In the year 1075, Mahmud Kashgari wrote Divânu Lügati’t-Türk, the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages. In this book was the first historical mention of a military band: the “nevbet”, a prototype of Ottoman military bands known as the Mehtaran. These Mehter groups, first mentioned in the 13th century, were composed mostly of Janissaries — elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan’s household troops, bodyguards, and the first modern standing army in Europe. The Mehter ensemble played during military campaigns, wars, and ceremonies. Drums, cymbals, horns and flutes all were employed by the musicians.
In the 16th century, the music of the Ottoman Empire’s Mehtaran heavily influenced Western European culture. Not only were European military bands formed, but even legendary classical music composers — such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — were inspired by the high-energy military sound and style of the Mehters. The original modern European military bands played fifes, drums, oboes, the French horn, clarinets, and bassoons. They honored royalty with performances, while also providing high energy, command, morale, and rhythm to support the soldiers through their chaotic experience on the battlefield.
The Ottoman influence on European military and military-style music led to the expansion of this practice on the newly seized soil of the “New World”. The first instance of an American military band was in 1653 in the New Hampshire militia with an instrumentation of 15 oboes and two drums. The bands which developed during the 17th and 18th centuries were influenced heavily by the military music of the British Army infantry regiments present. During the American Revolution (1765 -1783), musicians supported the soldiers with fifes and drums. Bandsmen were also tasked with combat duties including stretcher-bearers and field hospital attendants.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), bands continued to perform on the field to serve as combat support, but they also began performing concerts for troops off the field. John Partridge, a soldier in the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, said this about the band in his unit, firmly a Boston orchestra led by Patrick Gilmore:
“I don’t know what we should have done without our band. Every night about sundown Gilmore gives us a splendid concert, playing selections from operas and some very pretty marches, quick steps, waltzes and the like … thus you can see we get a good deal of new music, notwithstanding we are off here in the woods. Gilmore used to give some of the most fashionable concerts we had at home and we lack nothing but strings now.”
Union general Phillip Sheridan, who stated that “music has done its share, and more than its share, in winning this war”, also gave his bandsmen special privileges, such as the best horses and special uniforms.
During World War I (1914-1918), the US Armed Forces experienced an enormous influx of professional civilian musicians, resulting in the augmentation of just four African-American regiments to twenty seven. The bands of these new units were frequently led by black jazz musicians from the clubs of New York and Chicago. One such musician was James Reese Europe, whose 369th Regiment band “The Harlem Hellfighters Band” is credited with introducing ragtime and jazz to Europe, effectively altering the course of modern musical history. By the end of the war, this band ranked among the greatest bands in the world.
This time also proved to be nearing the end of the use of military music as part of combat operations entirely. One of the very last occasions in which American military bands performed on the battlefield was during the Vietnam War, when the 1st Infantry Division was ordered by US Army Major-General John Hay to perform “Colonel Bogey March” while marching down a road held by the North Vietnamese Army. Reportedly, NVA forces were so confused that they withdrew, clearing the area for the American infantry to seize the road without opposition.
It is incredible to see how music deeply serves every single element of our society, including military combat and support. Not only is music a welcomed boost, but a necessary element for success. Simply learning a brief history of European and American military today perks my interest about the style, form, and function of musical military histories all over the world. Rich and powerful histories, I am certain.