleaders and a cheery marching band. But how did this musical ensemble become so entrenched in the country’s educational system?

The history of marching bands dates back to medieval times, when musicians were included in feudal armies, in order to maintain the morale of the soldiers, as well as to lead the troops.

But while most countries have maintained a band presence in their military institutions, America has brought the band into the classroom.

Today, music ensembles are a staple of most high schools and colleges across the country.

But how did this musical ensemble with a military past end up on the school football field?

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When were marching bands introduced in schools?

Marching bands have been present in American universities since the 19th century.

This is usually because they were associated with the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, which are university officer training programs.

Founded in 1845, America’s oldest college marching band is the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish Band, and the band first performed at a football game 30 years later in 1887.

It is said that the founder of the university, the Reverend Edward Sorin, was a clarinetist and was keen for the university to have a strong musical program.

In 1907, after being inspired by a flock of birds flying in a V-formation, the Purdue All-American Marching Band became the first band to break standard marching patterns, as seen on the battlefield, and to create pictorial formations instead.

The first halftime show at a football game was performed the same year, by the University of Illinois Marching Illini.

Appearing alongside these new musical innovations was the concept of a college fight song, which were pieces of music written to inspire morale and a type of patriotism for your school.

These began to be performed by college bands at sporting events, to encourage spectators to clap louder and join in with the spirit-inspired lyrics of the school.

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A marching band performs during the 1998 FA Cup Final Arsenal v Newcastle United

A marching band performs during the 1998 FA Cup Final Arsenal v Newcastle United.

Image: Getty


Are there marching bands in the UK?

Since the 18th century, each regiment in the British Army has maintained its own military band, and the Marines and Royal Air Force have their own bands as well.

Marching is an important tradition in the military and learning to march is part of basic training in the UK and other countries.

In the British Army, all musicians are trained soldiers and every performer must undergo basic military training before beginning their musical training.

Bands march while performing in parades and a variety of other performances, such as Trooping the Color and Changing the Guard.

Learn more: 17 incredible photos of military bands throughout history

Have you ever wondered what it looked and sounded like inside a band, marching through London? Well, with a special “Bands-Eye” view, wonder no more! Join Central Band as they take part in this year’s #PrideinLondon Parade and entertain 1.5 million people along the route. We have been so privileged to be part of this wonderful opportunity and to show the Royal Air Force’s support for diversity and inclusion. 🏳‍🌈🦄❤🧡💛💚💙💜 #PrideMatters #RAFLGBT #RAFPride Ps Has anyone ever considered the YMCA a step forward!? No, neither do we…

posted by RAF Music on Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Music in the parades

The groups perform in multiple parades around the world, from royal events to annual holidays.

The largest parade in the world is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, which takes place in New York City and features 10 marching bands and nearly 8,000 performers.

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Image: Getty


In most parades, the marching band will be led by a “drum major” (also known as the field commander). This role is responsible for leading the ensemble and, due to the spread out nature of a parade, they will usually carry a large staff or mace.

Drum major carrying a mace

Drum major carrying a mace.

Image: Getty


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