Marching bands: Everything you need to know

The roots of today's marching bands go back to the time of traveling musicians who traditionally performed at festivals and celebrations in the ancient world.

Spirit of Saginaw Band and Starsteppers Dance Team cheering on the Rough Riders football team (Photo: courtesy of Stella Ballard)

FORT WORTH, Texas September 3, 2016 — The school year has started. Brightly colored hues will soon replace our trees’ green leaves, as warm jackets are about to emerge from summer storage once again. That means one thing in many Texas homes: Marching Band Season.

The season actually gets an early start with Band Camp during the first of August. At Saginaw High School in the suburban Ft. Worth area, over two hundred kids in the Spirit of Saginaw Band gather in the 100+ degree heat each eight-hour day. They have less than a month to prepare for performances during autumn football games and only two months to ready for band competition. Each year, they offer a brand new show. They also accompany the Saginaw High School dance team, Starsteppers.

One Friday evening while pondering the action from the stadium stands in the stadium two thoughts came to my mind: Where do marching bands come from? And why do they perform during football games?

Spirit of Saginaw Marching Band performs during halftime (Photo: courtesy of Stella Ballard)
Spirit of Saginaw Marching Band performs during halftime (Photo: courtesy of Stella Ballard)

According to The Bandhead Social Network, the roots of marching bands go all the way back to the time of traveling musicians who performed at festivals and celebrations throughout the ancient world.

Over time these musical groups honed both their organization and precision. Understandably, the more they performed, the better they became. Many became so so good that military leaders used their formations and discipline on the battlefield, even to the point where the marchers began to lead troop movements.

Music wasn’t just for the military, however. It was Lowell Mason (1792-1872), a leading American figure in music and author of over 1600 hymns, who introduced music education to public schools. We still sing many of Mason’s songs today such as: Nearer My God to Thee, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and his arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Joy to the World.

Music education didn’t really catch on, however, despite his best efforts. Then the Industrial Revolution sparked massive urban growth that increased secondary school enrollments. This led to the call for music and arts in schools in addition to already required subjects.

Marching bands existed before 1900, of course, but the first to perform at a college football game was from the University of Illinois in 1907. Purdue University’s All-American Marching Band was the first to march in a pattern on the field with their Block P Formation the same year.

The idea of formation marching came from Purdue’s band director Paul Spotts Emrick. He got the idea when he noticed a flock of birds flying in a “V” formation and decided his band could do the same basic maneuvers on the field.

Stephen L. Rhodes of Lipscomb University says that secondary schools formed bands to cheer and encourage football teams during the game, although high school marching bands didn’t gain prominence until after World War I. Many veterans that had played in military bands went on to teach music after the war and brought their disciplines with them. From there, state and national contests developed and spread marching bands’ popularity across the country.

The first marching band formation performed by the Purdue Marching Band 1907 (Wikimedia Commons)
The first marching band formation performed by the Purdue Marching Band 1907 (Wikimedia Commons)

The name most identified with the marching band is the legendary John Phillip Sousa. He got his start in music as a child, studying piano and most orchestral instruments. But the violin was what he most loved to play.

When Sousa was thirteen, he received an offer to play his violin in a circus band. His father, however, enlisted him as an apprentice musician in the U.S. Marine Band. He stayed until he was twenty. One would argue that the world would be a lot different now if he had joined the circus instead.

In 1880 Sousa became the 17th leader of the Marine Band, where he remained until 1892. He had already written several of his famous marches during this time, earning him the nickname, “The March King.” From there, he formed his own civilian band and led it for the next 39 years until his death in 1932.

Of the 136 marches he composed, the American favorite, Stars and Stripes Forever became the U.S. National March in 1987. The tune of another famous Sousa composition is familiar to many people, but not the title: The Liberty Bell. At least not until one mentions Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

This famous composer and band leader is also responsible for the instrument named in his honor: the Sousaphone. In a 1922 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Sousa recalls how he was not happy with the sound of the Helicon during concert performances since its report reached the audience before the rest of the melody. He asked the instrument manufacturer J.W. Pepper for help. The result was the Sousaphone, which, with the bell turned upright, complemented the music much to the maestro’s delight.

John Phillip Sousa aka The March King 1917 (Wikimedia Commons)
John Phillip Sousa aka The March King 1917 (Wikimedia Commons)

In time the marching band grew through the addition of the color guard, baton twirlers or majorettes and dance teams.

Another change was the development of “the pit.” At one time, all band musicians actually marched together. Not anymore.

The term “pit” refers back to opera or operetta orchestra pits, generally situated in front of and partially below theater stages so as not to obstruct the audience’s view of the stage. Seated musicians assemble here to accompany musicals, plays, operas and ballets.

In marching bands, the pit ensemble consists of xylophones, keyboards, kettle drums, marimbas, vibraphones, bells, chimes, congas, bongos, cymbals, triangles, tambourines and shakers. Their position is at the field edge extending from the 50 yard line both ways.

With the general exception of drum majors everyone else marches in formation on the field.

In the stands, the band is also like a pep club that encourages spectators to participate in the revelry to support the football team as well. One of the ways they do this is by performing the school song. Here in Texas, school songs are slow tempos and are characterized by thoughtful lyrics. Fight songs, on the other hand, are upbeat and boisterous, usually forging ahead without the need for lyrics. When this writer attended Thornridge High School in Illinois, however, the school song was the fight song. Different parts of the country have developed different traditions, however.

For anyone who thinks marching band is for the weak or athletically-challenged, nothing is further from the truth. These young musicians are tough, talented and smart. They tend to be more mature than their academic counterparts, earning higher grade point averages. In addition, they are more likely to stay out of trouble.

Not just anyone can be a successful band member. It takes not only talent, but dedication and discipline. And they are in good company, as can easily be seen by perusing this short list of American celebrities who were once involved with marching bands:

  • Halle Berry
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Ewan McGregor
  • Julia Roberts
  • Tom Selleck
  • Stephen Spielberg
  • Tony Stewart
  • Steven Tyler


Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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