Fife and drum were fundamental to British infantry (and for a time Artillery) from the early 1500s; when we know that one of each were authorised per company of infantrymen. From this came drum and flute bands equipped from government funds which, till the 1900s were found on the strength of all infantry battalions. Now, they remain in all Guards battalions plus the English and Welsh Regiments of the Line. As a result, all music DUTY is primarily the task of the 'Drums', as these flute and drum bands are called. The drum was primarily used in the 1500s to signal the commanding officer's tactical directions (e.g. "take ground to the left"). Marine regiments (now Her Majesty's Royal Marines) were initially infantry and also had corps of drums. Lieutenant Colonel Sir FV Dunn estimated fifes to have faded between 1950-60. The 1800s saw the 'Drums become the essential "mode of transport" to the line of march, with its Drummers remaining fighting soldiers in a battalion;

(Drummer is the appointment of all in the corps of drums regardless of the instrument played).

In today's warfare, drummers have become full scale infantry men in the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. However, when serving at home they resume their duties as drummers. The Household Division drummers providing the music for the palace guard mountings.

By the end of the 1700s, Britain had found a need for more lightly equipped troops and for their operations the drum was too cumbersome. As a result, bugle-horns came into British use as the main signalling instrument of what is known today as the Light Division, whose panâche and style at tattoos give much pleasure. Contrary to popular belief, British cavalry and artillery also signalled battle calls on the B-flat bugle but in barracks, camp or quarters used the E-flat "cavalry" trumpet.

The "military music duty" mentioned above, comprises that regulation of each day previously carried out to the direction of music. Events range from reveille and long reveille, to beating retreat, (from the French "retraite" - meaning little more than the end of the working day) - to tattoo (from the Low Countries "doe den taptoe", "turn the taps off". This is much in the way of Germany's "Zapfenstreich" - strike the taps; which signals the end of all duties other than that of the guard). There is further detail of bugle Duty Calls elsewhere.
Corps of Drums tend to play from marches and dances to selections from shows or light opera. Two sample names from notes assembled on British corps of drums composers may be seen here.

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The Corps of Drums Society

The Corps of Drums Society was founded in London in 1977, with the primary aim of preserving and promoting drum and fife/flute music based on the traditions of the British Army. The Society made a significant contribution to the establishment of a system of formal training, which should enable this very long standing tradition of Corps of Drums to continue. More, the membership of the Society includes a number of civilian and cadet Corps, who base their music on the military traditions, and many individual members. It maintains a list of Corps of Drums to put prospective players in touch with their nearest group who can use their skills or provide training. It is also proud to have links with groups from North America, the West Indies and Australia and Europe. Main contact is via the magazine Drummers Call. The society holds four Music Meetings a year at the National Army Museum. in London, which are run by experienced Drum Majors. Members exchange information or ask advice on topics ranging from music, through instruments, to setting up and running new Corps of Drums. The Society has a large Photographic Archive and some members specialise in recording and collecting music from all over the world.

Elsewhere in These Isles

There are flute bands in Scotland - and the Northern Ireland Flute Bands League which come from the tradition above, from the drum and fife of British and other European armies. Their players, on return to civil life continued to offer their particular music to the community and in so doing, retained the skill that had been so long a part of their lives. Throughout Scotland, England and Ireland this developed strongly, probably most over the period 1850-1950 but is now most largely retained in Northern Ireland and that perhaps as a result both of the marching needs there and an acceptance that all which is foreign is not necessarily better. The league is non-sectarian and non-political with the aims of the promotion of flute bands and the advancement of music amongst members. The quality of playing to be enjoyed at the, "own choice", contest is stunning and has been broadcast in its own right. Using orchestral flutes, the music can range from marches and dances to the ballet from Verdi's Sicilian Vespers.

Britain also now has re-enactment organisations emerging, qualitatively high amongst which is the Guild of Ancient Fifes and Drums, which was specifically formed to play period music. However, two of several names of players whose function is to add an aural dimension to those with other historical interests, are the Napoleonic Association and the Diehards; (based on the 57th Regiment of Foot, later the Middlesex Regiment).

Other Countries


It regards its fife and drum music as uniquely American, yet this patriotic style of music is actually loved far wider. Connecticut is the heart of fife and drum corps activity and home of The Company of Fifers & Drummers, a non-profit organisation formed in 1965 to perpetuate the historical significance and folk traditions of fife and drum music and to foster the spirit of fellowship among fifers and drummers everywhere. The Company has extended the boundaries of the fife and drum community, known as the Ancients, far beyond New England. Their roster lists corps, individuals and institutional members all across the United States and in Europe and Great Britain as well. The Company owns and maintains The Museum of Fife & Drum at its headquarters in Ivoryton, Connecticut. Among the resources available to members are a Music Library, Archives, Company Store, Video Library and various committees that provide expertise and assistance to its members as well as co-ordinating and organising events to better American field music. The Music Committee regularly publishes and records fife and drum music. The Ancient Times is published quarterly by The Company to keep its members throughout the world informed on the activities of the Ancients.

The Middlesex County Volunteers playing by the USS Constitution.

In their 1999 tour of England, Wales and Ireland, the Middlesex County Volunteers

played with bands from both north and south

to show the wealth of glorious fife and flute music available.

Jim and Sarah McConduibh are the mainstays of this fine body of music making.






Has a long established trommel und pfeife tradition. To a small degree it remains alive in the services, with each army staff band having its own inherent Spielmannszug. There is, though, far more to be found on a town basis within such voluntary bands as those of the fire brigade.


Again, has a long established tradition but in this case it is to be found most in small groups on a village basis.


Again, has a long established tradition, perhaps as good a quality of fife band as any in Europe. The Basel school of this music is well known internationally, there are compact discs made plus contests to extend playing quality.


Denmark and Sweden are known to have very good fife and drum bands in their armies and we understand that civilian bands are to be heard in Denmark. Little is known of any beyond that but look out for compact discs with compositions by Tommy Törner.


Has a fife and drum band framework which again follows former army custom and is thus to be found in the field of re-enactment organisations.

The Netherlands

A small tradition is known to exist but should you have the chance to hear the drums and fifes of the Dutch Royal Marines, look forward to it. This corps can be superb!


Has a fife and drum band framework which again follows the old army custom and, is thus also to be found within re-enactment organisations.

Czech Republic

The civilian Königsgratz re-enactment corps is the only representative of the tradition of which we are currently aware in the Republic. However, with military band composers like Julius Fucik, any drum and fife tradition will need to be taken seriously.


The Chilean Non-Commissioned-Officers College sports a fife band for military purposes, though no detail of its repertory is known to this writer.

And on...

Your writer has enjoyed further fife or flute and drum bands from Nepal, from Brunei, from Kenya, Uganda and no few other places beside. There is much out there to be enjoyed!



Last Updated: 11/09/2017