The Sound of Battle: CW’s Fifes and Drums

The piercing fife, the thundering drum: both can be heard over the din of battle, making them a crucial means of communication for commands like parley, cease fire, and retreat. How does this combination work?

Learn more:


Emma Sloan:

The firing of three cannon so loud and so quick in succession caused a dreadful commotion in the whole line of extended camps. The musicians belonging to the whole army (myself included among the number) at the instant the third gun was fired, played and beat up the tune To Arms, To Arms. In less than five minutes, the whole of the two or three brigades were in line and under arms, the field officers all mounted on horseback and at their posts awaiting the orders of the Commanding General, as also a knowledge of what had given rise to so hasty an alarm. We were not long, however, under arms before the much desired knowledge was bestowed in being officially announced unto us—that of the traitorism of General Benedict Arnold and the capture of Major John Andre, his spy. At this intelligence, the whole army was (as it were) convulsed. We stood almost day and night upon our arms, for I suppose three days and three nights at least.


Harmony Hunter: Hey! Welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. That was our own Emma Sloan, a drummer in today's Fife and Drum Corps. What you heard were the recollections of Captain Samuel Dewees, an American fifer in the Revolutionary War.

Dewees remembers doing his part as a musician to assemble American troops at West Point with the duty tune, 'To Arms.' Accounts like those of Dewees underscore the importance of the fife and drum in the American Revolution, and today in the studio we have Professor Keith Griffeon to help explain why.

Today our guest is Professor Keith Griffioen, who is from the Physics Deptartment at The College of William & Mary. He has joined us today to talk with us about The fifes and drums. I'm so excited about this topic today, because for years we have gone with this prevailing wisdom that the fifes and drums can be heard over long distances, and that's what made them particularly suited for battlefield and camp conditions: because they could be heard for miles over the sounds of battle of the sounds of camp life.

So we've started wondering about why it carried. How they carry, how that sound really works and whether we can see scientifically with our physics professor guest here today, whether we can determine scientifically how that works, if that's true, what's really at work when we're hearing the fifes and drums. Dr. Griffioen, thanks so much for being here today. Maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about how sound works.

Keith: Sound is a wave. The best way for us to visualize a wave is with water waves. Take a pebble and throw it into a pond, and what happens? You see a disturbance in the surface of the water, that rings come outward from the point where the stone was thrown in. If you look at that carefully, you see that each ring is water that has piled up a little bit followed by water that has been taken away in the process. And this ring propagates outward with a speed. That's the speed of the wave.

If I were to measure the difference between one crest of the wave and the next crest, that's what we call the wavelength. If I were to sit at one position and watch the water rise and fall, rise and fall, the measurement of how many times the wave rises and falls per second is what we call the frequency. The universal principal of waves is that the wave length multiplied by the frequency gives the speed of the wave.

So what's actually happening in sound, the medium is not water as in a water wave, or electricity and magnetism as in a light wave, but it is the molecules in the air themselves.

Harmony: So we have this image we can keep in our minds of the ripples on the water and you've told us the fundamentals of how sound moves through air, through that fluid medium in the same way. When it really gets interesting is when it reaches our ears and how our ears perceive and detect these waves. What do we know about sounds and the ear?

Keith: So what happens is that the sound comes in, you've got this little ear lobe on the outside here, which is there to catch sound, in fact if you put your hands cupped behind your ears, you can get more sound coming into your ears that way. Then there is the ear canal which is a little flute itself. It resonates at frequencies around 3000 vibrations per second, so those sounds we can hear much better. And then the sound comes down the ear canal, and it hits the ear drum. Well the ear drum is just like the little head of a drum, so the sound waves coming in, high pressure pushes on the wave, pushes on the ear drum, and this starts oscillating back and forth.

And your brain interprets it. So this is the process of hearing sound, but the amazing thing about the ear, is that it is such a sensitive detector, that it can measure sound energy over 10 to 12 powers of 10 in energy, which is quite amazing. So if you think about this, 10 or 12 powers of 10 is really a factor of a trillion. So you can hear something very, very, very quiet and something very, very loud with the same mechanism.

Harmony: So these are the theoretical basics of sound and how sound works. What happens when we apply this to the physical, when we get to the question that has brought us here today, about the fifes and drums. The big question for me going into this interview was "Are fifes and drums more perceivable over distance than say a tuba and a piano?" And I think that the answer maybe is no. What do we know about... So there's more to the story than just volume, than just the way that we say sound carries. There's so much more to this story of why, in an evolutionary way, battlefields settled on the fifes and drums as their most effective tools of communication. What are we hearing when we hear the fifes and drums, and why does it seem like they're louder, or maybe easier to pick out from a din?

Keith: So as we mention the sounds that we perceive, whether it's a voice or a musical instrument, it's not a single frequency of sound, but multiple frequencies. So the tone color, the nature of the particular sound beyond the pitch that we hear, is because of this combination of overtones or harmonics. In a particular note, you find a fundamental frequency, then you find twice that frequency, 3 times, 4 times, 5 times, and so forth.

I can demonstrate that here on this keyboard. If this is the pitch that you hear (playing a single note on a keyboard), what's built into that note, its harmonic recipe, contains this pitch (playing higher notes on the keyboard) this, this, this,... And many, many more at higher and higher frequencies. Now imagine playing all of these together. Your ear interprets that not as 10 or 100 different frequencies, but as a single frequency. This (playing original note on keyboard again), with a tone color.

In this case, it's the tone color of the piano. But what makes this sound like a piano compared to another instrument, playing that same pitch, is that harmonic recipe. How much and what intensity all of these overtones, all of these harmonics have.

So when people speak this happens, when people play musical instruments this happens. Now the very interesting thing about sound and the fortunate thing about sound is that all frequencies of sound travel at the same speed.

Harmony: So to let this idea sink for a second, the metaphor, or the example of the tuba and the piano, both of those sounds are traveling at the same speed.

Keith: Right, so it doesn't matter if it's high sounds or low sounds or in between sounds, they all travel at the same speed. If they didn't, then my voice when you were listening to me across a football field would be completely garbled.

Harmony: So they travel at the same speed. Do they... Another concept I've learned about in researching this discussion today is the concept of sound decay. If they travel at the same speed, do they break down at the same rate as well?

Keith: They do not. In most cases, the way that musical instruments work and the way sound propagates in air, you find that the higher frequency sounds die out quicker than the lower frequency sounds.

Harmony: So for us here today, this means that the fife is actually a more fragile sound then a lower frequency sound like the drum.

Keith: I wouldn't say necessarily fragile. And because your ear has such a sensitivity, you can still hear it. But it's intensity falls off faster than the lower sounds. That's pretty typical.

Harmony: This is fascinating to me, because I think when I think about the fifes and drums, the fife is the sound that I feel like I pick up. That is the sound that's more potent. So to understand that scientifically it's actually decaying more quickly than the drum sound really kind of turns this whole understanding I had on its head because, why is it that the fife seems like so much louder or so much more perceptible.

Keith: One of the reasons for this is because your ear does not hear all frequencies with the same sound intensity level at the same volume. So your ear is more sensitive in this range around 3000 vibrations per second, 3000-3500 vibrations per second. And that's because your little ear canal here is acting like a resonator, it amplifies those frequencies. When you look at the sound that the fife makes, it has a harmonic recipe, but the harmonic recipe is fairly basic.

You have what we hear as the pitch, and then you have a frequency twice that, 3 times and 4 times, but primarily those frequencies that are in the vicinity. Those tend to be around this 3500 cycles per second, where your ear is most sensitive. Which means that even though the sound intensity may not be as loud, the sound you get in your ear, because of its higher sensitivity in that range, makes the fife sound perhaps louder than it is.

Harmony: It's all about the instrument that we're perceiving it with.

Keith: It's about... exactly.

Harmony: So is this the same principle that's behind high-pitched sounds that get our attention like sirens or alarms or babies crying?

Keith: Right.

We talked about how the fife sound works and decays. I need to ask you too about how does the sound of the drum work? We know that the fife is a high frequency sound that decays a little bit more quickly in the atmosphere, in the presence of things like humidity. How does the drum behave outside? Does it carry farther? Does it behave differently than the fife?

Keith: Well the drum is a membrane, which is something that you can get to vibrate by hitting it. The frequencies that a drum makes are not these nice frequencies that are twice, 3 times, 4 times, 5 times what we call the fundamental frequencies, but they're kind of willie nillie. And the consequence is that when you hit a drum, you don't hear a particular pitch necessarily. It's kind of a low sound, but you don't have a definite pitch. But still there are a number of different frequencies that contribute. And then the body of the drum itself acts like a resonator, an amplifier, and so you get the sound from the drum.

But it gives you an attack, a very sharp sound at the beginning, that dies off rather quickly, so in that sense, the drum is giving you rhythm, it's giving you percussive sounds that you can discern because you know they have a very sharp beginning and then the decay is relatively rapid. And the sound that's left over a second or so is not very great. Whereas the fife, you can make a continuous sound, as long as you keep blowing, the sound persists.

Harmony: So obviously you're not a historian, that's not your field of expertise. But if you were to surmise or suppose why this combination of sounds was effective, what would you guess about why the fife and drums were effective, why that worked?

Keith: There are several things one can point out. The first is there's a principle with the way that sound travels which we call diffraction. So what this means is that sounds basically has the idea.... sound has the ability to move out and even bend around corners. Waves that have very long wave lengths are able to bend around objects like buildings.

So the consequence, and you can notice this, if you're hearing The Fife and Drum Corps coming up the street, but you can't see them yet, you don't hear the fifes, you hear the drums because the low frequency sounds of the drums are actually sort of able to bend around the buildings that are in the way to come to you, whereas the sounds from the fifes, which are higher frequencies, bounce off the buildings, but they don't travel around them. At a distance, you hear only the drums. At least if they're around the corner. From the fife you get direct sound, that's higher frequency.

Harmony: When we think about these sounds as a pair, a low frequency wave and a high frequency wave, is there something about that combination that makes it more suited to the use that we're seeing it used for in the Revolutionary Era, or in camp, or in battle communicating sounds outside? Is there something about this pairing of a low frequency and a high frequency sound that you think would make it especially well adapted for this purpose?

Keith: Well here's another feature of the way that we perceive sound: low frequencies, because they can bend around things when your ears are trying to determine where a sound is coming from, and this has been important for us because you hear a sound and you turn immediately toward where that sound is coming from so that you can look and see what it is. And is it dangerous? So with low frequency sound, the sound bends around your head as it comes through. This is diffraction that happens.

So the sound that comes into one ear, maybe slightly delayed from the sound that comes in the other ear because it's bent around like this. The consequence is that you can measure that difference, and that will tell you a direction. For high frequency sounds, your ear does this a different way. The sounds can't bend around your head, but if the sound is coming at an angle, it hits one ear, and the other ear is in a shadow, you get a louder sound in one ear than the other ear. So then again your head turns to try to equalize the sound in the two ears, and you figure out where things are coming from.

Harmony: So we started this discussion with testing the hypothesis that the sound of the fifes and drums carries particularly well over battlefields and outdoor conditions and can be heard or perceived particularly well over other noises, cannon, horses, shouting, whatever, or just regular camp noises if they're not in the actual act of battle. Is this true? Can the fifes and drums be heard more loudly, or more clearly than any other pair of instruments?

Keith: The fife and the drum can produce sustained notes or rhythms with various patterns. That's in contrast to the din of the outside whether it's battle or anything else. What happens there is that you hear a lot of sounds that may be episodic but fairly random, so there's not a repetitive pattern like you see in the fife and drum. So the drums are playing rhythms. Those rhythms are not the same rhythms that you hear random cannon fire and all sorts of other noises that you would hear. Your ear then can distinguish the signal, fife and drum, from the noise, which is random.

Harmony: So to me then it comes down to the way that we perceive sound, that there's nothing particular about the fife and the drum that make a sound that has a greater volume, that has a longer wavelength. We have other instruments that could produce the same characteristics, but it's more about the receiving end, the way that we perceive sound, than the instruments that create the sound.

Keith: Right, but you could say that there are other instruments that create low sounds, like a tuba, while it hadn't been invented yet, that's impractical in a lot of ways, and also it doesn't give you the percussive rhythm that you need if you're really trying to send some kind of distinct signal. Likewise, you could take other small instruments that are within that range of where your hearing is the best, but you also need something that is relatively simple, something that's easy to carry, and something that you can put in your back pocket so that you always have with you.

Harmony: I think what you've shown us today is that it has a lot to do with the instrument that you perceive it with and where those sounds reside, and what the complex components are of noise level and volume and frequency and sound.

So I thank you actually for being here today and giving me a new way to think about the fifes and drums and how they worked. Thank you so much for being our guest today.

Keith: You're welcome.

Harmony: Now we join co-producer Ben Swenson in the field for an experiment. Since the fife and drum lend themselves to audible explorations of the physics of sound, we decided to organize a field experiment to see just how well these instruments cut through the din of battle. Colonial Williamsburg staff writer Ben Swenson and a group of musicians from the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums show us how.

Ben Swenson: I'm here today at the Bruton Heights Educational Center with members of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums. Bruton Heights is the epicenter of Colonial Williamsburg's educational efforts, it houses the museum's library, conservation labs and recording studios.

This complex also happens to be literally on the other side of the tracks. It's separated from the Historic Area by railroad tracks. Freight trains carrying coal and other raw materials to terminals east of here pass by many times a day, and I thought, "What better place to illustrate Professor Griffeon's explanation of the physics of sound than here?" We don't have actual sounds of battle we might use to try to show just how easy it is to make out fifes and drums through the cacophony of loud noise, and that's a good thing considering the alternative.

But, Bruton Heights has—and you'll see this when you visit here--wide open spaces, an old school yard and a parking lot, all beside a pretty regular source of commotion.

So first, we're going to hear four members of the fifes and drums play the duty tune Cease Fire, by itself without any other ambient noise. Cease Fire was a duty call, would have told soldiers to stop firing on the battlefield. I'm standing probably 150 yards away, and if you were a soldier in the American Revolution going about the business of battle and all of a sudden you heard this, this is what it might have sounded like.

John Gaston: Cease Fire

F&D: [Cease Fire]

Ben Swenson: We've waited here for about an hour, and here comes a freight train loaded with thousands of tons of coal. Now we're going to hear the fifes and drums play Cease Fire again, and see if we can make it out over the noise of this barreling train.

[Train approaching]

John: Cease Fire

F&D: [Cease Fire]

Ben: There you have it folks, definitely much harder to make out but I think it's safe to say that even over a roar so loud as a freight train, the acoustic recipes, if you will, of the fifes and drums punches through, illustrating why these instruments were a preferred method of communication in the American Revolution and other conflicts.

Special thanks today to members of Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums, Seargent John Gaston, Lance Corporal Nathan Lynch, Sergeant Anthony Pinto, Lance Corporal John Burne. Thanks for tuning in. I'm Ben Swenson.


  1. What a wonderful podcast! The host is so intriguing and intellectually stimulating.

  2. […] to know more about the music of the fifes and drums? Listen to this podcast about the physics of sound, including an experiment that allows you to hear for yourself how well […]

    • My wife and I have been coming to Colonial Williamsburg for over fifty years and never get tired of hearing the fifes and drums. My husband was in the battle of Yorktown in 82
      which was the height of all visits.

  3. Why did the CW Fife and Drum Corps use the Cowpens Flag in their Salute to the States, today July 4, 2018?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *