Marching Band Instruments

Marching band members in a parade
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Musical instruments that are used in marching bands include woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments and others that can be carried or worn and played while walking in parade routes or performing during field shows.

Brass Instruments

Cornet: The trumpet and cornet are similar horns; they are usually pitched in B flat, both are transposing instruments (they produce sound in a key different than the music written for them), and they both have valves. But whereas the trumpet is used in jazz bands, the cornet is usually used in brass bands. Trumpets also have a more powerful sound and have a cylindrical bore, for a direct, loud sound. Cornets, on the other hand, have a conical bore, giving them a warmer, more full tone.

Trumpet: Although the trumpet underwent shape and design changes during the Renaissance, it has been in existence far longer than that. Used at first for military purposes, studies show that ancient people used materials such as animal horns for similar purposes, for example, to announce danger.

Tuba: The tuba is deep-sounding and is the largest instrument of the brasswind family. Like the trombone, music for the tuba can either be written in the bass or treble clef. Although it doesn't require as much lung power as the trumpet, the tuba can be difficult to handle due to its size, with student/beginner versions being almost 3 feet (.9 m) tall and 13–14 pounds (6 kg).

French horn: Horns were used in operas during the 1600s, especially when a hunting scene was included. What makes a French horn stand out is how its bell points backward. In marching bands, the mellophone is a type of French horn used with the bell pointing forward.


Clarinet: The clarinet has undergone many innovations since its inception in the late 1600s, developed from its ancestor the chalumeau. With few musical keys able to be played by one size of reed instrument, multiple sizes of chalumeau existed. Then innovations of interchangeable parts made the instruments more adaptable to different keys. Composers wrote for their instrument preferences, and mechanical improvements helped them develop further. Military bands and the wide range of playability led to the higher-pitched B-flat clarinet being the evolutionary winner over the lower-pitched chalumeau, though the change wasn't quick. The transition to a more standardized clarinet extended from the 1700s into the 1800s.

Flute: The flute is considered one of the oldest manmade musical instruments. In 1995, archaeologists found in northwestern Slovenia a flute made of bone that dates back some 43,000 to even 80,000 years.

Oboe: The name oboe is a German word; it is hautbois in French. The oboe originated from the shawm, an instrument used for outdoor ceremonies. During the 17th century, the oboe became one of the leading solo instruments used in the military and orchestras. Oboes used to have only two keys.

Saxophone: Saxophones come in a variety of sizes and types; the alto sax, tenor sax, and the baritone sax are the most commonly used in marching bands. Considered to be newer than other musical instruments in terms of its music history, the saxophone was invented by Belgian Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax and patented in 1846. He had been trying to improve the bass clarinet.

Percussion Instruments

Bass drum: The bass drum is a percussion instrument and is the lowest and largest member of the drum family. In marching band, they can be more than 2 1/2 feet in diameter, almost a foot and a half wide, and weigh around 35 pounds, without a harness adding another 4 to 8 pounds.

Snare drums: Envision military musicians from the Revolutionary War, and you may picture a fife player and a snare drummer, as this percussion instrument dates way back for military use. In fact, snare drums go back to ancient Egypt. Today, they benefit from modern technology, and their heads are made of Kevlar.

Tenor drums: Multi-tenors, or toms, in a drumline come in four- or six-drum configurations and are practically a portable kit. They're the higher-pitched pieces of the drumline and are arguably the most challenging in the battery.

Cymbals: Percussion instruments may or may not have pitch. Cymbals are a perfect example of a non-pitched, or untuned, percussion instrument. The type used in marching bands is called the crash cymbal. They range from 16 to 22 inches in diameter.

Glockenspiel: The glockenspiel (which translates from German as "set of bells") is an example of a tuned percussion instrument. It looks similar to a xylophone, but its bars are made of steel rather than wood and are arranged in two sections. In marching band, they're in a lyre-like shape and called a bell lyre.

Timpani: Timpanis emerged from kettle drums that were used in military and royal parades in India. The use of kettledrums then spread to Europe and was later adapted by classical composers (e.g., Bach and Handel) for the symphony orchestra. Marching versions of timpani drums do exist and are lighter than the orchestral versions, though contemporary bands will more likely have the larger stationary percussion instruments on wheeled carts for the field show, lining the edge of the field near the drum major in an area called the pit, rather than have the marching versions.

Xylophone/vibraphone: In Indonesia, the gambang is a type of xylophone and is said to have existed as early as the eighth century. Modern-day xylophones are supported by frames and have wood or synthetic resonator tubes and can cover 2 1/2 to four octaves. Vibraphones, which usually cover three octaves, have metal bars making their notes and sustain longer; thus, they have damper pedals for the player to control the sound. In marching band, xylophones and vibraphones are wheeled out on carts for field show performances and played in the percussion pit.