Thursday, February 15, 2018

Why isn’t band music as respected as orchestral music?

A high school concert band. Photo by Sheila Herman.
Be honest: Does this picture
give you flashbacks?
As I mentioned in my previous post on my trip to Utah State University, one of the students posed a question that had the potential to be an interesting blog post. We had been discussing perceptions of “high” vs. “low” culture and how those get mapped onto music, and USU student Samuel Dickson asked:

“Why doesn’t band music get as much respect as orchestral music does?”

I had to come up with an answer on the spot, and I think I was on the right track overall. Yet this is the type of question that can reveal so much about history and cultural assumptions that it warrants research and a much more thorough answer than I was able to give off the top of my head.

Some preliminaries: As most people reading this know, the telltale difference between band and orchestra is the presence of stringed instruments from the violin family. For the most part, bands don’t use them, and orchestras do (though there are exceptions). The word “orchestra” can apply to an ensemble of only strings (a “string orchestra”) or to a combination of strings and woodwinds, brass, and percussion (a “symphony orchestra” or “full orchestra”).

The word “band” in classical music encompasses several types of ensembles, some of them are differentiated less by which instruments are used than by the style of music they play: concert band, wind ensemble, symphonic band, wind orchestra, wind symphony, and so on with various permutations of the words “wind,” “band,” “ensemble,” “symphony” and “concert.” There are also military bands and, of course, marching bands, but for this post and Samuel’s question, I’m going to stick with the concept of a concert band—one that could be expected to play similar venues as an orchestra. That also means that I’m talking about works in which instruments are treated as a section, though there’s still a bit of crossover in the repertoire of concert bands and chamber ensembles, as some groups may play, say, a wind octet with multiple instruments per part.

One more thing before we look back in history: As with any question of this type, it’s wise to examine whether the underlying assumptions are true. That is, does band music have less cultural capital than orchestral music? I say this is an accurate perception, based on my experience as a string player, listening to classical radio, and generally belonging to the classical music community. Even beyond that, I came across this paragraph from the Simple English Wikipedia (which is apparently not as fastidiously maintained as the regular Wikipedia):
“The songs [sic.] written for the concert band are much more easy [sic.] to listen because of its repertoires. The repertoires are not only about the orchestral composition. Light music, jazz, march and popular tunes are also played. Even though people don't have special knowledge about it, anyone can enjoy the concert band music. It is highly acclaimed for both its quality and popularity. As the arrangement of concert band music is completed in the 20th century,its modern and dynamic style appeals general public.”
“Concert Band” on Simple English Wikipedia as of 3:23 pm on February 12, 2018
(Incidentally, I hope that by the time you read this blog post that somebody has improved this paragraph. Please. I’d do it, but I doubt band folks want a violist defining them.)

Whereas regular Wikipedia attempts weeds out cultural assumptions, this version presents them vividly. According to prevailing wisdom, band music is easier to listen to, doesn’t require specialized knowledge, and can be enjoyed by anyone. Conversely, orchestral music is more difficult, requires prior study, and is enjoyed by an exclusive set. I’m not conceding that any of the above is true (in fact, it’s complete BS), yet I do think this accurately reflects how most people outside of the band community think of bands and orchestras.

But where did these associations come from? Why are strings treated differently from the other instruments?

The distinction came about in the Medieval era, when instruments were classified as either haut or bas. Literally, these terms mean “high” and “low” respectively, but they refer to dynamics/volume rather than pitch or status. The haut instruments—such as the shawm, sackbut, and drums—are loud, suitable for playing in outdoors in festivals, or on the battlefield…or at a festival celebrating a battle. The bas instruments—viols, but also harps, lutes, and recorders—are quiet and more appropriate for indoor settings, like a royal court. Of course, a horn could be played inside, or a group of viols outside, but overall the outdoor/indoor associations stuck.

a procession of haut instruments
Can you handle these haut beats?
Outdoor music is, by its nature, public. It’s meant to be heard over long distances, whether it’s to communicate to military troops or villagers. It’s music for a lot of people; it could even be considered populist, with all the associations of that term. Indoor music, on the other hand, is heard by fewer people, often in private settings, leading to a reputation of being elitist. This is a huge oversimplification, but generally these attitudes have held through the centuries.

Both types of ensembles gathered more cultural associations over time. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, during the nineteenth century, people began to promote art appreciation as a way for people to improve themselves. Also, they thought that one needed to be educated to truly understand and appreciate “high” art, especially music. That linkage tends to apply to orchestral music, but not as much to band music. Or, as John Philip Sousa said, “Theodore Thomas [conductor of the Chicago Symphony] gave Wagner, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky in the belief that he was educating his public; I gave Wagner, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky with the hope that I was entertaining my public.”

Sousa was a major influence in how people in the United States perceive band music. He started off playing violin, of all things, but he enlisted in the United States Marine Band, eventually becoming their director. After that, Sousa built his own band of professional musicians, presenting them as precise and disciplined as an actual regiment, with him in the dual role of conductor and commander.

John Philip Sousa
The March King himself
He toured his band throughout the United States and beyond, stopping in towns and cities to serve up his unique brand of spectacle. He reinforced the pre-existing association of band music with the military, particularly through the many, many marches he composed. Despite their seemingly infinite repertoire of marches, Sousa’s band played while seated, directing the audience’s attention to the music. As the above quote shows, Sousa’s band also played arrangements of works of the orchestral canon. For people in remote towns, these performances might be their first or only exposure to these works.

I could go on and on about Sousa, but instead I’ll just mention that his extensive touring not only shaped the public perception of what a band should sound and look like, it also inspired many people to become musicians themselves. Composer Meredith Willson, best known for his musical The Music Man, attended a Sousa concert as a child in Mason City and was inspired to learn to play flute. At age 19, he joined Sousa’s band as a piccolo player, a time he recounted in his first autobiography, And There I Stood with My Piccolo. Those familiar with The Music Man, with its plot involving the formation of a town band, can understand how bands have been cemented as a populist endeavor in the American imagination.

Anyway, this populist image has been a double-edged sword for band music through the ages. If a school is fortunate enough to have a music program, it is much more likely to have a band than an orchestra. Bands, especially marching bands, are a fixture at football games and other sporting events. Band programs often receive more funding and exposure than orchestral programs, at least in the realm of music education.

However, because of its popularity and association with entertainment, bands also suffer the stigma of amateurism. Community bands are still going strong throughout the country, at many different skill levels. Even though professional bands exist, the classical music world has been slow to accept them as equals to professional orchestras. Many cities in the United States have orchestras established in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, proudly bearing their city’s name: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and so on. These carry the weight of cultural institutions and are a point of civic pride. They receive more respect and patronage, leveraging their image as purveyors of “high” art.

Some ambitious conductors and composers have tried to garner more respect for concert bands in the classical music sphere. Perhaps the most notable figure was Frederick Fennell, who formed the Eastman Wind Ensemble and commissioned works from big names like Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Vincent Persichetti. Fennell—and other directors with similar goals—also encouraged composers to write longer, multi-movement works like symphonies and concertos in contrast to the short works typically performed by bands, to give some artistic heft to the repertory.

But is orchestral music really a higher art than band music, whatever that might mean? Does a composer draw less on their artistic faculties when writing for band? Is it more challenging to compose for orchestra than band?

I informally asked some composers I know on Twitter about writing for band vs. orchestra, and they shared a variety of perspectives. Chris Cresswell asserts that every composition takes artistic effort: “As a composer I try to write the most honest piece I can, regardless of outsider's perception of the ensemble.”

Several composers mentioned challenges specific to writing for band, some of which are intrinsic to the medium. For instance, in orchestral writing, the stringed instruments tend to blend their sound, and individual woodwinds, brass, and percussionists are used for touches of color. Bands, however, coordinate entire sections of each instrument instead of soloists.

Brin Solomon says, “[In my opinion] writing for band is more challenging because the colors are more distinct and less prone to blending; it’s hard to make something ‘pop’ with timbre since every color in the band is one that traditional orchestral writing treats as an accent color.” Patricia Wallinga notes a similar issue: “I find band writing more challenging than orchestra writing because there are more instruments that can and will obscure other melodic instruments.”

Yet some of the difficulties composers mention are connected to the public perception—and often reality—of bands as amateur ensembles. Matthew Saunders laid out these challenges in a series of Tweets, pointing out that, “with a top-level band, you are more likely to be writing for student performers, since there are very few professional bands outside the military, and a handful of professional groups that match the level of, say, a mid-tier regional symphony.” In addition to aiming music at a certain level of difficulty, Saunders notes the need for band music to be more flexible than orchestral music:
“As a composer, one of the big challenges for band writing is that I often don't know how many players will be on each part, which leaves many decisions about balance and tone quality in the hands of players and conductor more so than in orchestra…Even in works played by top groups, instrumentation is flexible. As a result, tuba, baritone sax, bassoon, bass clarinets may all have essentially the same part, especially in older works. In orchestra, there is a stronger tradition of a ‘standard’ instrumentation and professional groups are expected to have what the composer asks for, no more, no less.”

Saunder’s observation is closely tied to the perception of orchestral works as artworks that must be rendered according to the vision of the Great Composer, whereas band pieces are allowed to bend to the circumstances of performance.

Once again, I’m sarcastically referring the power bestowed to the Great Composers by many classical music enthusiasts. But what happens when a Great Composer deigns to write a piece for band?

If you don't think Sousa is a
Great Composer, he'll pop ya!
In my observation, the band piece takes on the prestige of the composer. In addition to the composers commissioned by Fennell, whom I mentioned above, English composer Gustav Holst composed two suites for military band—but then, England has its own tradition of band music that I haven’t even addressed in this post! Igor Stravinsky wrote Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Antonín Dvořák composed a Serenade for Winds, both of which lean into the realm of chamber music, which has similar “high art” connotations as orchestral music.

Yet many composers find advantages to composing away from the constraining expectations of “high art.” Kate Sutton, who is preparing to defend her dissertation on this very topic, informed me that composers’ perception of band music has changed over the past sixty or seventy years, to the point where many appreciate the artistic flexibility of a style that is mostly overlooked by the classical canon. Also, without so many dead white men taking up spots on concert programs, bands usually play more works by living composers. Among the recent composers who have earned praise for their high levels of artistic expression in band music are Joseph Schwantner, Kristin Kuster, Steven Bryant, David Maslanka, Roshanne Etezady, and John Mackey.

Unfortunately, most of these developments in band music are known only within the band community. The major works and composers in the realm of band are still obscure to even ardent fans of classical music. As with other issues of a restrictive canon, this ignorance can be overcome by increased exposure. Though it would be awkward to program band works in a concert for symphony orchestra, perhaps classical radio stations could include more works by the above composers to familiarize listeners with what’s going on in that world without strings.

Public perception of band music and its relation to other types of music is complex, so much so that this long blog post touches on only the surface of a fraction of the deeper conversations to be had on this topic. In any case, I hope that you can see that, like so many other, band music has been shaped by composers’ responses to audience expectations. It isn’t intrinsically “less artistic” than any other form of music, and its populist reputation has given it a history distinct from other styles of instrumental music.

Many thanks to the composers in the Twitter discussion for providing quotes and helping shape a section of this post: Brin Solomon, Patricia Wallinga, Matthew Saunders, Philip Howie, and Chris Cresswell. Also, thank you to Kate Sutton, Rob Deemer, and Wes Flinn for their feedback on drafts of this blog post.

Like what you’ve read?


Meredith Willson, And There I Stood with My Piccolo, 1948.

Patrick Warfield, Making the March King: John Philip Sousa's Washington Years, 1854-1893, 2016.

Bryan Proksch, A Sousa Reader, 2017.

Kate Sutton, Conductor-Composer Relationships in the Contemporary American Wind Ensemble Community, PhD dissertation, 2018.


  1. Thanks for following up with this topic, Linda! I loved reading it. I largely got into music from playing in band (euphonium), although I also played piano. When it came time to prepare for music auditions, I chose piano, largely because there wasn't an established path to making a living playing euphonium.

    Also, I'm sure you know the Mozart Serenades, but I thought they might be a nice addition to your list of "legit" composers writing for ensembles without strings, since he's so much older than the others. I don't know of others before the Dvorak you mentioned.

    1. Thank you for mentioning the Mozart! I'd considered it but wasn't sure if it was too close to chamber music. Beethoven also wrote a few marches for winds, but they're all WoOs, so I left them alone.

      (Also, thanks to you and Tim for sitting in my peripheral vision and nodding as I answered the question. It reassured me that I wasn't telling the students anything too outlandish!)

  2. Hi Linda - thank you for this! I think you are spot on in your assessment of the amateur/educational associations of wind bands. There are a lot of financial resources for pedagogical repertoire aimed at wind bands, so it makes sense that composers would go in that direction, especially considering there are fewer professional performance ensembles to write for.

    Also, perhaps of note for you: I've researched this very topic in the past for conference presentations and I remember finding composers talking about the same instrumentation challenges that you heard about from contemporary composers during Fennell's early commissioning work. Seems like some things do not change.

    One other issue I'd like to throw into this mix, or rather reiterate since you mentioned it briefly here, is the canonism of Western musical culture. We are fixed on specific composers from specific time periods, time periods when the wind band was not what it is today in terms of instrumentation and technical capabilities; the industrial revolution filled out the ensemble. The canon has become such as central part of our notion of artistic worth in music that it becomes nearly impossible to admit latecomers (or anyone else period). This is a good part of why classical radio (in my experience, at least) does not program more wind band music.

    Thanks again - fellow UCSB grad here cheering you on!

  3. Linda - fabulous as always. Thanks so much. If I may be permitted a bit of institutional pride, to add to your examples of “cross-over” (or perhaps to emphasize the presence of aspirations of canon by band folk) the University of Texas Wind Ensemble (a concert band by your criteria) commissioned and premiered John Corigliano’s Third Symphony a little over a decade ago:

  4. Lind this is great! With your permission, I will email it to the Band music expert who responded recently to the AMS-L debacle discussion and mentioned that he feels slighted from the Society at large. :-)

  5. One of the other reasons band music does not earn the respect of most classical musicians is because they have the perception that band music consists not only marches, but (and these are my words) insipid arrangements of Broadway and Hollywood scores, cheesy arrangements of popular songs, very bad transcriptions of orchestral works and, finally, second-tier compositions by composers who simply couldn't make it into the orchestra world.

    All of this is balderdash and hogwash! Having conducted a college-community wind band for eight years and a community wind group for four, I did my best to elevate the status of wind band music by seeking out compositions that had integrity and audience appeal, yet bore an original stamp that would give the players the utmost challenge on both a musical and intellectual level. Some pieces that I programmed worked, and some did not.

    Some transcriptions were not so good (and sometimes they tend to be the only ones publicly available), and some are downright stellar (primarily the ones from European publishers, which are also very costly), but when the audience does come to hear a band, be it military, community, college or a hybrid of the last two, they always walk away satisfied because they get a combination of education and entertainment at its finest.

    As a composer myself, I do find writing for wind band to be very challenging, especially when one runs into the trap of making sure one doesn't write for the clarinets the same way one would compose for strings. Unless they have lungs of iron and an indestructible body, they simply don't have the fortitude to play endless passages.

    Composers who want to have an interest in writing for band should attend a couple of rehearsals, or even look at the established and new works for winds that will give them an idea of what and what not to do. And there is plenty of room for new works in this medium, regardless of idiom.

  6. I'm a year late, but I must say I prefer orchestral music for its rich palette of colors and the combinations of strings and winds. I actually play in a concert band, but aside from a few selected works, there is really no comparison.