Military History Music and War
Catherine V. Bateson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0188


Since the earliest days of troop movements and military maneuvers, music has been an integral part of army and navy life. Drums, fifes, and bugles have marked and measured out parades, mobilizations, battlefield and naval tactics, advances, retreats, bivouacs and encampment life. They have also been employed at military ceremonies and remembrance services. Indeed, it is impossible not to recall military tunes when thinking about war throughout history. Military music has become part of countries’ collective culture commemorations. Army, navy, and air force band music and performance have long generated much public and historical interest. They have become part of national musical discourse and production, especially within Anglophone musical culture. In addition, war and military music has invaded the world of classical tunes, with grand pieces being composed to mark specific battles, victories, and conflicts, most notably Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, written in honor of Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invasion. However, there is far more to the symbiotic relationship between music and war than just a military band playing on a march or orchestral pieces celebrating martial success. Music and song have also been a fundamental part of military life. Drums, fifes, bugles, and even fiddles and banjos have been played and heard by soldiers, sailors, and aviators across encampments, on bases, and in conflict zones since the dawn of war. Music, alongside its lyrical sister poetry, has often been the predominant cultural product of war and military service. Those fighting, and those wanting to write about those fighting, have employed music and song as a comforting tonic, as a political statement, as a tool for remembrance, and as a general pastime. Wars, the violence of conflicts, the aftermath of fighting domestically and internationally, and the impact of military engagements on veteran and family lives have long been a genre of folk music and popular lyrical culture throughout societies, as observed in many of the scholarly examples in this bibliography. The field of analysis currently centers predominantly on Anglo-American and Western examples, focusing on the appearance of war in British Isles and Irish street ballads, diasporic use of song to emphasize war service, specific conflict studies, and the dominance of American military music. War ballad and musical outputs have generated research in historical, musicological, and cultural studies areas. The study of war and music lends itself to interdisciplinary focus. The works in this bibliographical list reflect this, and the fact that the study of music and war is developing into a full discourse in its own right. It is a rich area of discussion and research, and this bibliography shows the scope and range of music and war studies to date.

General Overviews

Few studies have been produced to date that detail a general overview of music and war, and encompass every conflict zone’s musical output since the earliest battlefield engagements. Works are often organized in thematic studies of particular conflicts or across specific time frames within regions. A focus on early modern history to contemporary history, centering on Anglosphere conflicts, has dominated the discourse. In particular, American studies and musicological history has become a rich field of scholarship and analytical discussion, reflected in the sheer number of articles, books, and popular studies about music and songs heard and influenced by the nation’s long warring history. Kraaz 2018 is an edited collection that offers the most recent overarching analysis of American war music. Bowman 1987 likewise focuses on American war and song production in the 18th and 19th centuries up to the American Civil War (1861–1865). The latter conflict has also generated its own subsection of wartime music studies, as well as more general works that can be used as good examples for how to write and approach war and music studies, such as Cornelius 2004, a work on American Civil War music, and McWhirter 2014, a historiographical overview of wartime music scholarship on the 1860s Union and Confederate lyrical productions. Primary source and musical score productions of war songs have also influenced scholarship within cultural conflict studies, such as Adler 1943, a primary source collection of ballads from across temporal and wartime settings. Arnold 1993 also provides a good reference guide to war and music examples and research guides for those wishing to study lyrical conflict productions. In addition, war songs and music can be found within far broader discussion of singing and lyrical culture, such as Nicholls 1998, a wider study of American song and music developments, or Atkinson and Roud 2014, a study of British and Irish street ballads that include wartime references. Fumerton, et al. 2010 raises this aspect with essays on British ballad culture from the 1500s to 1800s. Ritchie and Orr 2014 offer similar analysis, with more specific focus on Scottish diaspora music and song within wider war folk-song traditions. These works are thus all useful reference works within themselves and show the more general approaches scholars are taking to war music culture studies. They are all accessible starting points for deeper research.

  • Adler, Kurt, ed. Songs of Many Wars: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. New York: Howell, Soskin, 1943.

    A collection of national and war ballads, described as “fighting songs which oppressed people of all times and nations have sung in their fight against tyranny.” Contains both voice and piano musical score notations, compiled by Austrian author and musician Kurt Adler. Useful for comprehensive examples of primary source war songs and music.

  • Arnold, Ben. Music and War: A Research and Information Guide. New York: Garland, 1993.

    A music research and reference information guide on art and classical music compositions produced during periods of warfare and conflict, with an emphasis on those produced and written since 1900. War-related music is discussed from early modern periods and 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century conflicts. Also contains analysis of comparative popular and traditional folk wartime songs. Useful as a general reference guide for primary source examples.

  • Atkinson, David, and Steve Roud, eds. Street Ballads in the Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America: The Interface Between Print and Oral Traditions. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014.

    A comprehensive twelve-chapter edited collection assessing the influence of popular broadside balladry and oral singing traditions in the British Isles, Ireland, and North America from the late 16th through to the early 20th century. Contains references to the English Civil War and Napoleonic Wars and their respective appearance in street balladry, and the impact of war on songwriting and production. Available online by subscription.

  • Bowman, Kent A. Voices of Combat: A Century of Liberty and War Songs, 1765–1865. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

    Part of the Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance series (number ten), this work provides detailed study and analysis of American war song lyrics from the American War of Independence, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, and American Civil War. A useful sweeping survey of multiple American war songs, it provides a methodological study of wartime balladry analysis. Employs both historical and literary cultural study assessment of war songs.

  • Cornelius, Steven H. Music of the Civil War Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

    Part of the American History Through Music series. This study focuses on American Civil War songs and music developments from 1861 to 1865. Specific chapters detail military music and African American wartime music productions, as well as pre-war influences on martial music in America. A useful compendium on American Civil War music themes for researchers and a general readership.

  • Fumerton, Patricia, Anita Guerrini, and Kris McAbee, eds. Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500–1800. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

    This edited collection on the development and production of ballad culture and broadside publications in the British Isles from the Middle Ages through to early modern period and late 1700s includes discussion of the role of broadsides, a form of media journalism, including their use to discuss warfare. Reference to England’s wars in Scotland and the Netherlands appear, alongside examples from the Thirty Years’ War and war topics in minstrelsy ballads.

  • Kraaz, Sarah, ed. Music and War in the United States. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    This sweeping edited collection offers overarching studies of war music and songs from the American War of Independence (1775–1783) through to the Iraq War (2003–2011). Provides the most recent scholarship on these conflicts and the music produced during them. Each chapter highlights the varied history of war and music, and music’s role within conflicts. Useful as a research compendium, source of music and war analysis discussion, and student teaching resource.

  • McWhirter, Christian. “Music.” In A Companion to the U.S. Civil War. Edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, 1003–1020. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118609071.ch56

    A historiographical essay detailing research within the field of American Civil War music and the influence of military, racial, and regional developments during the conflict on song production and wartime lyricists. A very useful guide to developments in the study of American Union and Confederate war music and musicology, which sits alongside the Companion’s other wartime historiographical studies. More research-focused than McWhirter’s other American Civil War music studies.

  • Nicholls, David, ed. The Cambridge History of American Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    A sweeping edited collection of American music, covering the cultural and contextual influences on 18th- to 20th-century musical outputs. Includes references to wartime musical developments across the study, including American War of Independence and American Civil War song productions. A useful general research compendium on American song history.

  • Ritchie, Fiona, and Doug Orr. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

    A general study that details the 18th- and 19th-century Scottish and Scots-Irish/Ulster-Scots diasporas in North America—particularly Appalachian America—and the musical influence of cultural and oral singing tradition in migrant communities. Gives examples of ballads from the British Isles, Ireland, and Europe, and includes song references to war, conflict, and military history in oral traditions. Hardback copies include a CD with songs from the work on it.

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