The Evolution of the Concert Band

Updated on May 16, 2018
Reginald Thomas profile image

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

The Evolution of the Concert Band

Bands in America have a great history that's full of artistic and cultural growth.Through the efforts of the early pioneers of instrumental music, the "band" has taken on different changes throughout the years.

Wind instruments can be traced back as far back as the first flute, which was carved from the thighbone of a bear. It took years to develop wind and percussion instruments that had the correct properties for musical performance and then organize them into groups for the purpose of performance. For this article, we will start around the 1700s and explore the evolution of the concert band.


Starting in the mid-1700s a form of instrumental music or “medium for performance“ was developed in Europe. This was a small ensemble and lead to the beginning of the band movement as we know it today. This was called “Harmoniemusik”. For all practical purposes it was an octet or double quartet with the most common instrumentation being:

  • 2 oboes
  • 2 clarinets
  • 2 horns
  • 2 bassoons

This medium for performance was very popular in Europe. Especially with composers such as: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.They wrote many compositions for this type group taking a break from their normal writings for strings and for the keyboard. This classical period music was challenging and quite good.

Harmoniemusik would continue into the 19th century soon to die off and be replaced with larger instrumentation that would become what we know as the modern day concert band. Below is an example of one such piece composed by Mozart during the classical period, Serenade No. 11 in E-flat.

Harmoniemusik: Mozart Serenade No. 11 in E-flat, K.375

Civil War Bands

During the days of the Civil War in this country, small instrumental groups were formed to entertainment the troops for morale purposes. These bands, less than 30 members in size were primarily composed of brass instruments. A full complement and balanced instrumentation would constitute a complete brass band and many regiments would have a band assigned to their outfit.

Some of these Civil War bands were already formed as private units and allowed to enlist and be assigned to a regiment or division which later became a problem. Bands of this nature were restricted and later not allowed to enlist as a unit.

The music literature performed was centered around the song that represented either the north or south, along with many of the grand popular songs of the day.

What is the difference between a band and an orchestra?

Many people get this mixed up and just call both of them an “orchestra”. But the real difference is that an orchestra has a string section and a band does not!

The Presidents Own Marine Band

The Presidents Own Marine Band is one of the elite musical organizations out of Washington D.C.
The Presidents Own Marine Band is one of the elite musical organizations out of Washington D.C. | Source

Military Bands

Most every country around the world has a military band. Here in the United States, we host five service bands:

  • Marine Corps
  • Navy
  • Army
  • Air Force
  • Coast Guard

All five of these bands serve as great ambassadors of music and goodwill as they perform at various ceremonial functions around the world as we’ll as the White House. Within these ensembles are the best musicians in our country. Annually, each band conducts a concert tour in one of four regional parts of the country. Thsee concert tours are set on a rotating schedule each year so that no two bands are performing in one region at the same time.

The concerts are free to the public and scheduled well in advance. I have been to several of these military band concerts and I must say I am amazed every time I attend. The programs selected are top notch. The soloists for the concerts are superb and the performance of the band is amazing.

Along with these five bands that are primarily stationed in Washington D.C. there are additional regional “field” bands throughout the country. They perform more regional performances around the Fourth of July or other patriotic holidays but are not the same quality as the top five bands from Washington D.C.

Below are two videos of the Marine Band in concert. If you listen to any of these videos, please make sure you listen to "Jubilee Overture" by Philip Sparke. A superb composition that is a great piece to show off the fantastic sound of the Wind Ensemble and the extremely great playing by these musicians. Don't forget the other videos, but definitely watch this one.

Jubilee Overture, Philip Sparke, United States Marine Band

The Presidents Own Marine Band - "Oodles of Noodles", Dorsey

Public School Bands

In the late1800s, Lowell Mason was given credit for establishing music programs in the public schools across America.The early music programs emphasized singing as well as the teaching of basic fundamentals in music.

Instrumental music or the inclusion of the “band“ in the public schools curriculum would have to wait for some years, but in spite of this, there were some educators that believed that instrumental music should be in the public schools and formed instrumental music classes and eventually bands after school hours. These early pioneers did this on their own time without being paid. This was possible because of the interest by the students and these teachers were great sales people as they got many students involved. These teachers had great passion for their jobs.

Near the end of World War I there were veterans trained in the service bands and started excepting music teaching positions throughout the country. Slowly, the instrumental music programs in high schools and colleges were started and absolutely great bands were being developed and noticed achieving greater support for music education across the country.

Because of the efforts and the persistence of these early educators we have in this country today some of the finest Concert Bands, Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles anywhere in the world. Most high school bands today are recognized by how well their marching band performs. And if your community has an outstanding marching band then you can bet they have an excellent indoor concert or symphonic band.

Today, in this country as well as other countries around the world, instrumental music is part of the regular curriculum in the public school system. I recently viewed a video of an unbelievable elementary brass band from Japan. These students are in a concert performing a very difficult piece of music. They are playing it flawlessly and memorized. I included a video of that performance with this article so, please take a look and you will be amazed. It is obvious without too much discussion that without the solid foundations set for the elementary and middle school band programs we would not have the great high school bands, orchestras and jazz ensembles throughout the country.

Japanese Elementary Brass Band - A London Overture by Philip Sparke

Texas A&M Wind Symphony

The Texas A&M Wind Symphony is one of two or three bands at this prestigious university.
The Texas A&M Wind Symphony is one of two or three bands at this prestigious university. | Source

Concert Band, Symphonic Band, Wind Ensemble: What’s the Difference?

During the Baroque Period (1600-1750) the orchestra had a limited number of musicians. This was due to music being written for the orchestra at that time with composers such as: Handel, Bach and Beethoven

The Classical Period (1750 -1825) composers like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven wrote music that demanded a larger orchestra. So, the classical orchestra grew in size which meant more strings, a bigger woodwind section, a larger brass section and a bit more percussion. We did this again and again until we arrived at a symphony orchestra of today that calls for 110 musicians for many of the modern pieces.

This is exactly what happened with the band. A concert band can number between 40 and 60 and comfortably perform many of the compositions written for the band medium. There are compositions that are written for a symphonic band requiring a much bigger sound with extended instrumentation. The symphonic band numbers between 60 to 120 musicians. These require a large clarinet section, 12 to15 trumpets, a big low brass section and large amount of percussion. Yes, there are other instruments in there but you get the idea. These large symphonic bands produce a remarkable sound and quite different from that of an orchestra of the same size.

In the 1960s a new style of band was formed by Frederick Fennell, conductor and director of bands at the Eastman School of Music. This new type of band featured the best musicians at this prestigious school for the purpose of studying and performing the finest and most difficult music for bands and was called the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

The concept that Mr. Fennell was developing centered around the main instrumentation of the band but instead of having multiple musicians playing on one part, he assigned one musician per part. For example, the trumpet and trombone sections usually would require 1st, 2nd and 3rd parts for harmonic purposes. With a large symphonic band we could see up to 10 trumpets and 10 trombones. With this new wind ensemble instrumentation there would be just three trumpets and three trombones. One on each part.

Today, most universities/colleges and many high schools will have a wind ensemble featuring the best musicians in this smaller instrumentation.


A Concert Band numbering 60 members in size might have a balanced instrumentation of the following:

  • 6 flutes and piccolos
  • 2 oboes
  • 2 bassoons
  • 12 B-flat clarinets
  • 1 alto clarinet
  • 2 bass clarinets
  • 4 alto saxophones
  • 2 tenor saxophones
  • 1 baritone saxophone
  • 8 trumpets
  • 6 horns
  • 5 trombones
  • 2 euphoniums
  • 3 B-flat tuba
  • 1 string bass
  • 3 percussion

A Wind Ensemble usually will have between 40 and 45 musicians and the balanced instrumentation would look like the following:

  • 3 flutes and piccolos
  • 2 oboes
  • 2 bassoons
  • 6 B-flat clarinets
  • 2 bass clarinets
  • 1 contrabass clarinet
  • 2 alto saxophones
  • 1 tenor saxophones
  • 1 baritone saxophone
  • 3 trumpets
  • 4 horns
  • 3 trombones
  • 2 euphoniums
  • 2 B-flat tubas
  • 1 string basses
  • 1 harp
  • 1 marimbas
  • 3 percussion

A Symphonic Band of between 100 and 120 musicians, might have the following instrumentation:

  • 10 flutes and piccolos
  • 4 oboes
  • 2 English Horns
  • 4 bassoons 1 contra-bassoon
  • 24 B-flat clarinets
  • 3 alto clarinets
  • 5 bass clarinets
  • 1 contrabass clarinet
  • 4 alto saxophones
  • 3 tenor saxophones
  • 2 baritone saxophone
  • 2 fluegelhorns
  • 12 trumpets
  • 10 horns
  • 8 trombones
  • 4 euphoniums
  • 2 baritones
  • 5 B-flat tuba
  • 2 string basses
  • 1 harp
  • 2 marimbas
  • 5 percussion

Composers who influenced the band movement

Below is a list of but a very few of the most popular composers and arrangers that had great influence in the band movement over the years.

  • Robert Russell Bennett
  • Gustav Holst
  • Percy Grainger
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • John Philip Sousa
  • Henry Fillmore

John Philip Sousa

John Philip Sousa - Known throughout the world as the March King. Composed "The Stars and Stripes Forever", the national march of the United States.
John Philip Sousa - Known throughout the world as the March King. Composed "The Stars and Stripes Forever", the national march of the United States. | Source

Famous Wind Band Conductors

Just a few of the great conductors of the band movement in the United States. These conductors paved the way and were the teachers of yesterday.

John Philip Sousa

Fredrick Fennell

Edwin Franco Goldman

Donald Hunsberger

William Revelli

George S. Howard

Mark Lindsey

H. Robert Reynolds

Professional Bands

During the late 1800s and early 1900s the band movement in the country was very popular. This popularity was in part because of two conductors or as they were called back then Band Masters. John Philip Sousa and Patrick Gilmore had incredibly talented bands. These were professional bands that would tour the United States giving up to two concerts a day in major cities. They would also travel to various countries and perform outstanding concerts that would draw hundreds and hundreds of people to see them perform.

In the 1940s and 50s there were other professional bands that gained great popularity. Popularity was earned through a very simple formula and these bands learned it from their predecessors. Entertain the audience! One band that stood out from the rest was the Goldman Band. A complete concert band of between 50 and 60 members strong. This ensemble was conducted by Edwin Franco Goldman. A great organizer, composer and conductor. Mr. Goldman, like Sousa and Gilmore before him had great musicians in his group. He also featured some of his key players as soloists. This was always a big draw when scheduling the performances.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Reginald Thomas

    Please let me know if you have any questions and I would encourage you to watch the videos. They are very good.

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      • profile image

        Kate Page 

        23 months ago

        I love bands, their music is amazing

      • profile image

        Reginald Thomas 

        23 months ago

        Thank you for reading.

      • profile image

        Reginald Thomas 

        23 months ago

        Thank you for your additions. Having spent most of my life performing in some type of instrumental music I wanted to write something about the band. So, starting in the 1700s seemed like a good place.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        23 months ago from Norfolk, England

        Oh I love listening to bands. Christmas is the best time for me when the Salvation Army have a band playing Christmas carols. It's lovely.

      • profile image

        S Maree 

        23 months ago

        Before written language we have evidence people enjoyed the music of bone flutes , drums, and clacking shells.

        Pharaohs made certain to have instruments buried with them for eternal entertainment. So did other ancients, by proofs in their burial goods.

        Gleemen accompanied great Medieval nobles as they traveled among their estates. Minstrels formed into traveling bands, for weddings, festivals, or what have you. Doubtless, they decided it did not do to be heavy on the tambours & sparse on the giterns.

        Hence, the nucleus of the band! They chose to have a selection of instruments to brighten their music, and give it characterization. They learned that flutes flew and rebecs, given the sizes, could suggest "bass" fears or "treble" thrills!

        And we've reaped the bounty of their efforts! Today, bands thrill us as never before, drawing from old music and new technology! The future looks bright and will sound even better. A toast to music!


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