Perhaps I shouldn't start with a disclaimer, but I will. This isn't a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the marching band. Depending on how you do your math, that anniversary is either already beyond us, or yet to come.
Generally, "outdoor music" dates back to antiquity, with the American marching band being established at roughly the same time the United States was, with the Marine Band being denoted by the Continental Congress in 1775. In college, Notre Dame lays claim to the first college band, c. 1845. But even then, the activity's full potential was not yet realized.
In The Beginning
Two innovations came about in the first decade of the 20th century that would change the face of football. One was the forward pass. The other was the marching band halftime show. If one were to pinpoint the true start of the college football marching band, it might be with the first letter formed on the field - Purdue's Block P - or the first halftime show by Illinois, both in 1907. Indeed, by the year 1900, the presence of bands had become more common at football games, and as the sport grew, so did that partnership.
Much of the early history of college football can be attributed to that which we now know as the Big Ten. After leaving its northeastern roots, college football's next outpost was the midwest, and as the gridiron game took hold there, so too did the traditions that would shape marching bands as we know them. Through the first few decades of the 20th century, football grew closer to the game as we know it today: 100 yard fields, end zones, 15 minute quarters and four downs. In 1920, a group of teams from Ohio would meet and form the first professional league, the American Professional Football Conference, now the NFL. The college game was more popular than ever - champions were crowned in all regions of the country, attendances topped 100,000 fans in new stadiums - modern day colosseums for the day's gladiators. These new stadiums increased the possibilities for marching bands: Taller grandstands allowed for more intricate field formations and the vantage points from which to view them. Illinois put the first word - ILLINI - on the field in 1923. The Marching Illini in particular would continue to innovate, from words to pictures and animation, colorful uniforms, and auxiliary groups. As coach salaries, stadiums, and salaries grew, universities had to wrestle with football's compatibility with the institution's mission.
Football, Band, America
Soon football, and the marching bands that accompanied it, would be inextricable from American identities. In the south, southern football prowess was linked with southern pride, and the Southeastern Conference was founded in 1932. In Louisiana, Governor Huey "Kingfish" Long linked pride in Louisiana with pride in LSU, and pride in LSU with the effectiveness of its marching band, which he quadrupled in size and even co-wrote songs for. Interest in the spectacle of marching bands extended beyond the stadium into articles in the likes of Popular Mechanics. Both football and marching would wrestle with questions of purpose that got at each activity's very soul. Football's often adversarial nature with academics would lead the University of Chicago and Sewanee: The University of the South to leave the Big Ten and SEC, respectively, to focus on academics. Marching bands, meanwhile, would have to reconcile showmanship with musicianship, as some directors and music departments decried the stunts that they felt defined the modern marching band. The College Band Directors National Association first met in 1941 as directors considered these challenges and their place within the college band landscape.
World War II had its effect on both football and marching bands. While some bands ceased their activities altogether, other allowed women into their ranks for the first time. Marching bands were already linked to war, as marching music began with military musicians; football, meanwhile was used as a proxy for war, with pre-flight military training schools excelling at the sport during the War. Navy athletic director Jonas H. Ingram would state, "The closest thing to war in times of peace is football."
In the decade and a half following World War II, showmanship continued to develop. Majorettes became common, as did dance routines; the longer strides that kept with the military tradition gave way to high stepping with shorter strides. The early 1950s brought the first mention of Eight to Five, the 22.5" marching step that covers five yards in eight steps that is now standard for most marching bands. The '50s would also see the use of field-specific instruments like mellophones as opposed to french horns, the removal of double reed instruments, arrangements tailored specifically to marching bands, and variety in uniforms. Bands began to observe an "early week" - yes, band camp - and specifically rehearse marching band fundamentals. Bill Moffit's Patterns in Motion in 1960 would set the scene for traditional style marching.
Meanwhile, bands' popular appeal would go beyond just the college game. Marching bands never caught on in a big way in the NFL, with the Redskins and Colts fielding notable exceptions. Still, when the professional game added the championship game that would become the Super Bowl following the 1966 season, they turned to college marching bands for halftime entertainment for eight of the first nine years.
Marching styles differentiate by region, conference, and institution type. Throughout the Big Ten, a traditional style was born and has largely endured. Elements which include high step marching and drum major strutting make their way into many programs, especially during pregame performances.
The show style present at HBCUs maintains traditional style elements while adding more flair. Segregation sent many black music educators north, often to the midwest, for advanced degrees that they were barred from pursuing at predominantly white schools in the south. One such educator was William P. Foster, who served as director of Florida A&M University's Marching 100 for over a half century. Many of the innovations have become commonplace not just at HBCUs, but at all manners of institutions.
While the Ivy League was part of the founding of college football, their marching bands have taken a decidedly different tilt. Every Ivy League school but Cornell, and a host of other academically elite schools employ scramble bands. Their style incorporates nontraditional instrumentation; satirical, often irreverent shows; and drill that often set and resets not by marching into place but by scattering to their next place. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band is the most prominent of these, as the only such band in a Power 5 league.
The ongoing military influence on marching music evolved not only at the collegiate level, but also in the drum and bugle corps that would eventually form Drum Corps International. With these corps, the military stride morphed into the glide step that is a staple of corps style marching today. While it was described in 1957 as a special effect, it dominates the landscape today in both high school and college bands.
The Modern Era
Marching band continues to influence many elements of pop culture outside of football to this day. Marching bands are featured in commercials, their style is incorporated into pop music, they add to live concerts and performances, and they are turned to by major corporations seeking to jazz up events.
In 2002, Drumline was released, the first and to date only major motion picture based entirely around marching band. The film's effect influenced pop culture and bands alike. Both Blast and Drumline Live have brought marching music into the theater, and the Honda Battle of the Bands has provided an annual pilgrimage to Atlanta for bandheads for the past decade and a half. The Big Ten Network centers bands in one of their commercials, and Beyonce based an entire Coachella performance and accompanying concert film around the black college band experience.
The internet has played a large role in band culture, while media, social and otherwise, have as well. The 5th Quarter spent two decades as the internet's virtual HBCU band room before closing this past January. Halftime Magazine has been serving the marching arts in print form since 2007, and College Marching has had a huge presence, especially on social media, since its 2014 founding. Marching band content that was once handed off and mailed via video tape can now be found on YouTube, and podcasts such as the Marching Podcast and Marching Roundtable cover the activity as well. Marching bands themselves embrace all manners of media to get their message out and connect with their fans, members, and one another.
And much as the bands have evolved both in relation to and apart from college football these past 150 years, they will continue to push boundaries, thrill audiences, and enhance experiences for untold decades to come.
Several resources were consulted in this piece's creation. Citations can be found here.