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Title: Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty; American Fife Ensemble. Label: New World records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 80276-2. Track: 17.

Contextual Associations

The fife is a side-blown/transverse edge aerophone (flute) of Europe and North America. The fife has had a long association with the military, specifically the infantry, in Europe, where it served as both a melodic instrument in marching music and a signal instrument on the battlefield. When introduced to North America in the 18th century these same associations remained intact. In use during the American Revolutionary War, fife and drum music of that period has became an icon of that struggle and the American spirit of liberty through such paintings as Archibald Willard’s “The Spirit of ‘76” (1875) and a living tradition of period-modeled ensembles (fife and drum corps) that numbered over 2,000 in the late 20th century. Perhaps the most famous of these is the fife and drum corps of Colonial Williamsburg living history museum in Virginia. The first fife pictured here (gallery #1) dates from the 19th century or earlier and was brought to the United States by German immigrants. European colonial armies as well as American and European missionary societies introduced the fife and drum ensemble throughout Africa and Asia during the colonial era. The final four images in the gallery show early 20th century missionary-taught groups in India (the first two), Australia, and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso).


The fife pictured in gallery #1 is made from a single piece of turned rosewood out of which is drilled a narrow cylindrical bore (the exterior profile of the fife with its subtle bulge near the mouthpiece end is not reflected in its internal bore form). Brass ferrules protect the ends of the tube and help to prevent splitting. Near one end of the tube (the left end in the photo) a slightly oval blowhole is drilled and beveled. A cork stopper inserted into the blowhole-end of the tube blocks the internal bore at about 1/16-inch to the left of the blowhole; the other end is left open. Six fingerholes in two groups of three are drilled into the wall of the tube’s lower half; the middle fingerhole in each set of three has a slightly smaller diameter than the other two. There is no thumbhole on the reverse side. The second fife pictured on this page (gallery #2) was manufactured recently and is molded from resin with decorative brass ferrules at each end of the tube.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, whether sitting or standing (although usually standing and marching), holds the fife roughly horizontally to either their right or left with the fingerholes facing up and the blowhole resting on the chin just below the lower lip. The first three fingers of one hand operate the top three fingerholes, the same fingers on the other hand the bottom three; both thumbs are touching the bottom side and are used to support the instrument. By exhaling and shaping and directing an airstream with their embouchure (tensed lips) against the beveled edge at the far side of the blowhole, the performer sets the air column of the flute into modes of vibration. By controlling the force of the airstream and changing the acoustical length of the tube with the fingerholes, the player produces different pitches. The fundamental pitch of this fife (with all fingerholes covered) is approximately B-flat4, and by successively opening fingerholes from the bottom to the top produces a B-flat Major diatonic scale. It has an effective range of about two octaves, from B-flat4 - B-flat6; the higher octave is noticeably shriller in tone quality than the lower one. Any notes outside the diatonic scale can be sounded only with cross-fingerings. 


References to the use of fifes in association with military forces in Europe go back at least to the 15th century CE. The fife-and-drum tradition of the Swiss infantry of that period was highly regarded and is often credited with having introduced its practices throughout Europe. European settlers likely brought the instrument and knowledge of its military associations to the Americas by the 18th century, if not earlier.

Bibliographic Citations

Brown, Howard Mayer, and H. G. Farmer. 2004. “Fife.” NGDMI v.1: 741-742.

Powell, Ardel. 2002. The Flute. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.121.12 aerophone--side-blown flute: the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - tapering with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, directly blown against

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


16.9 in. length

Primary Materials

metal - sheet

Entry Author

Roger Vetter