Listen to our Resident Fifer play different fifes, flutes, and a drum to demonstrate their different sounds and functions. Learn about some of the musicians who played music on the front lines of the American Revolution and examine replicas of 18th-century uniforms, books, and sheet music. Our fifer also demonstrates tunes for dancing, such as a minuet, a jig, and a reel.

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Fifes & Drums During the American Revolution

In his orders to his army during the American Revolution, George Washington complained on June 4, 1777, that the “music of the army [was] in general very bad.”  He ordered that “the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced [demoted], and their extraordinary pay taken from them.” He went on to say that specific hours would be assigned “for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them and practice.”  

During the Revolution, the army used fifes and drums not only to boast morale, but also for communication and regimentation. Music, standardized for the army’s purposes by the drill master Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, served as a signal in battle; the higher registers of the fife have piercing sounds that could carry above a fracas. Fife and drum signals also told soldiers in camp when to wake up, fetch wood or provisions, and show up for church.

“Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.” - George Washington (Head Quarters, Middle-Brook, June 4, 1777)

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