In the 18th century, fifes and drums served as signal instruments for the infantry, relaying the commander's orders to soldiers in camp and on the field of battle. The steady rhythm and spirited tunes of the fifers and drummers kept the soldier's mind off the tedious march.
The fife first appeared in the 14th century. Swiss mercenaries popularized the instrument, and for many years the fife served as the European military accompaniment for the drum. The instrument fell out of favor during the 17th century and nearly disappeared, replaced by the hautboy (an ancestor of the oboe). In the 1750s, the fife regained its popularity. By the time of the American Revolution, both British and Americans adopted it to accompany the field snare drum. The fife is a cylindrical, side-blown instrument with six finger holes and no keys. The best woods for the instrument were hardwoods like rosewood, boxwood and cocabola. It is, though, a limited instrument. Most music for the fife is limited to the keys of D, G, and A, but the high shrill sound of the instrument carries well on the field of battle, creating a spirited and inspirational sound.
The Snare Drum belongs to the oldest instrumental family in existence. The snare and bass drums are replicas of 18th-century field drums used by both American and European forces. As was the custom, they are made of ash shells and hoops with calfskin heads and gut snares and are beaten by wooden mallets or sticks in a rudimentary style. Snare drums are of indefinite pitch.
The European military began using bass drums in the third quarter of the 18th century. These large barrel drums had been popular with Turkish armies for many years, and British, German and French soldiers who fought in the American Revolution were familiar with their sound. The musical taste of both enemies and allies influenced American musicians. As the war continued, Americans began adopting the use of these bass drums. By the early 19th-century, the bass drum was a standard part of America's military music.
Colonial Williamsburg's fifes and drums are made by the Cooperman Fife and Drum Company.