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Communicating by Fifes and Drums


Do you and your students know the role musicians played in the American Revolution? Why were the fife and drum the main instruments? Who were these musicians? This lesson will answer these questions for students and allow them to explore battlefield communication via fifes and drums.

Males, usually young adults, would relay their commanders' battle orders, communicate daily routines, and provide a discipline system for the troops in the Continental Army as well as militias. They were the battlefield timekeepers and communicators. Musical accompaniment, which was used for thousands of years around the world, was found to be extremely effective because it regimented military life. The fife, a woodwind instrument with six finger holes, could be heard above the din of firing weapons and the drum below the roar of cannons. Each company of about 70 soldiers was assigned one fifer and one drummer.

This lesson could be used while studying the American Revolution or musical history. However, it also can be a stand-alone lesson. It works well with students third through fifth grades. Students learn the importance of fife and drum players during colonial history, as well as some terms associated with battle orders and daily routines.

The group music-making activity is best done outside or in a large-room setting, such as a cafeteria or gym.


In this lesson, students:

  • Define battle orders and daily-life routines.
  • Evaluate the importance of fifes and drums.
  • Describe the responsibilities of fifers and drummers.



  1. Play the audio recording/podcast of fife and drum corps. Have students answer 3 questions on top of the Fife and Drum Warm-up/Reflection worksheet.
  2. Explain to students that fifers and drummers marched into battle with soldiers. Show the slideshow, and tell students that fifers and drummers played specific music based on a general's commands as troops marched into battle. Also, share that they played different musical arrangements to help soldiers wake up, know that it was mealtime, etc. Model how to drum "caution" (a short roll, or rapid beat on a desk or hard surface) and "halt" (flam, or two beats together with alternating hands—the first is quieter than the second).
  3. Pass out the "Like Every Other Soldier" reading and discuss/analyze it as a class.
  4. Pass out the Fife and Drum Vocabulary Organizer, and help students define the terms.
  5. Put students into five groups, with fifers and drummers in each. The fifers will blow on a bottle to produce the fife sound (or play kazoos), and the drummers will use their desks or the coffee cans or tubs. Assign each group a routine or battle term, and have them design their own short musical piece to represent that battle instruction.
  6. Call out the terms one by one. Each group should present their piece to the class as they hear their term. (Optional: The rest of the class can do as ordered, or repeat the piece back to the group.) Then, the teacher chooses a group at random to play its music again and see if the rest of the class can remember the command or routine. Repeat as many times as desired.
  7. Follow the activity with a class discussion.
  8. As an evaluation, have students answer the two questions on bottom of the Fife and Drum Warm-up/Reflection worksheet.

Lesson Extensions

  • Use Audacity or another program to record the music students create.
  • Teach the music to another class. Have students repeat the musical notes in the songs they hear.

This lesson was written by Lynne Zalesak, Houston, TX, and Kelly Pearce, Albuquerque, NM.