Exploring Music's Complexities

Exploring the Role of Music During War

Use of music to convey patriotism and popular sentiments during times of war.


“More solid things do not shew the complexion of the Times so well,
as Ballads and Libels.” Belden.
New York: D. Appleton & Company, 346 & 348 Broadway London: 16 Little Britain MDCCCLVI (1)
ENTERED, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1855, by D. Appleton & Company, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York (1)

Much as been written describing the role music plays in the lives of both the soldier and those on the home front when the country is involved in a war. If one considers all the conflicts in which this country has been involved since becoming a nation, the quote above becomes quite meaningful (2-3). The melodies and the lyrics represented the tenor of the times.  Writers of songs during periods of conflict did not necessarily write for fame and recognition but rather, “from a great desire to state the truth, and their opinion of it, in a quiet way, just set their poetical lathes a-turning, and twisted out ballads and songs for the good of the common cause.” (1,4).

American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812

Music played an important role in 18th Century America. Printed music, the latest dances, military marches, fiddle tunes, and songs from the musical stage were all available (1).  Many of the earlier songs were lyrics or poems because they were fit into tunes most people already knew.  Heroes and successful encounters became familiar to residents when sung to a preexisting melody.  Some of these lyrics promoted patriotism, others dealt with issues such as taxation or described how land and sea battles unfolded.  The songs also served to develop a sense of national identity (5).

In an article written by William R. Trotter for Military History Magazine he states music in war has two functions.  First it serves as a means of communication and second, as a psychological weapon (6).  Historically music’s use as a psychological weapon dates back to the Old Testament description of the loud bellowing of ram’s horns to Machiavelli’s suggestion that commanding officers issue orders using a trumpet so as to be heard above that of the combat itself.  Over the years the instruments on which the music was played acquired a symbolic power.

As warfare became more stylized and formal the various means to communicate became more standardized.  In 1778 Maj. Gen. Wilhelm von Steubon gave orders to distribute to the troops, manuals containing a list of beats and signals and a listing of calls such as Marche, Alarm, Approache, Assaulte, Retreat and Skirmish.  These manuals subsequently became an important component in the soldier’s Basic Training.

Eventually nations adopted signature marches that subsequently evolved into their national anthems.  These formalities provided Commanders an opportunity to turn such conventions to their advantage (7).

Wartime Social History

Music also played an important role in the lives of families.  Composers seldom wrote for a specific instrument.  Rather they often used any instrument available including the harpsichord, the fiddle aka the violin, the hammered dulcimer, the drum and the recorder. (1).  Songs were written describing lost loved ones, broken hearts, and longing for peaceful times. Entertainment wise, potluck dinners followed by dancing at barn raisings were popular as was local theatre.  An interesting bit of trivia about this period is that Ben Franklin was inspired to invent the Armomica after listening to classical music on glasses filled with different amounts of water.  This totally impractical invention can be compared to a Xylophone (8).

The songs found on the website sited below are like those played during George Washington’s lifetime. They include songs heard at Mount Vernon, tunes to which Washington danced, music he enjoyed at the theater and in concert, and compositions in his honor. The music celebrates Washington’s inauguration, his resignation as Commander-In-Chief of the Army and his arrival at a theatre (1). To listen to samples of these songs visit http://www.earlyamerica.com/music/gw-life.htm.

As noted above, most of the music referenced was brought from England and Western Europe.  Composing mainly consisted of setting words to pre-existing melodies.  Public performances were played with imported music.  Conrad Bessel (1690-1768) and William Billings composed hymns and folk music. John Antes (American born: 1741-1811) composed three trios for two violins and cello – and was the earliest chamber music written by an American; John Frederick Peter (1746-1813) composed almost 100 works, mainly anthems; John Frederick Peter (1746-1813) composed almost 100 works, mainly anthems and arias that included six string quintets in early Classical style. Two others, James Lyon and Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) figured prominently in the sacred music of Philadelphia (10).

As the Nation grew after the War of 1812 so did the occurrences of conflicts involving Native Americans, pirates, Mexicans and others. The next post will address music of the next most significant war – the Civil War.


  1. Archiving Early America downloaded from http://www.earlyamerica.com/music/gw-life.htm on March 1, 2013.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States
  3. http://www.earlyamerica.com/music/war-1812.htm
  4. http://www.americanrevolution.org/warsongs.html
  5. http://www.1812music.org/Essay-MusicasHistory.htm
  6. http://www.minneapolisted.org/publications_papers/pub_display
  7. http://www.historynet.com/the-music-of-war.htm This article was written by William R. Trotter and originally published by  Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006. 
  8. http://www.ehow.com/about_4566541_entertainment-s.html#ixzz2MDgmfZUL
  9. http://www.contemplator.com/america/wtree.html
  10. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?

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