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Marching Band, Concert Band - What's the Wind-Playin' Difference?

Updated on October 10, 2010

Bands come in all shapes and sizes, with any combination of instruments you really can think of. To many school music fans and music fans in general like me, no two types of bands that form the foundation of music education are as great as the marching and concert bands. In the first type, the band marches in parades and puts on quite a show with them forming shapes and patterns. As for the other, they just sit down and play marches, light classics, and whatever they play. The former band usually wears militaristic uniforms and tall hats and uses a few girls who either twirl batons, flags, or both up on front. The other usually wears tuxedos and other formal concert clothing. But there's more similarities and differences between the two types that you may be not aware.

What A Marching Band Is

Ever since childhood, many people think that a marching band is just a mere unit of a parade who wears shako hates with plumes and marches in high-step. Especially in the context of those in colleges, universities, high and rarely middle schools, they are groups whose members form shapes and patterns on the football fields, compete against another, and have members who don't play instruments dance and twirl props. Because of that nature, some fans and players consider it as a pure sport while others consider it as an art. Few others (like me) say that it's a combination of both.


Marching bands consist of four instrumental sections: woodwinds, brass, drumline percussion, and pit percussion. If you have imagined the perfect marching band woodwind section as a kid, you might have conjured up images of flutes, clarinets, and alto and tenor saxophones. Well, you may be right - those are the typical ones found, but sometimes bass clarinets, piccolos, and even baritone saxophones are found there too.

The most typical instrument of the brass section of the marching band is the trumpet (or in some cases, the cornet), because they convey the sound heavily above all other wind instruments. Mellophones, which look pretty much like a trumpet with a larger bell, round out the overall timbre. For the highest parts of the low brass, it includes either a trombone section, a marching baritone section, a marching euphonium section, or a mixture of any. Either "marching style" tubas or their cousins the sousaphones provide the bass notes of the band.

There are two types of percussion sections, the drumline and the pit. The former typically consists of marching bass drums, multi-tenor drums, cymbals, snare drums, and rarely lyre glockenspiels. The other percussion section, the pit, xylophones, vibraphones, and other percussion not in the drumline.


Apart from military-style types, numerous college, university, and high school marching bands employ at least one auxiliary unit. Almost all of them have a color guard, whose members twirl flags, rifles, or sabers, contributing to the visual flavors of their groups. Most of them have one majorette or a troupe of baton twirlers. While most schools keep them separate, some others make their dancelines, dance teams, pom squads, or kicklines part of the auxiliary. (This is especially true in Alabama, where one can see them at a majority of the state's high schools.)

Example I: Albertville High School Marching Aggie Band (AL)

Example II: The US Army Band


What A Concert Band Is

The concert band (known as the symphonic band or wind ensemble), on the other hand, is a sit-down ensemble that resembles an orchestra, but it almost contains all wind and percussion instruments. While a few wear the typical marching band uniforms like military-style suits and shako hats, most of them wear concert-style ones like tuxedos and black dresses.

The instrumentation of the high woodwinds in a concert band is fairly the same as the more mobile cousin: flutes, B-flat clarinets, alto saxophones, and tenor saxophones. In many advanced bands, piccolos, bass clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and even baritone saxophones are not uncommon. In a few of them, one can find E-flat and alto clarinets, cors anglais (aka English horns), contrabassoons, contrabass or contra-alto clarinets, soprano and bass saxophones, or a combination of any, depending on the score. (Middle school concert bands typically just stick to flutes, B-flat clarinets, and alto saxophones.)

Like the marching band, the concert band has trumpets and/or cornets and tenor trombones. In place of the mellophone and bell-front tubas or sousaphones in order to create an orchestral touch to the band, it employs orchestral horns (also known as French horns) and upright tubas. They also employ upright baritone horns and/or euphoniums to round out the low brass. The percussion section is pretty much similar to the one found at your local symphony orchestra - with kettledrums, chimes, snares, and so on. Sometimes they have a few harpists or double bassists, but the concert band all but leaves out the string section.

Joining Either (or Both)

There are factors in making the decision to join either ensemble - music education experts encourage those who love to compete and do parades to take marching band and those who just sit down and make music to take concert band. In some high schools, for those who want to take the wind ensemble, they have to march with them, auxiliary and all, allowing them to take both. If you have a child who wants to play in the band, he or she should know the difference between the two and decide which one fits him or her well. As for you, music fan, it's important to understand the differences too - the marching band is an ensemble with people twirling flags and girls brandishing fringed hoops whereas the concert band is another who sits down and play.

Example III: Montebello High School Marching Oilers (CA)

Which ensemble did you play in school?

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