Marches, The Original Band Music

A rather lengthy volume could be written about the history of the march form and the many types of marches which have evolved over the centuries.  Even a treatise of reasonable length would be too extensive for this encyclopedia, but a restrictive overview of the march, the most popular form of music used by bands, is definitely in order.

As a musical form, the march probably dates back to the 16th century B.C., when music was said to have accompanied the movement of soldiers.  Some 3,000 years later, the emperor Maximilian I used martial music to regulate movements of the Swabian infantry.  Most European infantry units adopted this type of music to facilitate organized marching.  The marches were primitive then and were commonly played by fifes and drums.

The word march stems from the French word marcher, which means to pound the ground with the feet, and was used to describe military music which accompanied troop movements as early as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  Examples of very early marches which have survived are Lillibulero (England) and King James' March (Scotland).

During the 18th century, two different march cadences came into use.  The first was the slow (common) march, which the British reportedly used at tempi of between 60 and 80 beats per minute.  The quick march was used for parades, maneuvers, and reviews and fell roughly between a tempo of 100-140 beats per minute.

As military band instrumentation and techniques developed, the march developed in sophistication and complexity.  By the beginning of the 19th century, martial music was being used not only for the movement of troops but also for pageantry, state ceremonies, and social functions.  The march became a repertoire staple, and, for the most part, was used to accompany orderly processions.

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Importance in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, the march form gained considerable status.  In addition to hundreds of pieces dedicated to military units, marches were being composed for occasions, institutions, famous people, etc.  Some celebrated examples of this period are the Radetzky March (Johann Strauss, Sr., 1848), Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March (D.W. Reeves, 1880), and The Liberty Bell (John Philip Sousa, 1893).

The quickstep became the dominant march form toward the latter part of the 19th century and was used for both military and civilian applications.  The leading publisher of quicksteps in the United States was the J.W. Pepper Company of Philadelphia.  Gradually, the term march acquired broad usage and was used to define anything in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8 meter.  As an example of how the terms became synonymous, the Pepper company re-issued (in the early 1900s) their quicksteps as marches without any musical changes.

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The March in North America

In North America, as in most other countries, many types of marches exist.  Even the fox trot could be considered a march.  If it seems odd that marches were used for dancing, consider the fact that the two-step, once the most popular dance in the world, was originally written as a march (Sousa's The Washington Post).  Some of the most common types of marches used in North America are as follows:

  • Military marches are mostly performed at tempi ranging from 108 to 120 beats per minute.  They demand precise rhythm and articulation and the proper use of accents.

  • Concert marches (symphonic marches) are intended for concert use and are usually scored more delicately than marches used for marching.  There is more latitude in dynamic range, since many performances are indoors, and more finesse and attention to periodic style is required of the performers.  Composers have taken many liberties with tempi.

  • Circus marches musically reflect the bravura and pageantry of the circus.  Tempi usually range between 140 and 170 beats per minute, depending upon the nature of the activity and the circus performers' desires.  Rhythmic precision is essential.  Considerable "drive" is provided by the percussion, and in circus practice the marches are often punctuated by unwritten accents.

  • Galops are actually marches played very fast, and as such cannot be performed gracefully unless they are written simply.  Generally, they are of two types.  Examples of the dance galop are found in the works of such composers as Offenbach and Suppe and are played at moderate tempi, slightly faster than the military march.  The circus galop, on the other hand, is often played at tempi ranging up to 240 beats per minute.  Karl L. King, Charles Duble, Russell Alexander, and John J. Richards composed some of the most popular circus galops, and most are written in 2/4 meter.  A steady eighth note drum pattern gives the illusion of speed, precision, and insistence.

  • Patrols are intended to simulate the sound of a band marching past the listener.  One hears the band approaching in the distance, then passing by the listener, and finally marching off into the distance.  This is accomplished by a gradual crescendo, followed by a gradual decrescendo, almost always at a steady tempo.  The most famous American patrol is called simply American Patrol (Frank W. Meacham, 1891), and differs from the typical patrol by ending with a brisk coda.  The popularity of the patrol has waned in recent years.

  • Funeral marches (dirges) are functional in that they have been used to accompany a deceased party to a cemetery or to provide an appropriate atmosphere at funerals and memorial services.  They are typically played at a tempo of about 72 beats per minute.  In performance, they could be described as deliberate, with some passages calling for rounded staccato playing and other passages calling for lyric, legato playing.  

  • Marches played an important role until the end of World War II, not just in military life but also in civilian life.  They were particularly useful in parades, which were vital to most towns.  For holidays and special occasions, parades featured many units such as bands, fire companies, horse-drawn wagons, military units, service organizations, veterans' organizations, and scout troops.  Bands have long had their own brand of rivalry in parading, and it was once a mark of distinction for one band to play more difficult marches than another band.  (The town of Allentown, Pennsylvania, was the epitome of band rivalry, with five bands.  Members of these bands sometimes cut the titles and composers' names off the tops of their marches so that rival bandsmen could not learn what they were playing.)  Marches were featured at most band concerts, of course.  Not all the marches were found on printed programs, however, because they were often added as encores.  The encores were sometimes inserted during a program as well as at the end, in the style of Sousa.
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The March International

Because of national and cultural heritages, various countries have developed marches to suit their own needs.  Some European bands perform marches at slower tempi than American bands, owing to their military marching styles.  Since these variations in styles are unique, it is well to examine several of them.


There is a combination of elements found in German marches more often than the marches of other countries.  The combination consists of heavy bass parts, soaring euphonium countermelodies, trumpet fanfares which embellish the elodies, and high woodwind obligatos.  This combination is usually found in concert marches, but it occurs in some of the military marches as well.

The German Army developed a highly organized method of classifying marches for its own use, with the impetus coming from a decree by King Friedrich Wilhelm II, dated February 10, 1817:
  "To assist army regiments in the selection of good military music, I have had a number of well-proved pieces compiled and have detailed a collection for each regiment.  As, in this way, the army will come into the possession of good music, I decree that on all ceremonial occasions, at grand parades, and reviews, and particularly those at which I am present, no other marches [shall] be played."

In that first collection of 1817, called the Armeemarsch collection, there were 36 slow and 36 quick marches, including Beethoven's Yorkscher Marsch, the Pariser Einzugsmarsch by Johann Heinrich Walch, several marches of Russian origin, and several based on opera themes of Boieldieu, Spontini and Cherubini, along with 11 marches composed by Anton Dorfeldt.  These original 72 marches came from a comparable Russian collection which had been compiled in St. Petersburg by Dorfeldt.

Eventually, the Armeemarsch collection was divided into four distinct groups:

    I   Slow marches for the infantry

    II  Quick marches for the infantry

    III Marches for mounted troops (cavalry) and field artillery

    IV  Miscellaneous marches

The four groups were expanded periodically until there were 108 marches in Group I, 267 in Group II, and 143 in Group III.  Group IV was added in 1929, and these marches were not numbered.  There were two subdivisions.  Group IVa contained marches of Armeemarsch quality and character which were of particular importance to certain regiments of the individual German states.  Group IVb was a collection of marches for fifes and drums of the regiments of the Royal Prussian Army of 1806.

In 1933, the inspector of army bands revised the collection, and it was renamed Heeresmarsche.  He eliminated the marches that were infrequently or never performed and retained popular ones and those which had been detailed to certain regiments of the pre-1914 army.  He added several regimental and traditional marches of Saxony.  He also added 92 trots and galops, and this resulted in Group III being divided into slow marches (IIIA), and trots and galops (IIIB).

 Very few of the most famous German march composers were represented in the Armeemarsch or Heeresmarsche collections.  For example, Blankenburg, Teike, Blon, Friedemann, Eilenberg, and Stieberitz were not included in the Armeemarsch collection.  In the Heeresmarsche collection, only Teike (Alte Kameraden, HM II 150), Friedemann (Kaiser Friederich, HM II 151) and Blon (Unter dem Siegesbanner, HM II 152, and Victoria, HM II 153) are included.

This lack of representation came about for several reasons.  First, none of those composers were in military service during their most productive years.  Second, most of their marches were better suited for concert use than the parade ground.  Third, their works are more difficult than most of those adopted for either collection.


Although the distinctions are not absolute, there are three basic types of French marches:

  • The defile could be called the typical French march.  It is used for parading, and the band is assisted by le batterie (a corps of drums and trumpets).  This type of march is characterized by heavy accents on the downbeat of every second measure.
  • The marche is also used for parading but is played by a band alone, which is called la musique or harmonie.
  • The pas redouble is intended for concert purposes and is similar to the concert march or symphonic march.


Generally, Spanish marches fall into one of three categories.

  • The marcia is the Spanish equivalent of the military march.  Typically, marcias are performed with heavy percussion and bugling parts.
  • The marcia de concierto and processional are concert marches.  The marcia de concierto is usually played at a bright tempo and is written in either 2/4 or 6/8 time.  The processional is a stately grand march, almost always written in 4/4 time.
  • The pasodoble (paso-doble) is often associated with bullfighting.  The term paso-doble means two-step.  Although played in march tempo, pasodobles were originally written for dancing.  It was soon learned that they were ideal for bullfights, because they excited the crowds.  Spanish military bands also adopted pasodobles, using them as marches by changing the drum parts.  (It should be noted that several American composers have incorrectly written pasodobles in 3/4 time.)


In general, British marches reflect a dignified, unhurried state of affairs and are played at conservative tempi.  Not all British marches have been written in fully developed styles.  Many regimental marches, for example, incorporate traditional folk tunes such as My Boy Willy, John Peel, and Wait for the Wagon, which have been passed down through the centuries.  Regiments can often be identified by the tunes they have adopted via the marches.  The most widely performed British composer has been Frederick J. Ricketts, who composed under the pseudonym Kenneth J. Alford.  His finely crafted marches, such as Colonel Bogey, are in use throughout the world.  Although his output was very small, his marches rank second only to those of John Philip Sousa in popularity.


Italy is known for its marcia sinfonicas, not its military marches.  Italian composers have perhaps brought the symphonic march to its highest plane.  Sweeping melodies, the development of thematic material, and dramatic climaxes make the marcia sinfonica the standard of the symphonic march form.  In performance, they are best approached from the viewpoint of the operatic stage rather than the parade ground, and they offer opportunities for rubato playing and flexibility of interpretation.  The thematic statements often occur first in woodwind parts.

Austria, Czechoslovakia

The marches of Austria and Czechoslovakia are similar to those of Germany.  The Czech marches are closely related to the German marches in style and structure, whereas Austrian marches are generally lighter in texture and have fewer dramatic effects.  Among the Austrian marches still in use are several which were written for specific military regiments, but most have fallen into disuse.  Among the leading march composers are Eduard Wagnes, Karl Komzak, Carl Ziehrer, and Josef Franz Wagner.

Among the Czechoslovakian march composers who contributed significantly to the literature are Julius Fucik, Emil Stolc, Joseph Pesci, Frantisek Kmoch, and Johan Nepomuk Kral.  Fucik is unquestionably the leading Czech march composer.  He composed in many music forms but is best known for his Einzug der Gladiatoren (Entry of the Gladiators), which is also known in America as Thunder and Blazes.  This famous march was adopted by circuses and is often performed at a much faster tempo than the composer intended.

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A Heritage

Primarily because of military requirements, most countries of the world have march literature of their own.  However, much borrowing and cross-cultural development has taken place.  So much so, in fact, that the casual listener cannot tell, on first hearing, the nationality of many marches.

Although most marches are brief musical statements, the march form has seen wide use and development.  In recent years, its popularity has dwindled somewhat.  Ironically, the band, which gave it birth, is partly responsible for this.  A few dozen very popular marches are perhaps overplayed, while all others have fallen by the wayside except for an occasional revival.  This makes little sense, considering the march's rich and interesting history.

The march was the original original music for band.  Bands developed the march, and the march developed the band.  Marches do not deserve the relative neglect they receive from many bandmasters, particularly music educators, who sometimes seem unaware of their own legacy.  The common march, used by performers in practically all music media, is clearly the heritage of the band.

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