By Sergeant First Class Ben Hilgert, The United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus
This article previously appeared in Kentucky Opera’s Operabill for Glory Denied, 2019
Since before the Declaration of Independence, music has played a vital role in the American military. Whether mustering the troops for their various daily activities, signaling troop movements in the fog of battle, fostering support of the American public, or raising the morale of soldiers on the front lines, Soldier-musicians have served in various crucial capacities throughout our nation’s history.
The first recorded American military band was that of Colonel Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania militia, marching to the music of the fife and drum. These instruments, and later the military bugle, brought order and discipline to military formations while they marched in step, mustered militiamen from the countryside, or passed on orders during battle.
During the American Civil War, every company in the Union Army had musical support—totaling 28,428 enlisted musicians at the height of the war. There are frequent accounts of band music on the battlefield, including during the battle of Gettysburg. Bands continued to grow in size and number until the end of World War II. In 1941, the War Department established the Army School of Music, training bandsmen to fill nearly 500 bands in the Army as well as those in other services.
As the country has evolved and changed, so too has military music. Today, rock bands and pop musicians have joined the ranks, becoming a staple for entertaining service members and inspiring civilians.
Band members serve in various capacities outside of their musical duties, from assisting as field hospital staff in the nineteenth century to service in combat zones today. Army bandsmen maintain a critical role amongst the 150 jobs available in the US Army.
Currently, less than 1% of Americans serve in the US Armed Forces. In their roles as musical ambassadors, bands help to maintain a strong bond between the American public and those who serve on their behalf to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
As a member of The US Army Field Band, I have seen firsthand the impact of military music. Almost half of my more than twenty years as a performer have been as a soldier, and I can say without hesitation that I have never experienced the power of music to move people from all walks of life more fully than when a group of uniformed soldiers connects to the communities they serve.
As the universal language, there is no better way to unite the nation and tell America’s stories than with music. Military bands continue to utilize the power of music to bring dignity and authority to ceremonies, energize the morale of service members, and bring together and inspire American citizens across the globe.