A marching band is a sporting group of instrumental musicians who generally perform outdoors, and who incorporate movement – usually some type of marching – with their musical performance. Instrumentation typically includes brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments and the music usually incorporates a strong rhythmic component suitable for marching.

In addition to traditional parade performances, many bands also perform field shows at special events (often American football games) or at marching band competitions. Marching bands are generally categorized by function and by the style of field show (if any) they perform. Increasingly, Marching Bands are performing indoor concerts, in addition to any "Pep Band" duties, that implement many of the songs, traditions, and flair from outside performances.

  • Parade bands generally play march (music)|marches. Instrumentation varies, and can contain anything from bagpipes or fife (musical instrument)|fifesand drums all the way to full wind and percussion sections. Many military and veterans' organizations have their own parade bands.
  • Show bands (field shows) have the main role of performing at sporting events, and competitions, usually American football games. They perform a field show before the game and at halftime (and sometimes after the game as well). Some university bands, such as the marching band of the University of Texas at Arlington, perform without the school having a football team. Show bands typically march in time to the music, and may also participate in parades and competitions. Show bands contain brass and percussion instruments, but may or may not use woodwinds or a percussion pit. Typically, the show is not merely marching in lines. All show bands march as to create designs, curves, and moving illusions as their music progresses
  • Scramble bands are a variation on show bands. They generally do not march in time with the music, and often incorporate comedic elements into their performances. The Stanford band uses this style as do most of the bands in the Ivy league.
  • Historically black college and university (HBCU) bands are another variation on show bands. HBCU bands have a rich tradition, and have been enjoyed by many. HBCU bands started as athletic support for football teams, but have grown to be featured in movies, various professional sporting and political events, and even over seas. They are known for their signature traditional high stepping style, versatile musical repertoire ranging from Top 40 hits to classical literature from the common practice period, and energetic choreography. There are over 100 known HBCU bands with Grambling State University "World Famed Tiger Band," Florida A&M University "Marching 100," Tennessee State University "Aristocrat of Bands," and Southern University "Human Jukebox" being the most well known examples from a historical standpoint.
  • Drum and bugle corps is a genre of marching ensemble that is distinctly divided into classic and modern corps. Both groups have long, continuous histories and developments separate from marching bands. As the name implies, bugles and drums form the musical background of the corps, but modern competitive drum corps incorporate other brass instruments and orchestral percussion. In the United States, Drum Corps International (DCI) is the governing body for competitive junior drum and bugle corps, while Drum Corps Associates (DCA) is the governing body for competitive all-age (or senior) drum and bugle corps.

This article will focus primarily on parade and show bands.


Marching bands evolved out of military bands. As musicians became less and less important in directing the movement of troops on the battlefield, the bands moved into increasingly ceremonial roles. An intermediate stage which provided some of the instrumentation and music for marching bands was the modern brass band, which also evolved out of the military tradition.

Many military traditions survive in modern marching band. Bands that march in formation will often be ordered to "dress" their "ranks" and "cover down" their "files". They may be called to "attention", and given orders like "about face" and "forward march". Uniforms of many marching bands still resemble military uniforms.

Outside of police and military organizations, modern marching band is most commonly associated with American football, and specifically the halftime field show. Many U.S. universities had bands before the twentieth century.

Another innovation that appeared at roughly the same time as the field show and marching in formations was the fight song. University fight songs are often closely associated with the university’s band. Many of the more recognizable and popular fight songs are widely utilized by high schools across the country. Three university fight songs commonly used by high schools are The University of Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors”, Notre Dame’s “Victory March”, and the United States Naval Academy’s “Anchors Aweigh

Other changes in marching band have been:

Since the inception of Drum Corps International in the 1970s, many marching bands that perform field shows have adopted changes to the activity that parallel developments with modern drum and bugle corps. These bands are said to be corps-style bands. Changes adopted from drum corps include:

  • marching style: instead of a traditional high step, drum corps tend to march with a fluid roll step to keep musicians' torsos completely still (see below)
  • the adaptation of the flag, rifle, and sabre units into "auxiliaries", who march with the band and provide visual flair by spinning and tossing flags or mock weapons and using dance in the performance
  • moving marching timpani and keyboard percussion into a stationary sideline percussion section (pit), which has since incorporated many different types of percussion instruments
  • the addition of vocalists and/or electric instruments (marching bands have as a general rule adopted these aspects before drum corps, for instance the Drum Corps International circuit has only allowed electronic amplification since 2004 and has yet to permit electronic instruments without penalties)
  • marching band competitions are judged using criteria similar to the criteria used in drum corps competitions, with emphasis on individual aspects of the band (captions for music performance, visual performance, percussion, guard (auxiliary), and general effect are standard).

Personnel and instrumentationEdit

The size and composition of a marching band can vary greatly. Many bands have fewer than twenty members. Some have over 500. The Allen High School marching band, known as the Allen Escadrille, has nearly 600 members and is believed to be the largest in the world.

A marching band is typically led by one or more drum majors, which are called field commanders in some ensembles. The drum major often conducts the band, sometimes using a large baton or mace. In many school bands, the drum major is the student leader of the band, followed by students within the band that lead a section, squad, letter, row, etc. Bands may also be led by a more traditional conductor, especially during field shows, where a stationary conductor on a ladder or platform may be visible throughout the performance. Usually clapping or a whistle is used to issue commands.

American marching bands vary considerably in their exact instrumentation. Some bands omit some or all woodwinds, but it is not uncommon to see piccolos, flutes, clarinets, alto saxophones, and tenor saxophones. Bass clarinets and baritone saxophones are less common. Brass sections usually include trumpets, mellophones (instead of horns), B♭ tenor trombones, euphoniums or baritones, and sousaphones or tubas (often configured so that they can be carried over the shoulder with the bell facing forward). E♭ soprano cornets, flugelhorns, alto horns, and bass trombones are also sometimes used.

Marching percussion (often referred to as the drumline or back battery) typically includes snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums, and cymbals. The glockenspiel, or "marching xylophone", is used by some ensembles. All of these instruments have been adapted for mobile, outdoor use.

For bands that include a front ensemble (also known as the "pit"), stationary instrumentation may include orchestral percussion such as timpani, wood blocks, marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, chimes, as well as a multitude of auxiliary percussion equipment. Until the advent of the pit in the early 1980s, many of these instruments were actually carried on the field by marching percussionists. Some bands also include instruments such as synthesizers, electric guitars, and bass guitar. If double-reed or string instruments are used, they are usually placed here, but even this usage is very rare due to their relative fragility.

Instrumentation varies widely from band to band, so no generalization is completely correct. There are bands where members play string instruments, or bang on brake drums, empty propane tanks, and trashcans with drumsticks.

Large bands also require a number of support staff who can move equipment, repair instruments and uniforms, and manipulate props used in performances. In high school bands, these activities are usually performed by volunteers, typically parents of band members or the band members of the lower grades.

Auxiliary groupsEdit

Many bands have auxiliaries who add a visual component to the performance. For ceremonial bands, this could be a traditional color guard or honor guard. For drum & bugle corps and corps-style field bands, this could include dancers, majorettes, or some type of drill team. Auxiliary units may be collectively referred to as color guard.

Auxiliaries may perform as independent groups. In the early 1970s, color guards began to hold their own competitions in the winter (after the American football season, and before the beginning of the summer drum & bugle corps season). There are also numerous dance competitions in the off-season.

The color guard of a marching band or drum and bugle corps may contain sabers, mock rifles, and tall flags. In modern bands, other props are often used: flags of all sizes, horizontal banners, vertical banners, streamers, pom-poms, even tires and hula hoops or custom built props. While military color guards were typically male, band color guards tend to be primarily female, though it is becoming more common for males to join as well. A few independent units are all-male. Guards most often have a special uniform or costume that is distinctive from that of band, and may or may not match each other. Colorguard can compete without the band in such competitions as winter guard.

Performance elementsEdit

The goal of each band's performance is different. Some bands aim for maximum uniformity and precision. Others – especially scramble bands – want to be as entertaining as possible. Many U.S. university marching bands aim for maximum sound "impact" on the audience. Some bands perform primarily for the enjoyment of their own members. However, there are some common elements in almost all band performances.


The traditional music of the marching band is the military march, but since show bands evolved from the concert and brass band traditions as well, music has always been varied. Often, music from other genres is adapted for the specific instrumentation of a marching band. Commercial arrangements that are tailored for the "average" band instrumentation are also available. Military and university bands typically have a repertoire of "traditional" music associated with the organization they serve. Many competitive bands will choose to use an arrangement of popular music varied for marching band, as well as music from a movie or other such theme.

Music may be memorized, or it may be carried on flip folders that clip onto the instruments, called lyre clips. Having music memorized is usually considered an advantage for competitive bands in addition to preventing obstruction of vision caused by the flip folders. It is also a point of honor in some bands that memorize their music.

March stepsEdit

Many bands use some variation of the glide step, also known as the roll step. This step involves bringing the heel gently to the ground with the toe pointed, and then rolling forward onto the toes before lifting the foot. This style is a direct imitation of Drum Corps International or DCI. It gives the drill an appearance of floating, and allows better control of the formations and style of music played by most bands that roll step. In addition, it is easier on the wind players and prevents them from bouncing and producing an unstable tone.

Along with the roll or glide step, there is also a 'high step'. Many traditional style colleges and universities (such as The Ohio State University Marching Band, the University of Southern California Spirit of Troy, and The Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band) execute this style as do most Historically Black Colleges or Universities. Some secondary schools that have deep tradition in their marching band also utilize a high step.

Variations of the high step:Edit

  • In one high step, the band member rolls his or her foot out to the toe, bending the knee. The knee then locks, and the leg is lifted out in front of the marcher before it is put down in the new position.
  • Another high step involves bringing the foot up to the inside of the leg to the knee before coming down and forward. Some bands may refer to this as "tucking" and others as "ankle-knee". This is also the style for many HBCU bands.
  • An older high step involves the lifting of the knee with legs directly in front, thighs parallel to the ground, and toes pointed downward. When the leg is elevated, it should give the appearance of a 90-degree angle with the thigh and leg, and the body and thigh. The leg is then lowered, and this is repeated with the other leg. This is informally referred to as the "chair step". Many of the Big Ten marching bands use this style of marching - however there are slight variations between schools.

Marking TimeEdit

When a band is not moving, the members may mark time, or march in place. The step used usually resembles the step that is used for marching forward, though mixing a high step mark time with a roll step march (or vice versa) produces an interesting visual effect. For a typical mark time, the foot is raised to the ankle bone of the opposite leg. The toe should not come off of the ground and the knee shouldn't come out much past the still-straight leg. Some bands mark time by bringing their feet all the way up to their knee. Some bands practice marking time during concert arch with the toes coming off of the ground in order to give the marcher a greater sense of marching while actually standing still. The heel should hit the ground on the beat. Some bands forgo marking time and instead come to a complete halt when not marching.

Changing DirectionsEdit

When band members are marching in one direction but want to focus their sound in another, they may rotate their bodies at the waist, so that only the upper portion of the body faces in the direction of play. This is known as "shifting" or "sliding". Percussion players, whose large drum harnesses often prevent them from twisting their torsos, and sometimes tuba and sousaphone players, will instead use a crab step when moving sideways. During a crab step, the musician crosses one leg over the other, either marching on the toes or rolling the foot sideways. Percussionists may also substitute roll step when their instruments would interfere with performing the high step.

When certain band members need to change the direction in which they are marching (known as "line of march") while facing the new direction, a "flank" is used. Flanks are executed so that the entire body will face the new line of march, and they provide a definite sense of change rather than the more fluid slides.

Backward MarchingEdit

A back march may be used when the band wishes to move in the opposite direction from where it is projecting its sound. There are several ways to back march, one of which is to walk backwards, putting each foot down and rolling from the toe to the heel (the exact reverse of the roll step). Another variation involves marching on the toes, dragging the toe of the moving foot on the ground or simply walking backwards on your toes. Some people feel dragging the toes gives better balance, while others feel lifting the toes gives better balance. With either method, the heel of the foot never touches the ground. Using peripheral vision to align oneself to formations or field markings is even more important during backward marching.

Even when marking time, it is always considered good form for all band members to stay in step – that is, step with the same foot at the same time. A large majority of bands step off with, or start marching on, the left foot, the Cadets drum and bugle corps being one exception. Staying in step is generally easier when the band is playing music or when the drums are playing a marching cadence. When the band and percussion are not playing, rhythm may be maintained in a variety of ways: a drummer may play clicks or rim shots, the drum major may clap, a drum major or band member may vocalize a sharp syllable like "hit", "hut", or "dhut" (the last is usually characteristic of the drum line, and often said before playing in the rhythm; dhut,dhut, dhut dhut dhut dhut [one, two, one two three four] ) , or band members may chant the military call of "Left, left, left right left".


Nearly all marching bands use some kind of uniform. Military-style uniforms are most common, but there are bands that use everything from matching T-shirts and shorts to formal wear. Capes, rank cords, and other embellishments are common. Sometimes uniforms have substantially different colors on the front and back, so if band members turn suddenly (flank) the audience will see a striking change of color. Many Ivy League band members wear a jacket and tie while performing. The University of Oregon band wears outfits that are designed to look like their football team's uniforms. Drum Majors often wear more formal outfits or costumes that match the theme of the music, or their own design of uniform, based on personal preferences, which is at the discretion of the director.

Common design elements include hats (typically shakos, helmets, or Australian-style brimmed hats) with feather plumes, capes, gloves, and the school or organization's name or symbol. Sousaphone players traditionally wear a military-style beret, as other hats may be in the way of the bell. It is also common for band uniforms to have a stripe down the leg and light-colored shoes (or spats over dark shoes) to emphasize the movement of the legs while marching. However, competitive bands may opt for dark pants and shoes to hide members who are out of step.

Some auxiliary groups use uniforms that resemble gymnastics outfits: Oftentimes, these uniforms are themed, drawing inspiration from the music.

Occasionally, a band will forgo traditional uniforms in favor of costumes that fit the theme of its field show. The costumes may or may not be uniform throughout the band. This kind of specialized uniform change is usually confined to competitive marching bands.

More rarely, but with stunning visual effects, a marching band may wear traditional dress of a Native American nation, such as elaborate headdresses. However, these are usually not worn outside of Native American villages, due to the cost.

Parade marchingEdit

For parades, the band lines up in a marching block composed of ranks (rows) and files (columns). Typically, each member tries to stay within his or her given rank and file, and to maintain even spacing with neighboring musicians. It is usually the responsibility of the people at the end of each rank and the front of each file to be in the correct location; this allows other band members to guide to them.

Band members also try to keep a constant pace or step size while marching in parade. This usually varies between 22 and 30 inches (56–76 cm) per stride. A step size of 22.5 inches is called 8-to-5 because the marcher covers five yards (about 4.6 m) in eight steps. A step size of 30 inches is called 6-to-5 because five yards are covered in six steps. Because yard lines on an American football field are five yards apart, exact 8-to-5 and 6-to-5 steps are most useful for field shows.

A drum cadence (sometimes called a walkbeat or street beat) is usually played when the band is marching, sometimes alternating with a song. This is how the band keeps time. Alternately, a drum click or rim shot may be given on the odd beats to keep the band in step. Between songs and cadences, a roll is usually given to indicate what beat in the measure the band is at. Cadence tempo varies from group to group, but is generally between 112 and 144 beats per minute.

Video: Watch the Michigan State University Spartan Marching Band's "March to the Stadium"

Field marchingEdit

While playing music during a field show, the band makes a series of formations on the field, which may be pictures, geometric shapes, curvilinear designs, or blocks of players. These maneuvers are collectively called drill. Typically, each band member has an assigned position in each formation. There are as many ways of getting from one formation to the next as there are bands:

  • each member can move independently – this is called scattering or "scatter drill"
  • all the members can move together without deforming the picture – this is called floating
  • the members can stay in their lines and arcs, but slowly deform the picture
  • the members can break into ranks or squads, each of which performs a maneuver (such as a follow-the-leader) which may or may not be scripted – an unscripted move is sometimes called a rank option
  • each member may have a specifically scripted move to perform – in these cases, the desired visual effect is often the move itself and not the ending formation

Many bands use a combination of the above techniques, sometimes adding dance choreography that is done in place or while marching. Players may point the bells of their instruments in the direction they are moving, or slide (also called traverse) with all the bells facing in the same direction. Bands that march in time with the music typically also synchronize the direction of individuals' turns, and try to maintain even spacing between individuals in formations. Sometimes bands will specifically have wind players turn their instruments away from the audience in order to emphasize the dynamics of the music.

Auxiliaries can also add to the visual effect. Backdrops and props ("scrims") may be used on the field that fit the theme of the show or the music being performed. In comedic shows, particulary for university bands, an announcer may read jokes or a funny script between songs; formations that are words or pictures (or the songs themselves) may serve as punch lines.


In addition to staying in step and marching uniformly, one of the challenges with playing in large outdoor arenas is phasing. This is when part of the band gets behind or ahead of another part of the band, and such an occurrence is sometimes called an ensemble tear.

Phasing may be a subjective effect, due to the finite speed of sound. Even if all members of a band are playing at once, the sound from their instruments may reach listeners at different times. For example, if two musicians, one standing on the front sideline of the football field and one on the back sideline, begin playing exactly when they see the beat of the conductor's baton, the sound produced by the musician on the front sideline will reach listeners in the stand before the sound played by the back musician. This is because the speed of sound is significantly slower than the speed of light. Sound may also echo off parts of the stadium or nearby buildings.

Phasing can be reduced in several ways, including:

  • keeping formations compact
  • having players listen to the drums in addition to watching the drum major, to get a uniform idea of tempo (this only works if the drill is not spread across the entire field)
  • having musicians make constant adjustments and keep watching or listening to sources of tempo so as to try and make their sound reach the audience at the same time as other musicians
  • having players located near the back of the field watch the drum major, and all other players "listen back", playing along with those watching the drum major.
  • having players keep track of time and rhythm on their own (called internalizing the tempo)


Some bands will perform the same field show at all of their appearances during a single season. Others will avoid repeating a performance in front of the same crowd. In either case, the amount of rehearsal required varies greatly depending on the number and complexity of the formations, and the difficulty of the music. Some bands do a new field show every week, but only practice drill for two or three hours immediately before the performance. Other bands can practice a single show upwards of 20 hours per week (or more, for some competitive drum and bugle corps) for an entire season.

Music for parade and show bands is typically learned separately, in a concert band setting. It may even be memorized before any of the marching steps are learned. When rehearsing drill, positions and maneuvers are usually learned without playing the music simultaneously – a common technique for learning drill is to have members sing their parts or march to a recording produced during a music rehearsal. Many bands learn drill one picture or form at a time, and later combine these and add music. Rehearsals may also include physical warm-up (stretching, jumping jacks, etc.), music warm-up (generally consisting of breathing exercises, scales, technical exercises, chorales, and tuning), basics (simple marching in a block to practice proper technique), and sectionals (in which either staff or band members designated section leaders rehearse individual sections).

When learning positions for drill, an American football field may be divided into a 5-yard grid, with the yard lines serving as one set of guides. The locations where the perpendicular grid lines cross the yard lines, sometimes called zero points, may be marked on a practice field. Alternately, band members may only use field markings – yard lines, the center line, hash marks, and yard numbers – as guides (but note that different leagues put these markings in different places). In order for members to learn their positions more quickly, they may be given drill charts, which map their locations relative to the grid or field markings for each formation. In other groups, spray chalk is used to mark the location of each person after each set of drill, with a different color and shape for each move.

Some bands use small notebooks which they hang about their necks, and within contain 'drill charts' taped in, which list coordinates that band members use to find 'pages' or 'sets' on the field, which are normally set off the front sideline and front and back hashes, along with the number of '8-5 steps off of the yardline listed on each page. Some bands are even using small plastic pouches that hang about their neck on an adjustable strap, which has a zipper pocket for holding drill, flags to mark sets, and a pencil. There is also a clear plastic window in front to display the current part of drill being worked on at that point in time.

Members may also group into squads, ranks, sections, or (especially with scramble bands that primarily form words) letters. Instead of each member having an individual move, moves are then learned on a squad-by-squad (rank-by-rank, etc.) basis.

March steps and traditional music and drill that are unique to an organization are often taught at a band camp, a time set aside for intense rehearsal before the performance season begins. Many U.S. university bands meet for a week of band camp prior to the beginning of the autumn semester. Other band camps exist for individual band members, drum majors, and auxiliaries to practice their skills and learn generic techniques in the off-season. For many bands, band camp is actually camp: the groups board at a campground for a period of time. Other groups simply hold band camp at their typical rehearsal facilities. Many bands have an initiation night at the end of the camp to help build a greater bond between the musicians.


In competitions, bands are usually judged on criteria such as musicality, uniformity, visual impact, artistic interpretation, and the difficulty of the music and drill. Competition exists at all levels, but is most common in the U.S. among secondary school bands and drum and bugle corps. Performances designed for a competition setting usually include more esoteric music (including but not limited to adaptations of modern orchestral pieces).

National and Regional CompetitionsEdit

In the United States, Bands of America holds the Grand National Championships for high school marching bands every November at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. They also hold Regional Championships throughout the United States each fall and also the BOA Super Regional Regionals in San Antonio, TX (Alamodome), Atlanta, GA (Georgia Dome) & St. Louis, MO (Edward Jones Dome). Bands are divided into three classes (A, AA & AAA) based on school size.

Bands in most competitions are classified by the number of wind players. Bands can ask or "petition" up a class to challenge themselves but may not move down. An example classification used in some U.S. competitions is as follows:

  • A – Up to 36 wind players
  • AA – 37–54 wind players
  • AAA – 55–77 wind players
  • AAAA – 78–100 wind players
  • Open – 101 or more wind players

Local CompetitionsEdit

In addition to the Bands of America competitions, many states also hold local championships for high school marching band. In this case, school size is the determining factor in which class bands compete in, rather than the amount of wind players. Examples of these local circuits include:

The Sudler TrophyEdit

The Sudler Trophy is an award bestowed by the John Philip Sousa Foundation on one university marching band each year. No school may win the award twice. The official description of the trophy is:

The purpose of the Sudler Trophy is to identify and recognize collegiate marching bands of particular excellence who have made outstanding contributions to the American way of life. The Sudler Trophy is awarded annually to a college or university marching band which has demonstrated the highest musical standards and innovative marching routines and ideas, and which has made important contributions to the advancement of the performance standards of college marching bands over a period of years.

The following are the recipients of the Sudler Trophy since its inception in 1982:

See alsoEdit