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Music as Communication: Fanfares

Last week we looked at the talking drums, which are sending a language within the drums across great distances to give information to other tribes and other settlements. This week I thought we’d look at other forms of communication within musical instruments.

In particular, we’ll be looking specifically at trumpets and things like the Great Highland bagpipe, which are both very loud instruments. So these instruments were used in situations where you needed to carry sound over battlefields, or over loud noises, like huge crowds.


So while we’re not talking about the great distances of traveling between settlements that we spoke about last week with the talking drums, this time, it’s about carrying that sound over great crowds of people so that they can all hear.

And there are a couple of reasons why that might be necessary. Ceremonies are the first reason. If you had a great big crowd and you were trying to use sound to cue people for what they needed to next, trumpets could be used. Think about fanfares. These were also used on the battlefield or in training for full military events.

The specific tune and rhythm of a fanfare would have a specific meaning. So you’re looking at a super small motif – a little snippet of song with a different meaning for each.

So one of those in a military sense might be put the the knives on your bayonet. One of them might be everybody turn to the left, anything like that. It’s a very effective way of carrying messages where voices no longer work because they’re not loud enough and they won’t carry far enough.

These could also move huge armies to signal an entire battalion to go to the left or to go round to the back of the enemy. One Motif to signal the name of the battalion, then another meaning ‘move left’. Very simple but very clever.

Later on, they started using bagpipes, the great highland pipes specifically, because they are a very big sound. They’re an outdoor instrument. The sound travels extremely well. They were used in the highlands of Scotland by the highland clans in battle. Again, you would have your piper on the field who would be piping the instructions of the person in charge. The person in charge would have been relaying his instructions to the piper who would send it out. Again, small motifs of sound created messages to soldiers on the battlefield.

Obviously the motifs were not recognisable to the enemy in order to maintain the element of surprise. So you’ve got two aspects to it in that it’s communication, but it’s also secret communication.

It wasn’t just used on the battlefield though.

Ceremonial fanfares

Let’s take the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II during 2022. There was a lot of piping used during the ceremony with lots of fanfares being blown.

A great deal of that is tradition and ceremony. But in the past they had a meaning, which is still relevant. You will often have a piper at a funeral piping a lament. If you hear that you know what it means.

Think about The Last Post in November on Armistice Day. The Last Post is often played on a trumpet or a cornet. That piece of music, The Last Post, is so evocative because we all know in our common consciousness that when we hear that, we are being asked to stop and remember.

Let’s look at the fife and drum. Whether you knew it or not, you will have heard this. It is the snare drums that would roll and give different beats underneath, while above that the five high pitched wooden instrument, a bit like a piccolo would be cutting over the top of all the noise of battle with instructions for the infantry. The fife and drum were more to do with the infantry and the trumpets and bugles were more to do with the cavalry.

And so these motifs that are played on specific instruments have both a meaning to those people who are watching and are part of the ceremony, but they can also have a greater meaning within our consciousness.

These fanfares are quite old and they will have had even greater meaning and would have been communicating to great crowds of people. But we have carried that through our consciousness to today.

I love the idea that this was a way of communicating with people of the time, but we also carry the meaning socially through the years.

Check out the video that goes with this blog.