Lesson Plan

Material Culture: the Fife and Drum

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
State Standards:
SC: ELA – 3rd IV-A, B, E; V-A, B, C; 4th IV-A, B, G, J; V-A, B; 5th IV-A, D, E; V-A, B, C; 6th IV-A, C, F, K; V-A; 7th  IV-A, B, C, G, H, L; V-A, B; 8th IV-A, B, D, Vis Arts - Comp1-4 Sci 4th I-A; II-A; 5th I-A; II-A; 7th I-A; II
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts.

Essential Question

How does music from the Battle of Cowpens help us understand this historical event?


GOAL: To introduce to students material culture and music related to the Battle of Cowpens.


Music played an important part in the Revolutionary army. Each company was led by a fife and drum. Each company, in turn, was expected to have at least one drummer and one fifer. A regiment might include as many as 20 of each, and include a fife major and drum major. The music boosted camp morale, assisted in marching cadence and contributed to the pomp of ceremonies. Faster music produced a faster marching cadence. Such music was based on British models and techniques. British cadence of the era called for 60 beats for the ordinary step and 120 for the quickstep.

The drum was especially important since it served as a means of signaling and conveying orders more effectively, being heard better than the human voice above the din of battle. Drums could signal an army to take such actions as to strike tents and prepare to march, troop to the regimental colors (flags or banners), march (move out), arise at daybreak, return to tents at night until reveille the next morning, take up weapons, and have a conference with the enemy. Many drummers were young boys, often as young as 16.

Drums and fifes were made from various natural and available materials. Drums were often made of wood, with animal skins stretched by ropes to provide a drum head. Sticks were wooden. Most fifes were crude wooden instruments, often made of boxwood. Some iron fifes were found.

Trumpets were often used by cavalry and bugle horns by light infantry. Riflemen often used their own innovations. At the Battle of Saratoga, Daniel Morgan used a turkey call to rally his troops.

The band movement in America most likely has its origins in the military music of early colonial America. High school and other bands in uniform remind us of this military tradition.


The student will able to list the musical functions of fife and drum in relationship to Revolutionary armies and battles.

The student will explain why certain materials were used for construction of fife and drum.
The student will recount orally or in writing the relationships between the historic origins of fife and drum and use in the Revolutionary War era.
The student will compare and contrast such instruments to later use of bugles and other instruments.
The student will describe elements of music and sound. The student will design artwork for drums.


Read Background Information and Procedure sections.



1. Have students learn standard Revolutionary Era drum or fife music for:
General – Strike tents and prepare to march
Assembly – Trotting to the colors
March – The troops move out
Reveille – Soldiers rise at daybreak
Tattoo – Soldiers return to the tents and remain until reveille next morning
Alarm – Alarm to take arms
Parley – When a conference with the enemy is desired
Indicate meal time
Indicate religious services (Source: Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution.)

2. Have other students interpret and carry out drum commands, then reverse the role of the participants. (See below.)

3. Or, have students meet in a group to make up their own signals and attempt to interpret those signals as described above.

4. Have students learn simple Revolutionary War era songs, and either sing them or play them on a fife or drum. Or, play recordings of such songs and discuss the meaning of the words.

5. Discuss what materials would have been used to make fifes and drums. How readily available were these materials? What alternative materials could be used? How would certain materials affect the quality and volume of sound? What alterations or materials would create a more bass sound?

6. Discuss alternative ways of communicating with troops. Why do you supposed Daniel Morgan favored a turkey call? Contrast the bugle (used more in later wars) to the drum as a means of signaling.

7. Define words and terms such as
(1) parley, (2) reveille, (3) “strike tents”, (4) colors (regimental banners), (5) “camp morale”, (6) cadence, (7) company, and (8) regiment. Have students compose sentences using these words or terms or, in addition, have them write a “fife and drum story” using the same.
1. parley – an informal conference between enemies under a truce
2. reveille – a signal to awake military troops and alert them to assignments
3. strike tents – to take down tents
4. colors – regimental flag
5. camp morale – emotional or physical conditions of troops in the face of hardships
6. cadence – the rhythmic flow of a sequence of sound
7. company – a relatively small group of soldiers
8. regiment – a unit of ground forces consisting of two or more battalions

Face right! Single stroke, and flam*
Face left! Two single strokes, and flam
Face right and turn about! Three single strokes, and flam Halt! Flam.
Fix bayonets, marching! Roll**, and flam
Return Bayonets, marching! Two ruffles***, and flam

* a drumbeat consisting of two notes in quick succession, with accent on the second
** the continuous sound of a drum rapidly beaten
*** a low continuous beating of a drum

1. Watch the program, Cowpens: A Battle Remembered. Watch and listen for the use of fifes and drums.
2. Use a drum to take onto the battlefield. Have students give drum signals as suggested in PRE-SITE ACTIVITIES.
3. See how far away such signals can be heard. Appoint a drum major to direct use of the drum.

1. Have students research the use of drums in history in general and the Revolutionary War in particular.
2. Have students research use of fifes in history in general and the Revolutionary War in particular.
3. Show students pictures of artwork on drums. Have students design art for drums which depict Revolutionary War motifs/themes or those of their own design.
4. Have students complete a bibliography of American literature in which “drum” or “drums” are included in the title.


1. parley – an informal conference between enemies under a truce
2. reveille – a signal to awake military troops and alert them to assignments
3. strike tents – to take down tents
4. colors – regimental flag
5. camp morale – emotional or physical conditions of troops in the face of hardships
6. cadence – the rhythmic flow of a sequence of sound
7. company – a relatively small group of soldiers
8. regiment – a unit of ground forces consisting of two or more battalions

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