Fife and drum groups exist to make music. The theme of the group can drive the musical selections, or the choice of musical selections can drive the theme. Either way, make sure that there is a connection between the two. 


Sources of Music

Music can be had from a variety of sources:

  • The oral tradition passed on by the players in your group
  • Researched from primary historical sources like manuscripts
  • Commonly available secondary sources such as the Company of Fifers and Drummers “Company Book” publications
  • Composed or arranged by the members of the group or commissioned from third-parties


While ultimately all of these sources should be considered cut yourself some slack. Consider your theme and what it means for your musical sources:

  • If you or someone in your group is gifted with an interest in historical research, primary sources may be for you and you can consider a historical theme.
  • If your group gathers casually to perform then secondary sources of fully prepared music are a good choice
  • Junior Corps should considering leveraging a common secondary source for novices. The Acton Ostling book has been used by literally hundreds of Junior Corps over the years.
  • If your primary focus is pushing the boundaries of the art form then you will likely be commissioning new work from contemporary writers.



Using Contemporary Sources

Understanding Copyright

When utilizing tunes or arrangements written after 1922 it is imperative that you have a working understanding of Copyright laws. If you have questions on how this information will impact your group it is recommended that you consult an Attorney familiar with Copyright law. 


Here is the general principle:

Authors own the exclusive rights to their work.  This is called a copyright and the composition or arrangement is protected for many years - even if the copyright is never registered with the copyright office.  A composition is considered to be "intellectual property".  The copyright may be sold, transferred, or inherited - but the copyright still endures.

If music is under copyright protection and you do not have the owner's permission:

  • You CANNOT reproduce the music or lyrics
  • You CANNOT distribute the music or lyrics either for free, for no profit, or for profit
  • You CANNOT perform the music or lyrics in public
  • You CANNOT play a recording of the music or lyrics in public - even if you own the CD
  • You CANNOT make a derivative work or arrangement for public use in any form


Keep in mind that while a tune may be in the public domain, an arrangement of that tune (which is considered a distinct musical work) may not be. 


United States Copyright Duration for Musical Works

The current duration of copyright protection for published Musical Works in the USA as follows:

Works Published Before 1923

Maximum Copyright Protection of 75 years has Expired

Works are in the Public Domain

Works Published 1923 thru 1978

Maximum Copyright Protection

of 95 Years from Year Published

1923 and Later Works Begin Entry to Public Domain on 1/1/2019

Works Published

After 1978

Life of the Longest Surviving

Author plus 70 years

Earliest Possible PD date is 1/1/2049


After Copyright expires from the work it is considered in the “Public Domain” and free from Copyright restrictions. 

For more information see: The Public Domain Information Project



So We Can’t Play Other People’s Music?

The details of Copyright law should not dissuade you from using music written after 1922. You certainly can, but need to follow some best practices. 

Here are some general guidelines:

  • For musical works written before 1922 (most historical sources) there is no restriction. Historians, have a ball.
  • If you wish to play popular music written after 1922 you may have to pay a licensing fee to play and record the music unless the owner waives this fee, even if the arrangement is yours
  • If you are playing music from a secondary source whose authors provided the music to the editor with the express purpose of sharing with the community (e.g. The Company music books) then you can consider permission to perform and record granted
  • For music written specifically for fife and drum and not purchased as part of a second hand source, most composers or arrangers within the fife and drum community will be very pleased if you play their work, just be polite and ask them!
  • Where work has been commissioned then the output is typically considered a “work for hire” and therefore the property of the party who commissioned the work unless other arrangements are made.
  • The big gray area here, of course, is that we live within a pretty rich oral tradition, and people cannot un-hear music they are exposed to at parades and musters. It is very common for music to be learned at Jam sessions aurally. For this reason copyright is not extensively enforced within the fife and drum community. Just be aware that an owner could choose to enforce their rights at any time, and it doesn’t hurt anything to ask.


Reproducing Sheet Music for Your Group

A common practice in corps is to photocopy sheet music for the members. Here’s some guidance:

  • For music that has been legally photocopied from an original source, there are no restrictions on photocopying
  • For secondary sources that are still in print, a copy of the source should be purchased for all players or permission to reproduce secured
  • For secondary sources that are not in print, check with the owner. A photocopy can be made if permission is granted


Other Considerations

Regardless of the Source of the music it needs to be matched carefully to the skill level of the players. It is important to balance the desire to stretch the ability of the players and frustration that can come from consistently playing music over the heads of the players. 


Also important is determining a manageable amount of music to play. Some groups have wide ranging playlists that are infrequently played in rehearsal or performance, where others may have just a few pieces that they polish to perfection. A happy middle ground must be sought in determining the right amount of music to take on.