Music and Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Music, a prime means of expressing the human experience, has been closely connected to warfare from earliest times.


Music, a prime means of expressing the human experience, has been closely connected to warfare from earliest times. Within military establishments, music fosters team spirit, conveys signals, and provides the cadence for coordinated marching. Music also plays a vital liturgical role, invoking God’s help in battle and celebrating victory. Less formally, most cultures have created a large genre of “soldiers’ music” sung by fighting men and women. A large body of civilian music also reflects on war, ranging from simple tunes about soldiers seen on the street to magnificent orchestral works that conjure up a purified battlefield experience. The nineteenth and especially the twentieth century also saw the rise of antiwar music at both the popular and the concert-hall levels.Music;and warfare[warfare]Music;and warfare[warfare]


The scholarly trend of studying “war and society” rather than narrow battlefield history has encouraged investigation of the intersection between music and warfare. Music offers a practically unmined wealth of sources that reveal what society at large has thought of the experience of war–and what the soldiers felt about the matter. Study of music and warfare is, however, still in its infancy. There are major studies of the music of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the two world wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945), and the Vietnam War (1961-1975), but the war music of earlier eras has scarcely been touched.

History of Music and WarfareAncient World

The Bible;war inbiblical book of Joshua makes it plain that, in the late second millennium b.c.e., the Israelite army was accompanied by trumpeters: “seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns. . . .” (Joshua 6:3). From the context, their purpose seems both religious and military: The trumpets signaled the army, whose great shout brought down the walls of Jericho. Indeed, the first evidence of music in warfare is distinctly religious, as in Numbers 10:9, when the Israelites are instructed to blow trumpets before setting out to war to summon God’s help.

It is likely that Egyptian and Mesopotamian armies also used “trumpets” (bored animal horns) for military signals. That other early civilizations also used musical instruments for signals is suggested by the terra-cotta army of China;war musicChina’s first emperor, Qin ShihuangdiQin ShihuangdiQin Shihuangdi (died 210 b.c.e.), which includes chariots equipped with large kettledrums.

The ancient Greece;war musicGreeks developed a new use for military music: creating a cadence for coordinated action. Hoplite warfare consisted of men marching in very tight ranks carrying spears–they needed to march, not just stroll at their own rates. A fifth century Greek painted vase depicts hoplites marching into battle stepping to the tune of an aulos (double flute), which must have been common. The aulos is also attested on warships, setting the beat for rowers. It is very likely that Greek soldiers sang, although the lack of professional standing armies before the fourth century b.c.e. makes it less probable that there was a distinct genre of “soldiers’ songs.”

Songs about war, most notably HomerHomerHomer’s eighth century epic the Iliad (Homer) Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1611), were, however, enshrined at the heart of Greek culture throughout the classical period and beyond. Schoolboys studied the Iliad as poetry, but most people would have experienced it chanted by wandering performers who accompanied themselves on the harp. Oddly, the first extensive song about war is also the first extant condemnation of warfare, as Homer explored the human cost and senseless waste of the Trojan War (c. 1200-1100 b.c.e.) Trojan War (c. 1200-1100 b.c.e. ).

Evidence becomes better in the Rome;war musicRoman period. It is known that Romans used large metal horns (tubae) and kettledrums to convey signals; the contemporary Celts also employed bronze horns. To judge from extant carvings, Roman soldiers at least sometimes also marched to the cadence of horns. Music was employed in the rituals of war, including as accompaniment for the dancing priests of the war god Mars. Rome’s chief novelty, though, was clearly attested in soldiers’ songs. Rome’s professional soldiers sang around the campfire, and traces of their songs have survived. Most notably, the Roman historian Suetonius quotes several songs that soldiers sang during triumphal marches as they processed through Rome. Particularly noteworthy is a ditty produced for Julius Caesar’s triumph that might be translated as “See the Bald Adulterer Come,” sung by the soldiers in mocking honor of their general.

Medieval World

The evidence for the intersection of music and warfare gradually improves during the course of the Middle Ages. The idea of armies marching in step was lost to Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but other forms of war music continued in the Germanic successor states. Especially noteworthy was a substantial body of German-language Epic poetryepic poetry, originally sung, most of which is now lost to us. The oldest literary work in German, the Lay of Hildebrand Lay of Hildebrand (c. 800c.e.), which has survived only as a fragment, tells of the beginning of a battle between the hero Hildebrand story Hildebrand and his son. Such a tradition is also preserved in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf Beowulf (first transcribed c. 1000), which dates to the same period. Although the hero Beowulf fought monsters, epics also told of battles against human enemies, such as the Battle of Maldon Battle of Maldon (c. tenth century), which commemorates an unsuccessful attempt to repel Viking invaders from England in 991. Far from celebrating war, the tales of Hildebrand, Beowulf, and Byrhtnoth (the English commander at Maldon) all end in tragedy. The songs tell of loyalty in battle but also of the failure of that loyalty and the death of heroes. Later epics, such as the Old French Song of Roland Chanson de Roland (c. 1100; The Song of Roland), were also performed, as can be seen from notations on the early manuscripts. The Song of Roland, commemorating (and magnifying) a defeat Charlemagne’s rear guard suffered in Spain, glorifies warfare rather more than the earlier Germanic epics, but the poem still ends in death and betrayal. Clearly the age of chivalry involved more than just a senseless glorification of war.

The European Middle Ages also shed more light on liturgical music before and after military endeavors. Most notable is the Te Deum Te Deum, a plainchant of thanksgiving to God. While war is not mentioned in the text (which begins: “We praise you, God, we acknowledge you to be the Lord”), it was the custom by the High Middle Ages to hold public religious ceremonies after great military victories, in which the Te Deum played a central part. We can also see warriors, most notably Crusaders after 1095, singing hymns while invoking God in processions; unfortunately, few of the lyrics and none of the music in this genre have survived.

A system of Music;notationmusic notation was created in the eleventh century, making it possible to imagine what Europe’s warlike songs sounded like, although at first few secular tunes were written down. Some of the earliest were propaganda pieces for the Crusades;musicCrusades. One of the most haunting was a famous song by the troubadour Marcabru (died 1150) that begins “Pax in nomine Domini” (peace in God’s name) and encourages crusading in Spain. The music, with a rising cadence as Marcabru describes how men can have their souls cleansed by fighting for Christ, conveys both excitement and longing.

The short medieval songs that have survived tend to be positive. A notable example is the Agincourt carolAgincourt carol, written shortly after England’s victory over France on October 25, 1415. It begins:

Our king went forth to Normandy With grace and might of chivalry There God for him wrought marvelously Wherefore England may call and cry Deo gratias [thanks be to God].

The Agincourt carol was widely popular in England and probably facilitated recruitment for King Henry V’s ongoing war in France. Not all songs about war and fighting men were positive, however. One of the most popular songs of the fifteenth century was the French "Homme armé, L’"[Homme arme]“L’Homme armé” (the armed man). Its text runs:

The man, the man, the armed man, The armed man The armed man should be feared, should be feared.

A facsimile of the Agincourt carol in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The composer indulged in considerable word painting, raising the pitch as he told of a proclamation that all should be armed and clothing the whole song in an awkward rhythm that hints at how unsettling the presence of soldiers could be.

The greatest innovation in war music of the medieval era, however, came from theOttoman Empire;war musicOttoman Turkish Empire, which by the thirteenth century had begun to employ military marching bands. The instruments chosen were loud and abrasive, audible over the noise of men and horses on the move. In its classic configuration, the Turkish band consisted mostly of percussion–bass drum, kettledrum, frame drum, cymbals, and bells–with only harsh trumpets to provide melodies. Such instruments could convey signals, but their most important task was to promote unit cohesion, notably among the elite janissary units, the sultan’s famous slave soldiers. Marching in time, at first to foster esprit de corps, became essential as the Turks introduced first the pike and then the musket into their infantry. These long and unwieldy weapons were effective only when the ranks were packed tightly together, so careful drill and coordination were essential to avoid chaos.

Modern World

Music for Marching musicdrill and marching reentered European armies in the seventeenth century, most closely identified with the military reforms of Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden (r. 1611-1632). His pike and musket drill gave birth to the Drummer boysdrummer boy, a figure familiar on western battlefields for centuries. The military marching band became increasingly complex and formal, until by the eighteenth century most army bands included woodwinds and brass instruments as well as percussion (the first Marquess Cornwallis’s band played “The World Turned Upside Down” when he surrendered to the American revolutionaries at Yorktown in 1781). Such bands provided both popular tunes (George A. Custer’s band is reported to have played the Irish drinking song “Garryowen” just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn) and specially composed works, such as “Preussens Gloria” (Prussia’s glory), which Johann Gottfried Piefke composed in 1871 for the victory parade at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

A new development was programmatic Concert musicconcert pieces intended to evoke the experiences of war. Renaissance and baroque composers created bold instrumental works with titles like “The Battle,” while classical composers (including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn) adopted Turkish marches and wrote masses in honor of military heroes (such as Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass).

The great flowering of concert war music came in the nineteenth century, though, with great works like Ludwig van Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (1813) and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (1880), which even incorporates cannon explosions and church bells. The tradition continued into the twentieth century, taking new life in the form of movie sound tracks, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the film Alexander Nevsky (1938), which celebrates Russia’s victory over the Teutonic Knights in the fifteenth century.

The Songs about wargreater availability of sources in the modern era also makes clear what the world’s soldiers and sailors were singing. The variety was enormous. Civilian popular songs were always present around the campfires; for example, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders particularly enjoyed “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” during the Spanish-American War (1898). Sometimes popular songs about war were adopted, as when American Revolutionary troops adopted “Yankee Doodle,” a ditty originally composed to mock the ragtag colonial levies in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Patriotic songs were always popular, such as “Heart of Oak,” a Royal Navy march written to commemorate Britain’s victories in 1759. The refrain begins: “Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,” and ends with a resounding “We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.” By the mid-nineteenth century, the first “official” song of a military branch had been created, the “Marine Corps Hymn,” in which the singers proclaim, “We will fight our country’s battles on the land and on the sea.” Such music was used for recruiting as well as among the troops.

Other songs, dear to both civilians and soldiers, continued to reflect on the high cost of war. Some of the most tuneful came from Ireland, whose sons died for centuries in Britain’s foreign wars. The early nineteenth century “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye,” tells of a young man marching proudly to war, only to return blind and crippled. Based on it, the U.S. Civil War’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (1863) interjected a somber commentary on the human cost of that war. The text is cheerful:

When Johnny comes marching home again,Hurrah, hurrah,We’ll give him a hearty welcome then,Hurrah, hurrah. . . .

The melody, however, tells a different tale, its minor key and dissonance proclaiming that Johnny never in fact came home, and the singers’ expectations were doomed to disappointment.

World War I (1914-1918) saw a great outpouring of troop music, both positive and negative, about warfare. Perhaps the catchiest of all the pro-war songs was the American George M. Cohan’s 1917 hit “Over There.” It proclaims to the world “The Yanks are coming” to join the war, concluding with the bold boast: “We’ll be over, we’re coming over/ And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there!” Such a song, penned by an American who had never seen a trench, was simply not enough for the soldiers living through the war, though. The troops wrote their own songs–bitter, often ribald, and harshly critical of their officers. An example is the British “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire,” which tells how sergeants and officers are safe (and often drunk), while the privates are “hanging on barbed wire.” It was so inflammatory that the British officers tried to suppress it.

Two novelties stand out in the music of World War II: the conscious manipulation of Popular musicPropaganda;musicPatriotic musicpatriotic ideology by governments and the widespread availability of Music;recordingsrecorded music. For the first time, troops did not have to make their own music–radios and phonographs provided it for them. The result was certainly a more polished product, like the close harmony of the Andrews Sisters in their 1941 hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” It could be argued, though, that the authentic voice of the troops was submerged in the process, as, for example, the Nazis blared the music of Beethoven and Richard Wagner from loudspeakers. Similarly, it must be asked how much composed and disseminated works of patriotism, such as the Russian “Svyaschennaya voyna” (sacred war), which proclaimed a longing to drive a bullet into the forehead of the rotten Fascist scum, really reflected the troops’ beliefs. Did all Japanese fighters agree with the theme of their music, that no sacrifice was too great for emperor and land, or did the music teach them to hold such beliefs?

In the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Antiwar musicFolk musicantiwar themes became dominant. Many were produced during the Vietnam War (like Bob Dylan’s 1963 classic “Blowin’ in the Wind”) and have remained popular ever since. The striking Israeli “Ratziti Sheteda” (1979; I wanted you to know), by Uzi Hitman, is also poignant in its longing for peace. Surely the world has rarely heard such a scathing indictment of war as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, composed in 1962 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, replacing the edifice destroyed by a German bomb.Music;and warfare[warfare]

Books and Articles
  • Andresen, Lee. Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War Superior, Wis.: Savage Press, 2003. Examines how the music of the Vietnam War era reflected the changing public attitudes toward the conflict during the 1960’s.
  • Arnold, Ben. Music and War: A Research and Information Guide. New York: Garland, 1993. Looks at the aims composers had in the creation of war-related music.
  • Bohlman, Philip V. The Music of European Nationalism. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Examines the dialectic between music and European nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Jones, John B. The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2006. One of many books on the music of American conflicts, this one examines how music communicated war aims during World War II.
  • Pieslak, Jonathan R. Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. This work looks at America’s most recent conflict, examining changing social attitudes over the course of the war.
  • Winstock, Lewis S. Songs and Music of the Redcoats: A History of the War Music of the British Army, 1642-1902. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1970. Using the rise of the British Empire as a case study, this study examines the role that such music played both in the military and in the national consciousness.

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