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American march music

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Title: American march music  
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American march music

American march music is march music written and/or performed in the United States.

The cover of The Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa.


  • History 1
    • Marches and the military band 1.1
    • Marches and the concert band 1.2
    • Marches and the circus 1.3
    • Marches and the marching band 1.4
  • John Philip Sousa revolution 2
  • Common march composers in the United States 3
  • Famous marches 4
  • Musicality and the march music form 5
    • Meter 5.1
    • Tempo 5.2
    • Key 5.3
    • March music form 5.4
      • Military march form 5.4.1
      • "Regimental" march form 5.4.2
      • Other forms and styles 5.4.3
    • Phrasing 5.5
    • Chords and harmonic progression 5.6
  • Difficulty 6
  • Instrumentation 7
    • Assignments and roles of instrument sections 7.1
  • Media 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


The true "march music Wolfgang Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven tended to be part of a symphony or a movement in a suite. Despite the age of these marches, the history it holds and its performance in the United States, they are generally not thought of as "typical American march music."

Marches and the military band

Austrian Johann Strauss I's "Radetzky March" (1848), which became popular, arranged for the United States Marine Corps Band

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The origins of European and American march music can be traced to the military music of the Ottoman empire. The martial purpose of the music was to regulate the functioning of armies in the field by communicating orders, and keeping time during marching and maneuvers. The extensive use of percussion, such as cymbals, was also used for psychological effect as their use, especially in Western Europe, was unknown and had the capacity to frighten opponents. Indeed, the subsequent use of cymbals and other such percussive instruments in European 'classical' music was a direct importation from the Ottomans. In the early 18th century, Europeans were first exposed to this type of music and interest would continue to build into the early 19th century when a vogue for Turkish marching bands swept through Europe. Pieces displaying this Turkish influence can be found in the works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven with a notable example being "Turkish March" by Beethoven (part of Op. 113): Overture and incidental music for Die Ruinen von Athen.

The origins of march music began before the Gunpowder Age during which armies would maintain their troops' morale by marching with music playing, whether that be from the beat of a drum or fife. American march music showed during the Revolutionary War and earlier wartime conflicts, in which a fife and snare drum would play while the troops marched to battle. This is why it can be said that march music is a military's music.

While the tradition of soldiers playing music while marching into battle had ended soon after the American Civil War (mid 19th century), military bands continued to perform marches during related ceremonies and other events. This actually spawned a whole new tradition of playing marches as a source of entertainment.

Marches and the concert band

The United States Marine Band performs The Washington Post, which is one of Sousa's most famous marches

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Around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most towns, organizations, theaters, and even companies would have their own band. These bands, currently known today as community bands, would perform their music at special events much like the military band, but would often play at simple scheduled concerts and tours (such as the traditional gazebo concerts). By this time, published marches were plentiful due to prolific composers such as John Philip Sousa, Karl L. King, and Henry Fillmore. Marches became a staple in the repertoire of these concert bands and can hence explain how the popularity of the march spread so rapidly across the world.

Marches and the circus

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Marches were further popularized with performances by circus bands. During the same period of the community band/concert band, circuses such as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus would have live music being performed by their own bands. The marches played were often a special variety of the march known descriptively as “Screamers,” “Two-Steps,” and “Cakewalks.” These marches served the purpose of exciting the crowd while circus acts were taking place.

Marches and the marching band

Again, during the same period, college and high school marching bands were also beginning to form. March composers would often dedicate marches to university bands. Marches were performed during half-time shows and pep-rallies.

John Philip Sousa revolution

The United States Marine Band performs "The Stars and Stripes Forever", the national march of the United States

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American composer John Philip Sousa revolutionized the march. His prolific production of quality marches added to the genre's popularity. According to Sousa researcher Paul Bierley, Sousa’s marches were known for simplicity and understatement, with rousing counterpoint and overall energy. Sousa also is said to have standardized the traditional march form (see below.) His Stars and Stripes Forever is the official march of the United States of America.

Common march composers in the United States

Most march composers come from the United States or Europe, and have some type of musical background. The most popular march composers existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly because modern march dedicators are hard to come by. The following is a list of march music composers whose marches are frequently performed in the United States.

Famous marches

"Repasz Band March" by Chas. C. Sweeley.
"Our Director March" by F. E. Bigelow.

The following is a list of popular marches from around the world that are frequently performed in the United States. They are in alphabetical order for easy reading.

Musicality and the march music form

This section discusses the format and other musical aspects of march music.


The majority of marches are written in duple meter, meaning they have two beats per measure. Only a handful of marches are written otherwise, usually in 4/4, but still using the same tempo (see below).

The following is a list of meters used in marches:

  • 2/2 or cut-time (indicated by a letter "c" with a slash through it. This literally represents common time being cut in half, hence the name "cut time"). Marches written in cut-time have a clear upbeat/downbeat feel. In layman's terms, a cut-time march has a strong "oom-pah" sound to it. Many cut-time marches utilize heavy syncopation to create rhythmic interest. Because passing tones in most cases are shorter, cut-time marches tend to sound "faster" than other marches in a different meter. The most famous cut-time march would probably be Stars and Stripes Forever by Sousa.
  • 6/8 marches are played in two, meaning the dotted-quarter note gets the beat and there are two of them in a measure. If the composer wants a triplet feel to the march, 6/8 is used. In other words, 6/8 marches have a more dance-like swing feel to them, which is more prominent and exaggerated than its cut-time cousin. A 6/8 March can be distinguished immediately by recognizing its common "da-bah-da-bah" or "DA-da-DA-da" sound. The most famous 6/8 March is probably The Washington Post March, also by Sousa.
  • 2/4 is much like cut-time, except that fewer notes appear in a measure, since the quarter note now gets the beat instead of the half note but there are still only two beats per measure. Marches written in 2/4 tend to be for the sake of the performer, as it is, for the most part, easier to read at faster tempos. Many European marches are written in 2/4, and almost all American galops are as well. These galops are played at a very fast tempo, making it sound as if there was one beat to a bar.
  • 4/4 marches are rarely seen, as it is almost pointless to use with a fast tempo. However, some slow marches, such as dirges, utilize 4/4. Robert Jager also uses 4/4 with his popular quick march, "Stars and Bars."


The tempo of marches varies significantly. While most bands perform marches in their own tempo, most marches are quick (faster than a waltz, as fast as or slower than a polka). As alluded to before, most march composers did not designate a specific tempo on their manuscripts. However, that is not to say the march music composer is random with his/her tempo while conducting the march. For example, John Philip Sousa conducted his marches using around 120 beats per minute. Most European march composers, however, conducted their marches in a slower style, using around 100 beats per minute. There are, however, many and notable exceptions: see concert march and screamer.


For the sake of band performers, especially altos, marches are typically written in flat keys. The keys of Concert F, B♭, E♭, and A♭ are the most frequently used. (NOTE: These refer to the key the march begins in, not the modulated key in the trio (see below).

March music form

Most marches follow a fairly strict structure. This structure is known as the march music form. The march music form's origins can be derived from the sonata form, as it shares similar ideas of contrasting sections. The true march music form was not utilized until the start of the march music era, and was eventually standardized by none other than John Philip Sousa. While the march music form varies tremendously amongst different styles of the march, all marches must have the following:

  • Different sections, called strains.
  • Several separate melodies.
  • A contrasting section known as the trio.

The following two march forms are the most popular and frequently used by march music composers.

Military march form

"Blaze Away! March" by Abe Holzmann, written in military march format.

The military march can be heavily credited to John Philip Sousa. He is said to have standardized the military march form, and it is used in over half of his marches.

  • The first section is called the Introduction (I) or fanfare and is either 4, 8, or 16 bars long. The introduction is typically played in marcato style, typically using forte dynamics to catch the attention of the listener. The intro is almost never omitted from a march regardless of occasion. Examples without an intro include Bugles and Drums and the Footlifter. Compared to the other sections of a march, the introduction is usually the shortest part. Most introductions utilize chromatic scales and contrary motion counterpoint. This is discussed below. The introduction is commonly based on the V chord for the purpose of creating tension which naturally leads into the next section (See Harmonic Progressions below). The intro isn't generally repeated, but examples where it is are Bravura, Rifle Regiment, and Washington Grays. The introduction generally starts in major, but examples where it doesn't are the Gladiator, the Picadore, the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Rolling Thunder, and Hands Across the Sea' 'Click here to listen to the introduction of "The Thunderer" by John Philip Sousa. Sound clips are in MIDI format.
The Thunderer's introduction

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  • The next section is commonly called the first strain, as it is the first prominent melody of the march. The first strain is typically 8 or 16 bars long with 4-measure phrases. The first strain can be in either major or minor mode and can use any variety of dynamics, instrumentation and modulations. Typically this strain utilizes similar motifs in its phrases, and it sounds more rhythmically straightforward than the next section. After the first playing of the strain, it is repeated once, sometimes with added parts such as counter-melodies. Sometimes, the first strain is played again once after the second strains have been played, particularly if the first strain is in minor. Karl King was the main composer who did this, and Fillmore also did so with his trombone smears. Examples include Peacemaker March, New York Hippodrome, Caravan Club March, Trombone King, Lassus Trombone, Royal Decree, and Price's March of Youth
The Thunderer's first strain

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  • The second strain is usually 16 bars long and is the second primary melody of the march. However, in marches like Solid Men to the Front, and also Sousa's Untitled March, the second strain is 32 bars in length. Marches that commonly have the first playing of the second strain quiet and the second loud include The Stars and Stripes Forever, His Honor, The Washington Post, Hands Across the Sea, On the Mall, and a load of others, particularly by Sousa. This strain may use somewhat different instrumentation or may alter the relative dynamics of the different parts. The melody of the second strain is normally played with the basses (low brass and low woodwinds). In terms of phrasing, it also uses 4-measure phrases, but with more varied motifs. This makes the second strain's melodies sound more "stretched out." For example, many second strains utilize more whole notes than the first strain. For a good example, listen to Stars and Stripes Forever. The second strain is usually repeated once like the first, but some marches, for example, Emblem of Freedom, Cyrus the Great, the Melody Shop, and a few others, omit this repeat.
The Thunderer's second strain

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  • In some marches, a short introduction to the trio is heard. This introduction to the trio can be a repeat of the first introduction, a whole new separate melody played by the whole band, a fanfare by the brasses, or a percussion soli (drum rolloff). "Semper Fidelis" by Sousa, for example, has this. Another example of Trio Introduction is found in Twin Eagle Strut by Zane Van Auken.
  • The third (or technically fourth or fifth) primary melody in a march is called the trio. The trio is described as the main melody of the march. It is often played legato style in a softer dynamic, and features woodwinds more than brass. Sousa often used clarinets and euphoniums in lower tenor register in his trios. The trio is the most contrasting section, often containing variations of motifs heard in the previous two strains. The trio melody is often repeated once at a softer dynamic, or not repeated at all and goes right to the next section. Generally, it is played quietly for the first (or second) playthrough, then the next has a piccolo playing over the trio melody, and in the final playthrough, it is loud. In almost all cases, the trio modulates to the subdominant key of the march, meaning one flat is added to the key signature. Again, this is for the purpose of contrast and makes the trio more memorable to the listener. The fact that the key is now flatter also offers a more relaxing feel for those trios with softer instrumentation. For marches starting in minor keys, the trio usually modulates to the relative major. This key is maintained to the end of the piece.
The trio is the main melody of a march. Note the natural sign in the key signature marking the typical subdominant modulation. Also note the four-measure introduction into the trio.
The Thunderer's trio

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  • Next comes the breakstrain or breakup strain (sometimes called the dogfight or interlude), making it the 4th main melody heard. This strain is loud, intense, and marcato. The break strain's purpose can be found in its title. The breakstrain literally breaks a gap between the trio sections. It offers contrast to the usually softer trio melodies and generates excitement for the listener. Most breakstrains resemble a conversation between the upper woodwinds and the low brass. The final measures of the breakstrain typically contain tension-building chords or chromatic motifs. The breakstrain is usually 16 bars long, but marches such as The Washington Post and The Interlochen Bowl have 8 bar breakstrains. On the Mall has a twelve bar breakstrain, as does The Purple Pageant. Hands Across the Sea and The Thunderer have 16 bar breakstrains. Marches with 20 bar breakstrains include Fairest of the Fair and Invincible Eagle. The Stars and Stripes Forever in fact has a twenty-four bar breakstrain.
  • After the breakstrain, the trio is heard again, either for one last time or and the 2nd (or third) time. If the trio after the breakstrain is the last, it is usually played in the same style as the first trio. Sometimes this trio has added counter-melodies or obbligatos. After this trio, the breakstrain is played again, then moves on to the final trio. The final trio is known as the grandioso. It is typically much louder than the previous playing(s) of the trio and utilizes all sections of the band, bringing everything to a close. The grandioso is considered the most exciting section of the march and serves the purpose of instilling the trio melody into the mind of the listener. The grandioso sometimes adds yet another counter-melody or obbligato, such as the one in Stars and Stripes Forever. The last measure of the march sometimes contains a stinger, a I chord played in unison on the upbeat after a quarter rest. Most, but not all, marches carry a stinger; the Semper Fidelis march is a famous march not to have an ending stinger (when not recapitulated back to the beginning of the march - see below). Most marches end at the volume forte (loud), but an example that doesn't is Sousa's Manhattan Beach, which ends fading away.
  • In some military marches, such as "U.S. Field Artillery" by John Philip Sousa, there is only one playing of the breakstrain, resulting in only two "playings" of the trio. Apart from On the Mall, the Chimes of Liberty, and a couple of others, Goldman's marches in the military form only had two playings of the trio.

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Therefore, the military march form is this: I-AA-BB-C(C)-Br-C-Br-C(Grandioso)

  • Examples of military marches include Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa, Barnum and Bailey's Favorite by Karl L. King, and On the Mall by Edwin F. Goldman

"Regimental" march form

Another popular (and perhaps older) march style is the regimental march, or review march. There are a few key differences between a typical military march and a regimental march.

  • The introduction, first strain, and second strain are typically that of a military march. However, some utilize a much longer introduction.
  • Instead of a breakstrain after the trio, a regimental march has a completely new strain (D), which still uses the modulated key. This strain has similar characteristics of a second strain and is almost always repeated once.
  • Because the regimental march is considerably shorter than a military march (due to its lack of a third trio repeat and breakstrain), it is often played by marching bands in parades (hence the name "review march").

Therefore, the "regimental" march form is this: I-AA-BB-CC-DD

  • Examples of "regimental" marches include Semper Fidelis by John Philip Sousa (when not recapitulated back to the beginning of the march - see below), Men of Ohio by Henry Fillmore, Bugles and Drums by Goldman, and Robinson's Grand Entry by Karl L. King.

Other forms and styles

  • Some marches, typically those written specifically for marching and/or youth bands, have no breakstrain or 'D' section at all. They simply have one repeat of the trio (typically in the grandioso style), and then the march ends (Form: I-AA-BB-CC). Examples of these marches include "Our Director" by F.E. Bigelow and "Gallant Marines" by Karl L. King. Karl King and Henry Fillmore often used this style in their marches. John Philip Sousa rarely used this style.
  • Many earlier and European marches recapitulate back to the beginning of the march. These marches typically did not use the Military March Form, but rather a shorter form such as the one directly above or the regimental march form. In other words, after either the final trio, or 'D' section, the march would start over again. Once it has done that, repeats are ignored, and ends after the second strain. Codas are rare, but sometimes used as well, for example in "Riders for the Flag" by Sousa and "Children of the Shrine" by James Swearingen. The tradition of recapitulating marches ended at the start of the march music era. For example, John Philip Sousa abandoned this technique with all of his marches, except for "On Parade," one of Sousa's few circus marches. In fact, only Victor Herbert was one of the last American composers who still used recapitulation during the march music era. Examples of these marches include "Under the Double Eagle" by Wagner and "The Serenade" by Victor Herbert.


The basic (and vague) definition of a march is a piece of music based upon a regular repeated drum/rhythmic pattern. Therefore, what makes a march recognizable is its phrases. Almost all quickstep marches consist of four-measure phrases, typical ending with a whole note either creating or resolving melodic tension (see Progressions) followed by a pickup note (see Pickups). It can be said that this rather "basic" framework is what makes marches melodically "pleasing." Some marches have more noticeable phrases than others. Karl King's marches, for example, have very clear-cut phrases with said whole notes and pickups. John Philip Sousa, however, tended to use practically seamless phrasing.

Chords and harmonic progression

The harmonic progressions of American march music are well-grounded in the archetypal harmonic techniques of the times in which they were written.

Consider "Semper Fidelis" by John Philip Sousa. The following is the chord progression. Note, each barred section represents one measure, for a total of 16 measures.

  • |G7| |G7| |C| |C| |G7| |G7| |C| |C| |G7| |G7| |C| |C|G7/B| |G| |G| |D7| |G7|

"Semper Fidelis"'s first strain begins with a very simple V-I progression, creating a wave-like sense of tension and relief. Note its use of dominant seven chords to make the V chord stronger. This extension is used in many marches. Towards the end, however, the progression gets more harmonically interesting. In the middle of the measure before the trumpet "fanfare," the chord alters to C♯dim7 instead of remaining on C as before. Because it leads to a G7 chord rather than a D minor chord, this is an example of a common-tone diminished seventh chord. This chord "leads" into the V chord (G), which is then followed by a D7 chord. A D chord in the key of C would be the ii chord, and all ii chords must be minor. However, the D chord in this case is not minor. Rather, it is known as a secondary dominant, in which a dominant chord is borrowed from another key, hence "secondary dominant." A secondary dominant naturally leads into a chord other than the first (I chord). In this case, it leads into the V (G7).

The following is the chord progression of the second strain. Note, each barred section represents one measure, for a total of 16 measures.

  • |C| |F|G7| |C| |C| |G7| |G7| |C| |C|G7| |C| |F|E7| |Am| |A♭7| |C| |C| |G| |C|

As with most second strains, this one features more rapidly changing chords. Note the use of the IV chord, used in marches to create a very "uplifting" and lyrical sound which will tend to resolve back to the I chord or proceed into the V chord, as it does here. At measure ten, where it restates the main theme, Sousa uses a rather "deceptive" chord change. Instead of using F to G7 to C as he did in measures two and three, it goes from the IV (F) to the V7/VI (E7, secondary dominant), to the VI (Am). The main melodic theme uses the same notes, but revolves around a different harmonic progression, resulting in greater chordal interest (less repetitive). Sousa then uses his trademark chromatic accented chord (A♭7; note that it is a half-step below the previous chord) to create a "wall of tension" that quickly resolves into the I chord.

Another "accented" chromatic chord frequently used by march music composers is an inversion of a I chord with a lowered third and raised fifth. For example, if there was an E♭ major chord (the I in the key of E♭), it would be followed by a B major chord (because a B chord is an E♭ chord with a lowered third and raised fifth). Unlike the aforementioned secondary dominants, this chord really does not have logical harmonic functions to it (besides neighbor tone usage) other than to add texture and interest.

In summary:

  • Most marches use seemingly simple chord progressions, for the sake of sounding melodically pleasing, however...
  • March composers will often complement their marches with interesting chords and chord changes, such as the use of chromatic harmonies, sevenths extensions, and secondary dominants.


The actual difficulty of performance is considerably varied amongst marches. Because marches were some of the first music to be written for grade school bands (which were just becoming prominent throughout the country), many marches are fairly modest in difficulty. However, given the fact that many composers wrote marches for their own band (typically a professional community or circus band), some require almost virtuoso skill to perform. Many conductors note that any march is difficult to play "perfectly," with all correct expressions, articulation, and steady tempo. The following difficulty grading system is adapted from Norman Smith's "March Music Notes."

  • Grade 1: Minimum difficulty. Suited for beginner bands who are first approaching music. May even be a simple etude or ditty from an instructional book.
  • Grade 2: Also for beginner bands, but more developed, usually with different notes and rhythms. Instrumental ranges are comfortable, and most require minimal endurance. Some follow the standard march form, but most are abbreviated, or in a more concert march form.
  • Grade 3: The standard march difficulty. Usually in full march form, this difficulty requires moderate technique and endurance skills. Instrumental range is usually intermediate, and most likely will contain chromatic notes, obbligatos, and counter-melodies. Many Grade 3s are used in actual parade marching. Examples of Grade 3 marches would be "The Thunderer" and "The National Emblem."
  • Grade 4: Moderately difficult. Typical high school bands will find this grade requiring a considerable amount of practice/rehearsal. Grade 4s will contain many technically challenging parts and some syncopation. They also tend to require a strict, complete ensemble for proper performance, as they may contain intricate harmonies and counter-melodies. Examples of Grade 4 marches would be "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "Barnum and Bailey's Favorite."
  • Grade 5: Considerably difficult. Usually originally written for professional, virtuoso band members, such as those in a circus band. Therefore, many Grade 5s are Screamers. They are guaranteed to contain woodwind obbligatos or chromatic runs and test the range of any player. May have very quick tempos, as well as complicated rhythms and syncopation. Examples of Grade 5 marches would be "Entry of the Gladiators", "The Washington Grays", and "Battle of Shiloh".
  • Grade 6: A rare difficulty. Usually a Grade 6 is found in a greater piece of work such as a symphony, where it can contain mixed meters, intricate rhythms, and harmonies.


A general instrumentation setup used originally for American marches would be very difficult to explain, as most bands were extremely varied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As stated before, most of the standard march music was written for the composer's band. Whether that be the Sousa, Ringling Bros., or Gilmore, every band typically had marches written by their conductor in repertoire. With that said, most marches were also written in a very specific instrumentation. For example, many composers simply wrote a piano version of the march, and it was up to the publisher to arrange separate parts for concert band, orchestra, etc.

Assignments and roles of instrument sections

There are some generalities that can be made pertaining to what role a section of a concert band holds in a typical march. Examples: Trumpets/cornets almost always carry the melody. They also tend to be scored various "flourishes" and "calls" for effect. Clarinets, piccolos, and flutes also tend to carry the melody, but often are assigned obbligatos and other various integral lines. French Horns tend to always carry the rhythmic backup of a march. For example, in cut-time marches, they are typically assigned upbeats (the + of 1 and 2) to provide the "pah" for the stylistic "oom-pah" sound. In 6/8 marches, French horns play on beat 1, the 'li' of 1, beat 2, and the 'li' of 2 (1-la-li 2-la-li). In other words, the measure would be one eighth note, then an eighth rest, then two eighth notes, an eighth rest, then a final eighth note.


Full midi of The Thunderer by John Philip Sousa

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  • Norman E. Smith "March Music Notes" Copyright 1993 by Norman E. Smith, Published by Program Note Press.
  • Norman E. Smith "March Music Melodies" Copyright 1993 by Norman E. Smith, Published by Program Note Press.
  • Jeff Yaeger, Forgotten American Music
  • Paul E. Bierley "The Works of John Philip Sousa" Copyright 1984 by Paul E. Bierly, Published by Integrity Press
  •, "Virginia Tech Online Music Dictionary"

External links

  • Air Force Link - March Music, Downloadable recordings of marches performed by the US Air Force Bands (page archived by the Wayback Machine)
  •, information and recordings of music by James M. Fulton
  •, including circus marches by one of America's March Kings
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