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Ch. 08: John Philip Sousa – The March King


Three individuals from the 19th century stand out in their contributions to American popular music. Stephen Foster, the “Father of American Popular Music,” saved popular song from sentimentalism and gave it a new standard of melodic and lyrical quality. Scott Joplin, “Father of Ragtime,” took the raw syncopation of black bar and brothel music and gave it refinement and structure.

John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

The third individual, John Philip Sousa, certainly provided unique contributions to the musical literature of America, but perhaps more importantly, his role in the early years of the recording industry and his part in the revision of copyright law in America changed the landscape of music going into the 20th century.

Each of these individuals made their contribution as consolidators of a musical style. Foster and Joplin took parlor and ragtime songs, respectively, and elevated them from being sappy and unrefined to being elegant and sophisticated. Sousa’s role as “march king” was not as the inventor of a new musical form, but as the composer of the greatest marches in music history.

The march is a musical form which evolved from the music of military bands in the early 19th century. As far back as the revolutionary war, fife and drum bands had been providing musical entertainment and esprit de corps for the soldiers both on and off the battle field. In times of peace, military bands (comprised of winds, brass, and percussion) provided music for visiting dignitaries and official ceremonial events. Music for outdoor community concerts and indoor dances were also part of the function of a regional military band.

Military band during the Civil War

Following the Civil War, many of the soldiers who played in military bands and those who had an interest in playing a wind, brass or percussion instrument were able to purchase them from military surplus. When finally arriving at home from their various units, these musicians and hopefuls formed community based bands patterned after those they heard while in service. Beginning in the 1870s and 1880s hundreds of community brass and wind bands began to be active throughout the United States. Their concert music consisted of dance tunes, rudimentary marches, popular songs, arrangements of classical orchestral works and even some vocal songs. It wasn’t until the arrival of Sousa, though, that the established structure of both the concert band and the march song form was finalized.

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a classically trained violinist (he played under the French composer and conductor Jacques Offenbach in Philadelphia in 1876) and later conductor of traveling musical shows. In 1880 he was hired to become band director for the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C. He reorganized the band, increasing the number of wind players to provide better balance with the brass and percussion, and instituted a new level of quality and excellence that quickly established the ensemble as the finest concert band in the world. In addition to playing for presidential inaugurations and state ceremonies, Sousa secured permission to take the Marine Band on tour throughout the United States, providing thousands of Americans with the experience of hearing America’s best instrumental ensemble in concert.

Dissatisfied with the hodge-podge collection of music which had been the band’s literature prior to 1880, Sousa began incorporating his own compositions into the performances. His earliest version of the march form dates back to 1877, while he was still conducting the traveling musical show, but from that point until his death in 1932, Sousa wrote 136 marches, including “The Washington Post March,” “The Liberty Bell March,” “Semper Fidelis” (named in honor of the Marine motto) and the official United States march, “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Sousa’s marches, like Joplin’s rags, were built on a series of strains, or 16 measure musical ideas. Like the rag, the march began with a short introduction, then presented the first idea and then repeated it, usually verbatim, then moved on to the next in the series. The formal structure for both march and rag was: Intro-AABBCC… Occasionally, both march and rag incorporated a rhythmic break, where the music temporarily broke the strain mold with a dramatic, highly energetic, often percussive musical idea before resuming the strain patterns.

In addition, the march often treated the third series of strains, the CC, as a quieter, more lyrical idea. This quieter third set was called the trio of the march. Although a trio would technically mean three instruments, in the case of Sousa’s marches it simply means fewer instruments playing to create a quieter and more intimate sound. Following the trio section, like Joplin’s rags, the march frequently recapped the opening musical theme before coming to a rousing ending.

Sousa’s marches have a distinct ONE-TWO, ONE-TWO rhythmic pattern, designed to match the brisk steps of a unit of soldiers as it marches in ceremony or the pace of a marching band as it moves down the street in a parade. Most bands performing Sousa marches will conform to a tempo around 120 bpm (beats per minute, see section Understanding Music Study Unit for more on “tempo”) which is a brisk pace for marching and a perfect tempo for tapping toes. Some studies have been done on the physiological response to music, including Sousa marches, and the slight increase in heart rate and increased endorphins that are generated from listening to this music.

In stark contrast with the flowing melodies of Foster’s parlor songs, Sousa march melodies were crisp and energetic. They were not designed for sensuous romanticism, but martial vigor.

The marches composed by Sousa exist today as the finest examples of the genre in history. No other composer has matched the master march composer in qualitative output. As Sousa’s bands toured throughout the world, other military, community and concert bands were quick to order copies of the pieces for their own use.


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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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