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I always found it interesting, and it was clearly inspiring to the soldiers, that there were drummers and fifers during the 18th and 19th centuries, playing music during marches into battle. However, my question is, would it be impractical for, say, the drummers and fifers to stay behind the main line and continue to play music when the soldiers were locked in actual combat? What are the pros and cons? This could also apply to medieval combat, combat in antiquity, et cetera.

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    $\begingroup$ Military music can be traced back to the Spartans, who advanced to battle with the music of flutes (which enemies found terrifying). Military musicians in western culture have traditionally fallen out when the troops formed for battle, and were employed as stretcher bearers to bring back the wounded for medical aid. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Nov 10, 2015 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ Our ancestors carried babies into battle for the audible battle boost! youtube.com/watch?v=Zm-sQnazFAQ $\endgroup$
    – Mindwin
    Nov 10, 2015 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ I tried to imagine a music being played in real battle/war... maybe I spend too much playing video game... $\endgroup$
    – Andrew T.
    Nov 11, 2015 at 1:46

6 Answers 6

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The whole point of the drummers and fifers are FOR the march. Walking in formation requires timing and coordination. The drums helped everyone keep the beat.

Now the military uses cadences. It keeps time and occupies the mind.

Having 'music' during battle would be strange. Once fighting starts you won't hear it and what is its point? It's not like you want your ear buds in while trying to split your enemy from throat to groin.

One of the biggest issues would be that horns were frequently used to sound battle movements and adding more noise to an already extremely loud venue (music on top of that) might make it harder to direct armies and generals would have even more noise to contend with. (I think it would be a bad idea)

He was just a rookie trooper and he surely shook with fright,

He checked all his equipment and made sure his pack was tight;

He had to sit and listen to those awful engines roar,

"You ain't gonna jump no more!"

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  • $\begingroup$ Exactly what bowl said. On a side note, that article seems strange terminology-wise to my experience. While generally accurate, we always referred to cadence as the beat/speed while the songs/chants were jodies. I realize its close in that article it just reads funny to an Air Force person. And yes, many jodies are wildly offensive and/or make fun of the other branches of service. They are fantastic :) $\endgroup$
    – James
    Nov 9, 2015 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @James I only skimmed the article, but it seemed to make my point. The cadences I remember, aren't really fit for mixed company... $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Nov 9, 2015 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ oh it totally works, its not what you used its how whoever wrote that wiki site used the terminology that bugs me. The content is spot on. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Nov 9, 2015 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ The OP seems to know why music is played before the battle. They asked for pros and cons for music during battle. Do you have any more to say about that? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 9, 2015 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel actually his post does not show an understanding of what the 'music' was for. And in the heat of battle it would be drowned out, battle is LOUD, to IMO it would be mostly pointless, on top of that horns were used as battle signals, and they might be missed. (I'll add that to my answer !). $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Nov 10, 2015 at 0:49
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It's probably impractical.

Pros:

  • Soldiers know their flanks are clear as long as they can hear the drummers. This is a tactical and psychological boon.
  • The enemies are intimidated by the drumming.
  • Enemies may unconsciously fall into time with the beat, while friendlies are trained to avoid the predictability this leads to.
  • The battle fever, for more cowbell, will be cured. Allowing soldiers to focus on the battle fever, for killing.

Cons:

  • Friendlies can't hear the guy running up next to them because the drumming is too loud.
  • Drummers might be better used as soldiers in the fight.
  • Friendlies may unintentionally fall into step with the drumming.
  • Drumming while watching your buddies fight, kill, and be killed might be too difficult.
  • Drummers would be called bards. Nobody wants to be a bard.
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    $\begingroup$ I have to say the pros you list vastly outweigh the cons! $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Nov 10, 2015 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ "nobody wants to be a bard", well I for one am into supporting/lone ranger role, either way the cons is too much of a hassle +1 $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2015 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand "The battle fever, for more cowbell, will be cured. Allowing soldiers to focus on the battle fever, for killing." $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Nov 10, 2015 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz It's a pop culture reference. An old SNL skit, which will make sense if you watch it. As much as such things do, anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 10, 2015 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz I would explain the joke, but I'm also perfectly comfortable with some people just not getting it. It's not an important point to the general answer, so don't worry about not following that single bullet point. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 10, 2015 at 16:55
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One of the main purposes of the musicians during battle was to help command the troops. The commander would stand in a place where they could view the whole battle (or as much as possible), the musicians would watch for the commander's signals, and would use different instruments or rhythms to convey the messages to advance, hold, fire, retreat, and any other pre-defined commands that the troops would know (and the enemy would not). Remember, this was in an era before radio, shouting instructions can only carry so far.

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The Scots in their various wars (mostly against themselves) used bagpipes a lot to stir the troops, even during the battle (although not right on the front line once the enemy were engaged). I think the following passage answers gives both pros and cons of the practice.

The bloodcurdling sound and swirl of the pipes boosted morale amongst the troops and intimidated the enemy. However, unarmed and drawing attention to themselves with their playing, pipers were always an easy target for the enemy, no more so than during World War One when they would lead the men 'over the top' of the trenches and into battle. The death rate amongst pipers was extremely high: it is estimated that around 1000 pipers died in World War One

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Scottish-Piper-War-Heroes/

Further reading:
http://www.nefa.net/archive/songmusicdance/pipes/war.htm

So, while these other answers tend to dismiss the idea, it's not only possible, it's got strong historical precedence.

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    $\begingroup$ Scottish regiments in WWII still had pipers too. Famous case is the Normandy landings on D-Day. Many people think that the Scottish piper as shown in The Longest Day movie was invented by the script-writers, but it really happened according to my grandfather who was actually there. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Nov 10, 2015 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Tonny - Yes, I watched The Longest Day this weekend just gone (with it being Remembrance Sunday). However, I had no immediate evidence of their piping during actual combat. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2015 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ According to my grandfather the piper played during combat, but he stayed just behind the people actually in combat. Still in firing range in most cases. Pipers got targeted expressly by the German troops. As you already mentioned mortality rate was high. Pipers would also assist medics/carry wounded. In most cases pipers didn't carry a riffle, only a side-arm, and wouldn't engage in actual combat unless cornered. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Nov 10, 2015 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ I do recall a quote although I can't remember the source - that some German units deliberately didn't shoot at the pipers because they felt it was bad luck. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2015 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ Hurt my bagpiper, and I'm only going to be more inspired to take you out... ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Dronz
    Nov 10, 2015 at 16:39
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Playing music during the battle would make it harder for troops to hear commands of their leaders, horns and trumpet calls to indicate the need to change formation, retreat etc. Then there's the need to be quiet to hear enemy attacks and movements as well. That said I believe there was a case some years ago in Iraq where tanks blared heavy metal music at the enemy in order to either challenge them into showing themselves and to frighten them, they may have also been shooting at the time (space in a tank is tight though and they may have been insulated inside from the outside noise). Remember that scene from Apocalypse now where they play music during a helicopter attack to frighten the enemy? These exceptions I raise are probably due to the one-sided nature of those battles.

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It makes sense to play music and sing shortly before the battle. It improves morale of your troops and lowers the morale of the enemy. There is story from Czech history, that when Hussites were raiding the country, one battle ended before it could even start, because the enemy did flee just after the Hussites singing a battle song

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