International Military Music Society UK (Founder) Branch

A Short Introduction to the History of Military Music

This article was written by Colin Dean, a recognised authority on Military Music.

For more information on publications which Colin has written or edited, click on the "Merchandise" button.

Much of military music's origins lie in roles not dissimilar to those now carried out by the Royal Corps of Signals and the humble wrist-watch. Long before today s high-tech battlefield communications systems even became science-fiction, signalling in camp and in the field was carried out by the beating or drums or the sounding of trumpets or bugles.

A soldiers day was regulated by music telling him when to get up (Reveille), when to eat (e.g. Officers Dinner), when to be on parade (Warning for Parade) or when to retire to bed (Lights Out). This music duty is traditionally the task of the Corps of Drums (drums and flutes) which remain on the strength of battalions of Foot Guards and most English and Welsh Infantry Regiments. Their role, encompassed in ceremonies such as Retreat, Tattoo and Trooping the Colour, remains an important aspect of our nation’s heritage and, whilst today carried out largely for ceremonial purposes, has its origins in the practical necessities of soldiering.

The military band evolved primarily as an enhancement to ceremonial and for the entertainment of the soldiers. From 1670-1750  hautboys (French: high-woods or oboes) began to be added to the drums and fifes, and other instruments emerged over the years to form the military band as we know it today.

 Bands were originally held on an unofficial basis, paid for by the officers of the regiment, but were eventually added to the establishment. The Foot Guards maintained regimental bands permanently stationed in London but cavalry regiments and infantry battalions each had their own band which would normally accompany their parent unit wherever in the world it was serving. In addition, the Royal Artillery (Woolwich) Band (formed in 1762) and the Royal Engineers Band (formed in 1855) enjoyed great reputations and similar status to the Foot Guards as well as performing as full orchestras.

Scottish regiments had long enjoyed unofficial pipers going to battle with clan chiefs but six pipers were authorised by the War Office for Highland Regiments in 1854, for the Scots Guards in 1856 and for Lowland and Irish Regiments in the 1900s. Today the Pipes and Drums are a source of great pride to the Scots, Irish and Gurkha battalions and can also be found in some regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps. The duty piper may replace the calls of the drummer/bugler with duty tunes which vary between regiments but might include such as  Brose and Butter to signify Dinner,  Jenny s Bawbee (Polly put the Kettle On) for Tea, and  Sleep Dearie Sleep for Lights Out.

Cavalry and Artillery signalled battle calls on the bugle but in barracks, camp or quarters, used the E-Flat cavalry trumpet. Trumpets and kettledrums have long been used to announce the arrival of royalty or other distinguished personages, notably when King Charles II returned to London to restore the monarchy in 1660.

In 1947, the Royal Artillery Mounted, Portsmouth and Salisbury Plain bands, along with the bands of six of the larger Corps, were granted the status of staff bands, most of which were based at permanent locations.

 The axe began to fall in 1984 when four staff bands were disbanded and the establishments of the remaining bands considerably reduced. This particularly hit the regimental and battalion bands which were reduced to just 21 bandsmen. Many of these bands continued to maintain high standards and a great deal of ingenuity was shown by the bandmasters, but in practice the bands were often under strength and considerable difficulties were encountered. Most of the infantry regiments which then had three battalions instead opted for two bands of 35 bandsmen but this effectively signalled the beginning of the end of the traditional regimental bands.

A further round of cuts (known as ‘Options for Change’) took effect in the early 1990s and the planned reduction in army musicians meant that it would no longer be possible to retain regimental/battalion bands. The Royal Armoured Corps was reduced to four bands serving the regiments of Dragoon Guards, Hussars and Light Dragoons, Royal Lancers and The Royal Tank Regiment, while in the Infantry of the Line, each Division (less the Light Division) was allocated two bands.

Further reductions have followed and, outside the Household Division, the great bands of bygone years have now been replaced by regional bands in the regular army, while most infantry regiments are represented by bands of the Army Reserve.

A list of the bands today can be viewed at

The Bands of the Royal Marines are distinctive in always being led on parade by their immaculate Corps of Drums, as well as doubling in an orchestral role. Music has long played a part in daily life aboard ship, with the singing of sea shanties and the ship's fiddler relieving the tedium of a long voyage. As long ago as the days of Drake and Hawkins, the drummer's rhythm would advise the changing watches or be used to "beat to action". Ships' bands came to develop from this. Small bands were provided since 1903 for each large ship or Royal Navy shore establishment, and the older bands were permanently located with the Royal Marines Divisions at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. These two distinct branches were merged in 1950 and, like the army, the number of bands has been progressively reduced to the following:

The Band of the Royal Marines Portsmouth

The Band of the Royal Marines Plymouth

The Band of the Royal Marines Collingwood

The Band of the Royal Marines Scotland

The Band of the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre Royal Marines

In the Royal Air Force, the Central Band and College Band were formed on 1st April 1920, based at Uxbridge and Cranwell respectively. At one time the service had ten established bands but these have now been reduced to two bands at Northolt and another at Cranwell:

The Central Band of the Royal Air Force

The Band of the Royal Air Force College

The Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment

The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall


Directors of Music

Regimental Marches

Drum Majors

Military Bands


All cavalry regiments had a mounted band up until the 1930s, led by a drum horse which was very much the pride of the regiment. In addition all bandsmen were required to act as Trumpeters and take their turn in sounding the routine calls in barracks.

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