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Ancient rituals


Early trumpets bear little resemblance to trumpets and bugles used today. They were straight instruments with no mouthpiece and no flaring bell. Used as megaphones instead of a true “lip reed” instrument that was blown, these instruments were used to distort the human voice enough to “dispel evil spirits.” Trumpets were often representative of male virility and were played only by males. Percussion instruments, representative of the womb, were often performed exclusively by females with their bare hands.(1)


Ancient trumpets were used at religious ceremonies, magical rites, circumcisions, burials and sunset ceremonies – to ensure that the disappearing sun would return. Women were sometimes excluded from any contact with the instrument, in some Amazon tribes, any woman who even glanced at a trumpet was killed.(2) Trumpets such as these can still be found in the primitive cultures of New Guinea and northwest Brazil, as well as in the form of the Australian didjeridu.(3)


A didjeridu is typically constructed of bamboo or hollowed out wood and can range in length from 1 meter to 2.5 meters.



Throughout ancient civilization, the color red was associated with early trumpets. This could probably be explained by the presence of blood at the various “rites of passage” at which these instruments were often used. The color red remained closely associated with music through the centuries, even being retained in many of the uniforms of present day military musicians.


Other aspects of military field music could have also evolved from ancient rituals. Specifically, the use of trumpets during military burials and at sunset is a concept still utilized by American and European militaries.



Early applications of the trumpet


The military culture of early civilization utilized instruments for the purpose of conducting war. Specimens of ancient trumpet-type devices are documented in nearly every culture including those of the Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Israelites, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Teutonic Tribes, Celts, as well as Asian cultures. These instruments were used for religious ceremonial functions as military signaling devices.(4)


Bronze Age Lurs of Brudevaelte, Denmark

The Bronze Age of the Teutonic tribes yielded the mysterious lur. Little is known of the purpose of this instrument excavated in pairs from the moors of Sweden, Denmark, North Germany, and Ireland. They were cast in brass and demonstrate remarkable craftsmanship. Theses instruments utilize a conical bore similar to an animal horn, but feature an ornamented flat disk instead of a bell flare.(5)


Military music produced by other early trumpets were often little more than one or two crude pitches that were produced by the vibration of the player’s lips. These instruments were used to maneuver soldiers into battle and announce victory or retreat.


Greeks included trumpet playing in their early Olympic games. Instead of musicality, these signalers played a salpinx and were more likely adjudicated on the greatness of their volume and endurance. A trumpeter named Achias won Olympic honors three times and had a column of honor erected in his name to celebrate his excellence.(6)


Drawing of a Greek musician playing a Salpinx (from tapsbugler.com)  

Signal musicians used as an integral part of a military organization appear first in the Roman Legion. These musicians, called aenatores, utilized a wide variety of instruments derived from the Etruscans, each with a specific function. A collection of 43 signals for these instruments are evident by AD 200 in the Roman Army. Standardized signals fell out of favor after the demise of the Roman Empire, not to appear again until the late eighteenth century.(7)




The trumpets use in the Bible


The trumpet served an important function throughout the Bible as an instrument of communication and great fanfare.


The word trumpet can be found in over sixty locations in the King James Version of the Bible. The vast majority of these references were somewhat erroneously translated from the Hebrew word shofar (ram’s horn). However, at least one specific reference is made to a metal “trumpet” in the tenth chapter of the Numbers. In Number 10.2, God commanded Moses to make two trumpets of sliver for use by Aaron and his descendents to provide signals and directions for his journeying camps. The method of construction mentioned in the Bible for the instruments paralleled closely the construction methods of Egyptian trumpets created centuries earlier.


The shofar or "rams horn."


In the fifth chapter of Joshua, God instructs Joshua to attack the city of Jericho with seven priests each bearing a shofar. The use of these instruments with the accompaniment of shouting soldiers caused Jericho’s protective walls to crumble.


Gideon utilized trumpets in a similar manner, but on a much larger scale. Supplying each of his men with a shofar, three companies of one hundred men chanted and blew their trumpets as they circled the Midianites' camp. As described in Judges 7.16, the commotion was sufficient to chase away the Midianites.


The trumpet was also used as a means of fanfare in the Bible. Mentioned in II Chronicles 5.13, the dedication of Solomon's temple was celebrated with 120 priests playing trumpets, "It came to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising the Lord..."



The trumpet also plays a crucial role in the book of Revelation. In chapter 8, the end of the world is sequentially signaled by seven angels each bearing a trumpet. As the seventh angel sound the trumpet, the world ends, becoming one of the kingdoms of the Lord.



Military Music from the Middle Ages through the Eighteenth Century


Medieval musicians did not leave an overwhelming amount of evidence regarding their musical instruments, but constant contact with the Oriental and Roman cultures likely impacted the type of instruments they used. Animal horns, including large steer horns were also known to be in common usage. As Germanic tribes began to develop skilled metal workers, man-made trumpets and horns featuring the distinctive conical bore associated with animal horns were being fabricated and used.


Military calls had disappeared along with the Roman Empire. It is believed that the reintroduction of military music occurred during the Crusades (11th, 12th and 13th Century) as Europeans were exposed to the Saracens. As the third Crusade progressed, the Europeans venturing toward the Holy Land had already adopted the instruments and musical customs of their enemy. It was during this time that straight trumpets, field drums and kettledrums were first incorporated into European military tactics.(8)


Saracen military bands were used to initiate "psychological warfare" by being noisy and sounding fierce. It was intended for theses loud and crass ensembles to implant some degree of terror in the hearts and minds of the enemy prior to battle.(9) Enemies often associated the intensity of the Saracen bands with the level of resolve of the troops they represented. In addition to invoking terror, these ensembles also provided important military signals to their troops.


By the fifteenth century, the fife and drum had become the mainstay of the foot soldier. As signalers the musicians were elevated above common soldiers and often served as commander's aides, emissaries, and sometimes even battlefield diplomats and negotiators.(10)


A woodcut by Jost Amman from the mid-16th century shows German mercenaries with flute and drum.


During this time European armies were raised and disbanded as needed. As a result, there could be an immediate overabundance or shortage of musicians at any given time. This caused understandable friction among town musicians who resented the discharged military interlopers seeking musical employment. As a result, music "guilds" or unions emerged for the purpose of keeping out itinerant musicians.(11)


The philosopher Machiavelli wrote of the Italian military's use of the trumpet, drum, and flute in 1521. In his /Libro della arte della

  Niccolò Machiavelli  (1469-1527) may have had an influence on American drum and bugle corps.

 guerra he suggested that the trumpets used to signal the cavalry be of a lesser sound than those used by the infantry.(12) It's unclear if this suggestion led to the pitch variety of military bugles of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. However, as the infantry began to utilize trumpets, many military cultures chose to utilize different pitched instruments for infantry and cavalry (typically separated by the interval of fourth)--a critical trait that would have a significant impact on American drum and bugle corps.


The earliest known military signals captured in musical notation are believed to be part of Jannequin's composition depicting the French's military victory at Marignana in 1515. This piece, La bataille, offers trumpet calls and percussive effects.(13)


By 1544, descriptions of the specific trumpet signals used to issue commands were prepared for the British Army as it waged its French campaign. Trumpets appear to have been exclusively used by the British cavalry, while drums were still used to signal the foot soldiers.(14)


There's evidence of German cavalry using trumpets and kettledrums in illustrations prepared in 1566. The Germans are thought to be the first to provide instruction books on trumpet calls around 1600. These texts included music notation and were prepared by Danish court trumpeters Hendrich Lübeckh and Magnus Thomsen.(15)


In 1623, Court trumpeters were enfranchised as "Imperial Guild of Court Trumpeters and Kettledrummers" in Germany. (16) The guild resulted in all-brass cavalry bands that were eventually exported to all other European military.(17)



The trumpet and the buglehorn



Trumpet by Anton Schnitze, Nuremberg, 1581 (from collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

The trumpets used by the military during the mid to late eighteenth

 century were comprised of a tube

 of brass that was cylindrical for at least two-thirds of its length. A flaring occurred during the last third of the length of tube. This tube was coiled once and played by a cup-shaped removable mouthpiece. These trumpets were available

 in several keys, most often made between the keys of "F" through "B-flat."(18) These instruments were twice the length of the modern trumpet.



The extension of the playable range of the trumpet evolved slowly. Initially, European trumpeters of the fourteenth century would have reached, but likely not have surpassed the fourth partial. During the next two hundred years, players extended their range to the thirteenth partial. Trumpeters began to specialize as upper or lower register players, responding to the requirements of the composers at the time.


Natural trumpet overtone series through the first sixteen partials.



Trumpet in F by A. G. Guichard, Paris, ca. 1840 featuring Stölzel piston valves. From the National Music Museum.


The most radical change to the trumpet occurred when systems of valves were created in the early nineteenth century that, in effect, allowed the instrument's length to be instantly changed by the player. This concept permitted future trumpets to be shortened by half the length of "natural" instruments since valves artificially enabled the instruments to access pitches that were otherwise available from the upper partials of the longer instruments. Other than the different valve systems and their effect on the length of the instrument, the trumpet remains virtually unchanged in its basic definition to this day.(19)


Hunting horn by Crétien, Vernon, Normandy, ca. 1650 (from the national music museum)  

Evolving from German hunting horns, buglehorns were initially known as "flügelhorns" ("winged horns") because they were played on horse back during the hunt by the "Flügelmeister," an official who directed the wings of the ducal hunt.(20) These instruments were adopted by the military during the Seven Years War (1756-63).


The moniker "buglehorn" originated from an old French word "bugle" that was derived from the Latin word "buculus" which denotes a young bull. Since early signalhorns were made of animal horns, including steer horns, the name "bugle" is intended to represent both the appearance and origin of the instrument.(21)


The buglehorn was fundamentally different from a trumpet and was manufactured in several shapes. The bore of a buglehorn was conical (cone-shaped) instead of cylindrical as with the trumpet. The mouthpiece was funnel-shaped, instead of being cup-shaped as with the trumpet. The sound of the buglehorn would be considered "darker" or more mellow than the trumpet, although a buglehorn could be made to "bray" as brightly as a trumpet.


Buglehorns were available most often in the keys of "d" or "C," but the key of "C" seems to be rather prominent. The notes available to the buglehorn were fewer than those available to the trumpet because the buglehorn was half the length of a natural trumpet in the same key.


Harmonic overtone series for common bugle. From tapsbugler.com


The trumpet and the buglehorn appear to be two distinctly different instruments, but were both played essentially the same and both could be mastered by one performer utilizing very similar performance techniques.(22)


Click here for part 2






(1) Curt Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.) 47-51.


(2) Sachs 48.


(3) Edward Tarr, The Trumpet (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1988) 19.


(4) Tarr 20.


(5) Tarr 20.


(6) Tarr 27, 28


(7) Richard Riehn, "Strike up the Band," Campaigns 49: 13.


(8) Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (London: Macmillan Publishers, Limited, 1980) 316.


(9) Sadie 316.


(10) Riehn 15.


(11) Riehn 58.


(12) Saide 316.


(13) Saide 318.


(14) Sadie 316.


(15) Sadie 318.


(16) Sadie 316.


(17) Riehn 15.


(18) Sadie 213.


(19) Allan J. Ferguson, "Trumpet, Bugles and Horns in North America: 1750-1815," Military Historian and Collector (Vol. XXXVI, Spring 1984) 2.


(20) Sadie 663.


(21) Philip W. Goetz, The New Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1990) 611.


(22) Ferguson 2.




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