Marching band

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A marching band performs in a parade

A marching band is a group of instrumental musicians who generally perform outdoors, and who incorporate movement – usually some type of marching – with their musical performance. In addition to traditional parade performances, many bands also perform field shows at special events (often American football games) or at marching band competitions. Marching bands are generally categorized by function and by the style of field show (if any) they perform.


Types of marching band

Marching bands can be categorized based on primary function, instrumentation, and style.

  • Parade bands generally play marches. Instrumentation varies, and can contain anything from bagpipes or fifes and drums all the way to full wind and percussion sections. Many military and veterans' organizations have their own parade bands.
  • Show bands have the main role of performing at sporting events, usually American football games. They perform a field show before the game and at halftime (and sometimes after the game as well). Show bands typically march in time to the music, and may also participate in parades and competitions. Show bands contain brass and percussion instruments, but may or may not use woodwinds or a percussion pit.
  • Scramble bands are a variation on show bands. They generally do not march in time with the music, and often incorporate comedic elements into their performances.
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Marching Band - Bruge, Belgium
  • Drum and bugle corps is a genre of marching performance groups that is distinctly divided into classic and modern corps. Both groups have long, continuous histories and developments separate from marching bands. As the name implies, bugles and drums form the musical background of the corps, but modern competitive drum corps incorporate other brass instruments and orchestral percussion. In the United States, Drum Corps International (DCI) is the governing body for competitive junior drum and bugle corps, while Drum Corps Associates (DCA) is the governing body for competitive all-age (or senior) drum and bugle corps.

This article will focus primarily on parade and show bands.


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Marching bands evolved out of military bands. As musicians became less and less important in directing the movement of troops on the battlefield, the bands moved into more and more ceremonial roles. An intermediate stage which provided some of the instrumentation and music for marching bands was the modern brass band, which also evolved out of the military tradition.

Many military traditions survive in modern marching band. Bands that march in formation will often be ordered to "dress" their "ranks" and "cover [down]" their "files". They may be called to "attention", and given orders like "about face" and "forward march". Many marching bands' uniforms still resemble military uniforms.

Outside of police and military organizations, modern marching band is most commonly associated with American football, and specifically the halftime field show. Many U.S. universities had bands before the turn of the century, but the Purdue University band was the first to play on a sports field in a formation other than a concert shell or parade block (they formed a 'P' in 1907). The University of Illinois band was the first to march in a formation other than a parade block (sometime before 1910).

Another innovation that appeared at roughly the same time as the field show and marching in formations was the fight song. University fight songs are often closely associated with the university's band. The first fight song was Illinois Loyalty, written in 1906 for the University of Illinois.

Other changes in marching band have been:

  • adoption of the tradition by secondary schools (high schools, junior high schools, and middle schools)
  • the addition of a dance team, cheerleaders (sometimes called poms), and/or baton twirlers

Since the inception of Drum Corps International in the 1970s, many marching bands that perform field shows have adopted changes to the activity that parallel developments with modern drum and bugle corps. These bands are said to be corps-style bands. Changes adopted from drum corps include:

  • marching style: instead of a traditional high step, drum corps tend to march with a fluid roll step to keep musicians' torsos completely still (see below)
  • the adaptation of the color guard, rifle, and sabre units into "auxiliaries", who march with the band and provide visual flair by spinning and tossing flags or mock weapons and using dance in the performance
  • moving marching timpani and keyboard percussion into a stationary sideline percussion section (pit), which has since incorporated many different types of percussion instruments
  • the addition of vocalists and/or electric instruments (marching bands have as a general rule adopted these aspects before drum corps, for instance the Drum Corps International circuit has only allowed electronic amplification since 2004 and has yet to permit electronic instruments without penalties)
  • marching band competitions are judged using criteria similar to the criteria used in drum corps competitions, with emphasis on individual aspects of the band (captions for music performance, visual performance, percussion, guard, and general effect are standard).

Personnel and instrumentation

The size and composition of a marching band can vary greatly. Many bands have fewer than twenty members. Some have over 500. But all share at least some of the same elements.

A marching band is typically led by one or more drum majors, who conduct the band, sometimes using a large baton or mace. Bands may also be led by a more traditional conductor, especially during field shows, where a stationary conductor on a ladder or platform may be visible throughout the performance. Usually clapping or a whistle is used to issue commands.

Marching instrumentation nearly always includes percussion, the instruments being adapted for mobile, outdoor use. Marching percussion typically includes snare drums, bass drums, and cymbals. Racks of multiple tom-tom drums, also called tenor drums, quads, tri-toms, may be used. The glockenspiel is another common marching band percussion instrument.

Show bands tend to have similar wind instrumentation. Woodwinds are optional but tend to include saxophones and piccolos in addition to flutes and clarinets. Double-reed instruments are rare, as are all string instruments. Brass sections tend to include mellophones instead of French horns, and sousaphones instead of tubas. B♭ trumpets, trombones, baritone horns, and euphoniums are common. E♭ trumpets and flugelhorns are also sometimes used.

For bands that include a pit, stationary instrumentation may include orchestral percussion such as timpani, wood blocks, marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, chimes, as well as a multitude of auxiliary percussion equipment. More modern instruments may include synthesizers and electric guitars as well as electric basses.

Instrumentation varies widely from band to band, so no generalization is completely correct. There are bands where members play string instruments, or bang on mailboxes and trash cans with drum sticks.

Large bands also require a number of support staff who can move equipment, repair instruments and uniforms, and manipulate props used in performances. In high school bands, these are generally parents of band members or the band members of the lower grades.

Auxiliary groups

Many bands have auxiliaries who add a visual component to the performance. For ceremonial bands, this could be a traditional color guard or honor guard. For show bands and drum corps, this could include dancers, cheerleaders, or some type of drill team. Auxiliaries may be collectively referred to as color guard, though the term correctly refers only to those carrying flags for ceremonial purposes.

Auxiliaries may perform as independent groups. In the early 1970s, color guards began to hold their own competitions in the winter (after the American football season, and before the beginning of the summer drum and bugle corps competitions). There are also numerous cheerleading and dance competitions in the off-season.

The color guard of a marching band or drum and bugle corps may contain sabers, rifles, and tall flags. In modern bands, other props are often used: flags of all sizes, horizontal banners, vertical banners, streamers, pom-pons, even tires and hula hoops. While military color guards were typically male, band color guards tend to be primarily female, though it is becoming more common for males to join as well. Guards most often have a special uniform or costume that is distinctive from that of band, and may or may not match.

Performance elements

The goal of each band's performance is different. Some bands aim for maximum uniformity and precision. Others – especially scramble bands – want to be as entertaining as possible. Many U.S. university marching bands aim for maximum sound "impact" on the audience. Some bands perform primarily for the enjoyment of their own members. However, there are some common elements in almost all band performances.


The traditional music of the marching band is the military march, but since show bands evolved from the concert and brass band traditions as well, music has always been varied. Often, music from other genres is adapted for the specific instrumentation of a marching band. Commercial arrangements that are tailored for the "average" band instrumentation are also available. Military and university bands typically have a repetoire of "traditional" music associated with the organization they serve.

Music may be memorized, or it may be carried on flip folders which clip onto the instruments. Having music memorized is usually considered to be an advantage for competitive bands.

March steps

Nearly all bands that actually march to music use some variation of the roll or glide step. This step involves bringing the heel gently to the gound with the toe pointed, and then rolling forward onto the toes before lifting the foot. Using a glide step is the easiest way for wind players to avoid bouncing the mouthpiece of their instrument on their lips or in their mouth, thus aiding in the production of a steady tone even when the band is moving.

Some bands also include some form of high step, especially in their field shows. In one common variety of high step, the band member rolls his or her foot out to the toe, bending the knee. The knee then locks, and the leg is lifted out in front of the marcher before it is put down in the new position. The height of the step, and whether both feet are on the ground at any one time varies from band to band, and some bands use several versions of this step. Another high step involves bringing the foot up the inside of the leg to the knee before coming down and forward. The bands of the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are known for their unique high steps.

When a band is not moving, the members may mark time, or march in place. The step used usually resembles the step that is used for marching forward, though mixing a high step mark time with a roll step march (or vice versa) produces an interesting visual effect. Some bands forgo marking time and instead come to a complete halt when not marching.

When band members are marching in one direction but want to focus their sound in another, they may rotate their bodies at the waist, so that only the upper portion of the body faces in the direction of play. Percussion players, whose large drum harnesses often prevent them from twisting their torsos, and sometimes tuba and sousaphone players, will instead use a crab step when moving sideways. During a crab step, the musician crosses one leg over the other, either marching on the toes or rolling the foot sideways. Percussionists may also substitute roll step when their instruments would interfere with performing the high step.

A back march may be used when the band wishes to move in the opposite direction from where it is projecting its sound. There are several ways to back march, one of which is to walk backwards, putting each foot down and rolling from the toe to the heel (the exact reverse of the roll step). Another variation involves marching on the toes, dragging the toe of the moving foot on the ground to improve balance. With this method, the heel of the foot never touches the ground. Using peripheral vision to align oneself to formations or field markings is even more important during backward marching.

Even when marking time, it is usually considered good form for all band members to stay in step – that is, step with the same foot at the same time. A large majority of bands step off with, or start marching on, the left foot, though this is not universal. Staying in step is generally easier when the band is playing music or when the drums are playing a marching cadence. When the band and percussion are not playing, rhythm may be maintained in a variety of ways: a drummer may play clicks or rim shots, the drum major may clap, a drum major or band member may vocalize a sharp syllable like "hit", "hut", or "dhut" (the last is usually characteristic of the drum line), or band members may chant the military call of "Left, left, left right left".


Nearly all marching bands use some kind of uniform. Military-style uniforms are most common, but there are bands that use everything from matching t-shirts and shorts to formal wear. Many Ivy League band members wear a jacket and tie while performing. The University of Oregon band wears outfits that are designed to look like their football team's uniforms.

Common design elements include hats (typically shakos, helmets, or Australian-style brimmed hats) with feather plumes, capes, and the school or organization's name or symbol. It is also common for band uniforms to have a stripe down the leg and light-colored shoes to emphasize the movement of the legs while marching. However, competitive bands may opt for dark pants and shoes to hide members who are out of step.

Some auxiliary groups use uniforms which are more likely to resemble gymnastics or cheerleading outfits.

Occasionally, a band will forgo traditional uniforms in favor of costumes that fit the theme of its field show. The costumes may or may not be uniform throughout the band.

Parade marching

For parades, the band lines up in a marching block composed of ranks (rows) and files (columns). Typically, each member tries to stay within his or her given rank and file, and to maintain even spacing with neighboring musicians. It is usually the responsibility of the people at the end of each rank and the front of each file to be in the correct location; this allows other band members to guide to them.

Band members also try to keep a constant pace or step size while marching in parade. This usually varies between 22 and 30 inches (56-76 cm) per stride. A step size of 22.5 inches is called 8-to-5 because the marcher covers five yards (about 4.6 m) in eight steps. A step size of 30 inches is called 6-to-5 because five yards are covered in six steps. Because yard lines on an American football field are five yards apart, exact 8-to-5 and 6-to-5 steps are most useful for field shows.

A drum cadence (sometimes called a walkbeat or street beat) is usually played when the band is marching, but not playing a song. This is how the band keeps time. Alternately, a drum click or rim shot may be given on the odd beats to keep the band in step. Cadence tempo varies from group to group, but is generally between 112 and 144 beats per minute.

Field marching

While playing music during a field show, the band makes a series of formations on the field, which may be pictures, geometric shapes, curvilinear designs, or blocks of players. These maneuvers are collectively called drill. Typically, each band member has an assigned position in each formation. There are as many ways of getting from one formation to the next as there are bands:

  • each member can move independently – this is called scattering
  • all the members can move together without deforming the picture – this is called floating
  • the members can stay in their lines and arcs, but slowly deform the picture
  • the members can break into ranks or squads, each of which performs a maneuver (such as a follow-the-leader) which may or may not be scripted – an unscripted move is sometimes called a rank option
  • each member may have a specifically scripted move to perform – in these cases, the desired visual effect is often the move itself and not the ending formation

Many bands use a combination of the above techniques, sometimes adding dance choreography that is done in place or while marching. Players may point the bells of their instruments in the direction they are moving, or slide with all the bells facing in the same direction. Bands that march in time with the music typically also synchronize the direction of individuals' turns, and try to maintain even spacing between individuals in formations. Sometimes bands will specifically have wind players turn their instruments away from the audience in order to emphasize the dynamics of the music.

Auxiliaries can also add to the visual effect. Backdrops and props may be used on the field that fit the theme of the show or the music being performed. In comedic shows, an announcer may read jokes or a funny script between songs; formations that are words or pictures (or the songs themselves) may serve as punchlines.


In addition to staying in step and marching uniformly, one of the challenges with playing in large outdoor arenas is phasing. This is when part of the band gets behind or ahead of the beat of the music, and such an occurance is sometimes called an ensemble tear.

Phasing may be a subjective effect, due to the finite speed of sound. Even if all members of a band are playing at once, the sound from their instruments may reach listeners at different times. For example, if two musicians, one standing on the front sideline of the football field and one on the back sideline, begin playing exactly when they see the beat of the conductor's baton, the sound produced by the musician on the front sideline will reach listeners in the stand before the sound played by the back musician. This is because the speed of sound is significantly slower than the speed of light. Sound may also echo off parts of the stadium or nearby buildings.

Phasing can be reduced in several ways, including:

  • keeping formations compact
  • having players listen back to the musicians farthest from the front of the field – typically the drummers
  • having players anticipate when their sound will reach the audience relative to the rest of the band and adjust for it


Some bands will perform the same field show at all of their appearances during a single season. Others will avoid repeating a performance in front of the same crowd. In either case, the amount of rehearsal required varies greatly depending on the number and complexity of the formations, and the difficulty of the music. Some bands do a new field show every week, but only practice drill for two or three hours right before the performance. Other bands can practice a single show upwards of 20 hours per week (or more, for some competitive drum and bugle corps) for an entire season.

Music for parade and show bands is typically learned separately, in a concert band setting. It may even be memorized before any of the marching steps are learned. When rehearsing drill, positions and maneuvers are usually learned before music is added – a common technique for learning drill is to have members sing their parts or march to a recording produced during a music rehearsal.

When learning positions for drill, an American football field may be divided into a 5-yard grid, with the yard lines serving as one set of guides. The locations where the perpendicular grid lines cross the yard lines, sometimes called zero points, may be marked on a practice field. Alternately, band members may only use field markings – yard lines, the center line, hash marks, and yard numbers – as guides (but note that different leagues put these markings in different places). In order for members to learn their positions more quickly, they may be given drill charts, which map their locations relative to the grid or field markings for each formation.

Members may also group into squads, ranks, sections, or (especially with scramble bands that primarily form words) letters. Instead of each member having an individual move, moves are then learned on a squad-by-squad (rank-by-rank, etc.) basis.

March steps and traditional music and drill that are unique to an organization are often taught at band camp, a time set aside for intense rehearsal before the performance season begins. Many U.S. university bands meet for a week of band camp prior to the beginning of the autumn semester. Other band camps exist for individual band members, drum majors, and auxiliaries to practice their skills and learn generic techniques in the off-season. For many bands, band camp is actually camp: the groups board at a campground for a period of time. Other groups simply hold band camp at their typical rehearsal facilities.


In competitions, bands are usually judged on criteria such as musicality, uniformity, visual impact, artistic interpretation, and the difficulty of the music and drill. Competition exists at all levels, but is most common in the U.S. among secondary school bands and drum and bugle corps. Performances designed for a competition setting usually include more esoteric music (including but not limited to adaptations of modern orchestral pieces).

In the United States, Bands of America holds the Grand National Championships for high school marching bands every November in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Bands in most competitions are classified by the number of wind players. Bands can ask or 'petition' up a class to challenge themselves but may not move down. An example classification used in some U.S. competitions is as follows:

  • A – Up to 36 wind players
  • AA – 37-54 wind players
  • AAA – 55-77 wind players
  • AAAA – 78-100 wind players
  • Open – 101 or more wind players

In combination to Bands of America, many states also hold State Championships for high school marching band. In this case, school size is the determining factor in which class bands compete in, rather than the amount of wind players.

The Sudler Trophy

The Sudler Trophy is an award bestowed by the John Philip Sousa Foundation on one university marching band each year. No school may win the award twice. The official description of the trophy is:

The purpose of the Sudler Trophy is to identify and recognize collegiate marching bands of particular excellence who have made outstanding contributions to the American way of life. The Sudler Trophy is awarded annually to a college or university marching band which has demonstrated the highest musical standards and innovative marching routines and ideas, and which has made important contributions to the advancement of the performance standards of college marching bands over a period of years.

The following are the recipients of the Sudler Trophy since its inception in 1982:

See also


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