I took trumpet lessons once, but I hurt myself.
Dear Word Detective: I’m one of the the drum majors for my high school’s marching band, and when I tell people this they usually respond, “You play drums?” and I respond “No” because a drum major is the marching leader of a drum corps or a band and I don’t play drums. So I have always wondered — why is it called “drum major” if it has nothing to do with physically playing an instrument? — Tim O’Neil.
That’s a darn good question, but first I have a suggestion, Tim. Your life will be much easier if you just bite the bullet and learn to play some sort of drum, and I speak from experience. Most people, the normal ones, see the title of this column (“The Word Detective”) and figure, “Hey, this guy answers questions about words and language.” Other people, however, ask me to track down their cheating husband or to answer questions about Microsoft Word. I actually answered somebody’s question about “non-printing characters” in MS Word a few days ago. It just seemed easier than explaining that they were barking up the wrong tree.
I have to admit that I had never given much thought to what drum majors actually do, so I was surprised to see that there are a number of websites devoted to drum majoring as well as a very authoritative-sounding Wikipedia page. I knew that you folks lead the band, for instance, but I didn’t realize that you play roughly the same role as the conductor of an orchestra, albeit usually with somewhat more basic movements of a staff or baton. Then again, my experience with school bands consists of playing the triangle in the fourth grade.
Though today we usually associate “drum majors” with high school or college marching bands, the position and title both originated in the military, more than 400 years ago. In the days before radio or even reliable signal lights, the regimental drum corps (which often included bugle, fife or bagpipe players) was a vital means of battlefield communication, relaying marching and battle orders from commanders to distant units.
The “Drum Major” was the non-commissioned officer commanding a regiment’s drum corps, “Major” in this instance being a shortening of “Sergeant Major.” The earliest instance of the term “drum major” found in print so far dates back to 1598, but, if one believes Wikipedia, the position was not formally established until 1650 in the British Army.
By the 19th century, the mission of the military drum corps had expanded from duty on the battlefield to performing at public ceremonies and concerts, the music they performed became more sophisticated than standard marches, and the role of the drum major became more akin to that of a conductor than that of a battlefield commander. But the bands remained military units, and college and high school marching bands have copied the military model, with elaborate precision marching routines and quasi-military uniforms.