Music on the Battlefield

Slightly off the usual topic, but how realistic is the idea of an army going into battle with someone playing some sort of music on whatever very loud instrument the technology allows? This is partly prompted by the battle scene in the new Dune movie, where I’m pretty sure the bagpipe music over the big battle is meant to be something the characters can hear, as it’s the same music the piper is shown playing in an earlier scene, but as a folk music nerd I was already intrigued by the idea

There’s a lot of history there, and it’s an area that I’m not an expert on. The very short version would be that: Yes, music has had a very important role on the battlefield.

It gets a little more complicated when you move beyond that, because music did a lot of things in various contexts. Instruments were used to help maintain cadence, help maintain morale, and to quickly communicate orders. This included the bagpipes, which were famously used to boost troop morale in battle, as recently as the first World War. (Various) drums and horns are the other examples frequently given, and I’m not sure how many other instruments saw battlefield use like this.

Playing recorded music into battle has some history as well, though the major example is fictional. In Apocalypses Now, Lt Colonel Killgore’s Air Cavalry blasts Ride of the Valkyries while leading an assault on a fishing village. While the example is fictional, there’s actual history with using music recordings to demoralize enemies. There were unconfirmed reports of American tank crews emulating Apocalypses Now‘s use of Wagner in Iraq. (I’m slightly hesitant to include this, because I can’t confirm it, but it’s also entirely plausible.) There are dozens of instances where loud music has been used to harass or distract hostile combatants. This tends to be more about use outside of combat. The Korean DMZ has been the site of multiple musical assaults like this (granted, with K-pop as the preferred vector.) Also, this seems to be an extremely recent development, (at a guess, within the last 30 years) which shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given how, until recently, sound equipment that would be loud enough to be heard over combat would have required dedicated vehicles. I’m not aware of any non-fictional examples of those, outside of, maybe, some propaganda trucks.

There’s adjacent issue you may want to research a bit further on your own time, and it might dovetail into this. There’s a lot of scholarly lit on the use of music as propaganda during the world wars. The use of music as a wartime propaganda vector was not new, but it might be a good jumping off point into the further use of music as a morale booster.


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