WHAT MAKES A GREAT MARCH?
By Amy Cassaniti
November marks the birth month of The March King, John Philip Sousa. Sousa was a prolific composer. In his lifetime he composed 136 Marches and 11 Operettas. Sousa’s marches continue to be some of the most performed here in the U.S. and globally. But just what makes a great march?
First and foremost is Meter. Marches are written in an even meter with a strongly accented first beat to assist in military marching. For example, each measure has two beats per measure and a quarter note gets the beat. This time signature communicates a feel of “two,” as in, left – – right – left – right - the exact meter for an army marching forward. Tempo is how quickly or slowly a musical selection is played. Sousa preferred that his marches be played relatively fast – 120 beats per minute.
But what would meter be without Melody? Great marches have not one but multiple melodies. The first melody of a march is usually the most memorable. A great composer will use eight to sixteen measures to present the main melody and then repeat, so the audience has an opportunity to become familiar with the tune. Following the first or main melody, a composer will write a second melody, also eight to sixteen measures long with a repeat. This second melody is often played softer for contrast. But we’re not done yet. The last melody of a great march is called the Trio. You know you are hearing the Trio when the key signature changes, there is a change from loud to soft by the entire ensemble and a new melody emerges. The Trio is also longer than the previous two melodies – often thirty-two measures long.
Marches rely on a strict formula. The following are two of Sousa’s most beloved marches. “Semper Fidelis” was Sousa’s favorite of his marches, and it has been deemed the official march of the United Marine Corps. Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was composed by Sousa when he was feeling homesick and longing to return to the US from an overseas trip. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is the official march of the U.S.
As you listen to each march, see if you can hear the various elements of a great march:
“The Stars and Stripes Forever”
How did you do? Did you hear the even meter at 120 beats per minute? What about the melodies? Did you hear the first, second, trio?
Though not a uniquely American artform (marches were first mentioned as a musical form in 1588) because of their association with the military and parades, marches are prominent features of Fourth of July celebrations. And now you know just what to listen for as the band strikes up a great march!