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Drums are an integral part of a marching band whether we’re talking about a military-style marching band, the drum corps, a high school band, or a traditional style parade.
Seeing a sea of drums in perfectly aligned lines makes it seem that hundreds of different drums are responsible for the maximum articulation and projection of sound, as they would in orchestral percussion.
Which made me wonder, what are the types of drums in a marching band?
The marching band section of drums, also known as the drumline or battery, consists of marching snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums, and in some cases timpani are also included. Additionally, single-headed tenor drums are often installed four to six to a set, known as quads and quints.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the marching percussion instruments that you can find in a marching band and we will specifically focus on the drum section that is also part of the drumline, as well as the drums that are used in high school bands.
What Is Marching Percussion?
Military marching bands have a long history that most likely began with the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century. Today plenty of countries have military or non-military marching bands, and in the United States, there are two major categories.
One is simply referred to as “marching bands” and these include high schools, colleges, the military, and the competitive bands of America, while the other category is the drum corps.
We’re here to talk about marching bands and regardless of style most of them consist of four major sections, the Winds, the Color Guard the Field Commanders, and Marching Percussion.
Marching percussion, also known as drumline and battery consists of percussion instruments, and they are for the most part designed to be played when the players are on the move, or marching to be more precise.
Before we dive deeper into the drum ensemble of the marching percussion I think it will be helpful to mention all the other percussion instruments, so we have a more rounded idea of this marching band section.
Drums are definitely an essential part of marching percussion and their construction and sound are what make them so different from other percussion instruments on this list.
Drums have a drumhead that is tightened over their hollow cylindrical body either on one or both ends. The drummer uses drumsticks to strike these instruments and produce sound.
Part of the drumline are usually marching snare drums, bass drums, and tenor drums that can be just a single tenor drum or a set of four or more tenor drums called quads and quints, additionally, a director might request the presence of a timpani.
These marching drums, aside from the timpani that is too large, are attached to the drummer with a special harness.
Aside from the rich sound that each drum offers to the marching band ensemble these percussion instruments are also important because they help maintain a steady tempo and rhythm.
Their loudness also helps other members of the band listen to certain drum parts to cue them for certain movements in the show.
A marching band can also include more melodic instruments like the xylophones and glockenspiel that have wooden and metal bars respectively. Different types of mallets are usually used to strike these bars and produce sound.
Vibraphone is another popular option because this instrument has metal bars and resonators that are motor driven. The built-in pickups allow for easy amplification and the vibraphone also better sustain and it’s great at producing vibrato.
Since some of these instruments are quite big and heavy they are either made into smaller versions, like the marching bells, or lyre-shaped glockenspiel that is mounted on a rod for portability, or they are kept stationary in their original form at the front of the band, also known as the “pit.”
Since cymbals are so often seen on classical drum sets it’s easy to think that they are part of the drum ensemble. However, when it comes to marching bands cymbals are part of the drumline, not the drums.
The main difference between the mainstream drumset cymbals is that the marching band player actually holds one cymbal in each hand and clashes them against each other to make the loud clang.
Marching cymbals can come in different sizes but the most typical diameter is 18 and 20 inches in size.
Because cymbals are so loud and visually shiny cymbal players are often the showmen of a marching band. The player actually uses the “Garfield grip” when holding the cymbals. As you may see in the video above the Garfield grip allows the cymbalists to do incredible twirls and flips.
Finally, we have the percussion instruments that can’t fit into the above categories but that doesn’t mean they are not an important part of the marching band’s drumline.
Depending on the director you can find a marching band incorporating marching chimes, shakers, as well as various bells with the cowbell being one of the most popular options.
What Are The Types Of Drums In A Marching Band?
As I’ve already talked about above the marching band is a large entity that consists of different sections, one of these sections is the drumline which itself consists of various percussion instruments.
So, let’s take a look at all the common types of drums that are used in a drumline!
1. Snare Drum
If you want to know where the heart of the marching band lies then you’ll find it is the snare drum.
Marching snares are usually 12 inches deep and 14 inches wide and because of their size and depth, they achieve a deeper and loud sound.
The thing that makes the snare drum “rattle” are the snares, these are wires that are stretched over the bottom drumhead and they vibrate each time the stick hits the top drumhead.
The bottom drumhead also known as the resonant head is thinner that the one at the top which also helps with the sound projection.
Marching snares are designed to withstand high amounts of tension because in order to produce a distinct high-pitched sound they are played with a heavier and thicker stick.
As you can imagine a marching band can have various different snare drums when it comes to size and depth, in order to achieve different sounds with different sustain. Usually, the snares are made of wood with steel hardware and their drumheads are made from either nylon or calf gut.
These drums definitely require a percussionist that has the skill and physical strength to support the heavy instrument that they carry with a harness.
Snare drummers have to also be well coordinated and they have to be well trained to keep up with the intensity that requires them to play this instrument while also jogging around the field.
It’s also worth mentioning that the drum captain is the leader of the drumline, and they play the center snare. Their role is to tap or count time in order to set the tempo and basically lead the marching band by establishing the beat with a solo rhythm.
2. Single Tenor and Tenor Quads
The marching tenor drum is actually quite similar to the snare drum, but they don’t have the metal wires that create the rattling sound mentioned earlier, so instead, tenor drums produce a stable sound.
In many cases, the marching band percussionists that play the tenor have a tenor drum set up in front of them. One drummer can have a set of four, five, and six tenor drums, each called quads, quints, and sextets respectively.
Many modern tenor configurations have quads and one or two special accent drums called spocks or gocks. Since each drum has a different pitch the tenor can achieve melodic percussion, providing the marching band the melody and not necessarily the rhythm as snare drums do.
If you’ve ever paid attention to a tenor then you’ll notice that only an expert percussionist could perform on multiple drums, and if there is more than one tenor in the band then they have to perform in sync with each other.
You will often see high school marching bands having one to three tenors, but in larger marching bands there can be a total of six tenors!
3. Bass Drum
I know the snare drum is considered the heartbeat of the marching band, but I have a soft spot for the bass drum whether it’s part of an orchestra or a marching band because without this amazing and huge drum the marching band would feel empty.
The marching bass drum produces a deep and full sound and since low frequencies can travel further the bass drum doesn’t get lost under the high-pitched tones of the snare drums.
The bass drummer is definitely a very impressive percussionist who has to be extra fit since they have to carry this instrument with the harness with the drumheads facing to the sides.
The percussionist uses mallets with rounded or cylindrical heads made from hard felt to strike the bass drum on both sides. Bass drum players usually have unison notes, “split” parts and they will also play a rim click, that’s when the drummer strikes a metal bar affixed to the rim of the drum.
A marching band can have multiple bass drums of different sizes in order to get a tonal variety. Drumlines often include four to six distinct bass drum sizes. Large bass drum lines can have up to eight drummers, while small bass drum lines can consist of four to five members.
While marching timpani are not as common they are still worth mentioning because when they are used they are considered to be part of the drumline and part of the drum ensemble.
If you’ve only seen an orchestral timpani then you are probably expecting a giant drum, but marching timpani are much smaller.
In some cases, you will see a timpanist carrying their still quite large drum with a harness, but nowadays it’s more common to find the timpani on stands positioned in the front along with other instruments of the marching percussion like the glockenspiel and xylophone.
What Are The Types Of Drums In A Drumline?
When we talk about the type of drums used in a marching band and the types of drums used in a drumline we need to understand that we’re talking about the same thing.
The drumline or batter as it’s also called is part of the marching band, and it encompasses all the percussion instruments that are used in a marching band ensemble that includes the drums.
When it comes to drums specifically, the drumline consists of snare drums, bass drums, single tenor drums as well as tenor quads. The timpani might also be included if the marching band has stationary percussion instruments that are usually placed in a central position in drumline arrangements and are typically positioned in the front, or center of the ensemble.
What Are The Types Of Drums In A High School Band?
Whether we’re talking about high school bands or college bands these are both part of the marching band category since we often see them perform at half-time shows during football games at universities and high schools.
While high school bands might be smaller in size compared to marching bands that we see on TV performing during big American football games they usually have the same marching percussion ensembles.
The type of drums you see in high school bands include the snare drums, bass drums, single tenor drums, and tenor quads, and sometimes they might even have timpani as part of the stationary percussion instruments that occupy a central position in drumline arrangements.
What Is The Difference Between Marching Percussion And Orchestral Percussion?
The percussion instruments used in an orchestra are quite similar to the percussion instruments you find in a marching band.
The major difference between the two is that for the most part an orchestra stays put while marching band percussionists move around the field or down the street while simultaneously playing their instruments.
The music is also quite different between the two since orchestras play a wide range of repertoire, from symphonies to solo concerts and operas to some types of musical theater.
Marching bands, on the other hand, perform military and patriotic marches and even if they perform more modern music they still sound more like a patriotic march.
Partly this is due to the marching snare sound which is very specific to the marching band. Marching snare drums have a more resonant head sound most likely because marching snare drums are deeper in size (12 inches) than snare drums used in an orchestra (6 inches.)
Let’s not forget that orchestral percussion can also have a far more diverse group of percussion instruments that are not seen in marching bands.
If you’ve ever watched the drumline of a marching band live then you know how much skill and talent it requires to produce this incredibly coordinated sound that can be heard across an open field, or in the streets of a busy city that is celebrating a historic day.
I mean just look at this work of art, this incredible performance by the Ohio State University marching band!
It’s also surprising that basically, only four and sometimes just three types of drums (if you don’t take timpani into account) are responsible for this marching rhythm and sound!