An Overview of Band Music in America

It is understandable that bands of the New World, lacking the rich traditions of European bands, have adopted many types of music.  This is particularly true of the United States.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the United States has been, since its inception, a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people.  This philosophy is reflected in its music.

Public gatherings such as parades, picnics, patriotic celebrations, and other events have been occasions for which local bands have provided live music.  Larger cities usually had several bands, not just one.  Most could perform at any given function, but their social roles were often quite different.  Many types of bands evolved: bands of fraternal organizations, industries, schools, newspapers, and so forth.  Even some churches had their own bands.

Since bands performed for a wide variety of events, an extensive repertoire became necessary.  A typical town band, for example, might be called upon to march in a parade, play a concert, perform at a ball or a school graduation, or accompany a bier in a funeral procession.  It is probable that American bands have played more different types of music than bands of any other country.

By the mid-1800s, when valved brass instruments came into wide use, much of the music played by American bands consisted of shorter pieces, such as marches, polkas, and songs.  There were also instrumental solos and adaptations of the works of master composers, including brief excerpts from operas and operettas.  

Most of the music of that era was hand-copied into individual band books for the musicians.  It should be noted that a large percentage of the pieces were original compositions of the bandmasters or band members, and most were unpublished.

In the 20-year period following the Civil War, there were two significant developments in American band history.  The first was the appearance of an increasing amount of music published specifically for band.  The second was the inclusion of more woodwind instruments in bands, which had been predominantly all-brass (and percussion).

In the early 1880s, published music for band included lengthier transcribed works.  Overtures, extended operatic selections, and even movements from symphonies began to appear in print.  The remainder of the band's music consisted of original works which were still almost exclusively created by bandmasters and their musicians.  The lone notable exception to this pattern was to be found in the instrumental solos with band accompaniment.  Many of the solos were of the theme-and-variations form and were written by the soloists themselves.  Several legendary artists composed their own solos, and published editions were used by other soloists as well.

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Bands have always played an important role in introducing the American public to a better class of music, because there were only a few symphony orchestras in America during that period.  [As late as 1900, there were fewer than ten major symphony orchestras, and even those were not in operation year-round.]  

Bands, therefore, were largely responsible for bringing the classics to the American public.  Even though the music was not always presented in a professional manner, bands provided most of the public's exposure to that literature.

As more weighty music was being played, bands gained in prestige.  A few of the more ambitious directors presented entire programs of transcriptions of the master composers.  Bands were clearly paving the way for the symphony orchestras of future years.

The pioneer bandmaster Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, followed by John Philip Sousa, spearheaded the movement toward presentation of serious music by bands, unapologetically intermixing it with popular music.  Sousa was one of the first to compose substantial original works for band, such as suites and descriptive pieces.

Sousa, incidentally, did more to promote the cause of good music in America than any other conductor of his era.  His band was actually on par with the best of America's orchestras, because he could pay enough to pirate some of their best musicians, could offer more job security, and because he was one of the finest conductors of that era.  He also provided the opportunity to travel and perform before great multitudes of people.

It was Sousa who led the band movement through what is referred to as the "golden age of bands" and well into the 20th century.  Although he presented a liberal amount of serious music, he and others like him were primarily entertainers.  Much of his success was due to his marches, of course, but it was his clever programming that set the example for others to follow.

Well known composers of serious music, realizing the potential of better bands, began to write music for band.  Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were among the first to produce works which eventually proved to be standards of band literature.

With the "roaring 20s" and the advent of jazz, bands and band music underwent a period of gradual change.  Then with the introduction of sound movies and a greater mobility of the population (made possible by the automobile), the overall nature of entertainment changed.  When electrical recordings, radio, and finally television became commonplace, even more dramatic changes took place.  The type of program presented by bands, which had been immensely popular for three decades, lost much of its appeal.

During the 1920s and 1930s, as professional touring bands disappeared one by one, school bands took their place. Composers, taking note of the increasing market for academic pieces, began writing music which had more educational value than entertainment value.

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In the meantime, many older bandmasters who had been trained on the job were being replaced by younger bandmasters with more formal music education.  This led to more and more academic music and a gradual but definite departure from music for entertainment, the exceptions being music for football games or parades.  This change had a drawback; many of the newer generation of bandmasters, especially college bandmasters, began to lose touch with their heritage.  The emergence of the wind ensemble widened the gap between present and past, but at the same time it gave rise to a large body of innovative works.

Most of the music used by today's bandmasters falls somewhere between entertainment and education, with the balance being on the education side.  A few music educators have gone so far as to abandon even the best of marches, despite the fact that marches have always been the domain of the band as explained here.

One of the purposes of this encyclopedia is to bring about an awareness of the vast library of music available to bands today.  With this knowledge, modern bandmasters can have variety in their concerts and also unite the past and present.  When bandmasters investigate their rich heritage, they discover much worthy music that has been pushed into the background.  Listed below are several types of works which historians declare are worthy of greater exposure than they currently receive.

  • Marches. There are dozens of marches which have stood the test of time and which invariably find favor with audiences.
  • Period pieces.  Many period pieces, written by composers of all genre, are worthy of today's audiences and can add a needed dimension to programs.
  • Transcriptions.  Many of the best known works of master composers are performed by orchestras only at "pops" concerts.  This means that if they are not performed by school bands, many music students may remain totally unaware of them.
  • Instrumental solos.  Many solos, duets, etc. of yesteryear are virtuoso showpieces and have proved to be wildly popular with audiences.
  • Vocal solos.  A flashy vocal solo often finds a solid place in a band concert.
  • Medleys.  Medleys of individual composers or of several composers bring back memories to many listeners.
  • Highlights or selections.  These have the same general effect as medleys and serve as reminders of what the public once loved.
  • Novelty numbers.  Conductors have learned that novelty numbers, when used sparingly, somehow increase their chances of gaining tenure.

Each piece of music, old or new, must stand on its own merit, and wise bandmasters eventually learn which music has lasting value.  The bandmaster who consistently asks, "What's new?", instead of "What's good?" is missing a golden opportunity to present creative and relevant programs.

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