Fife (musical instrument)

Fife (musical instrument)

A fife is a small, high-pitched, transverse flute that is similar to the piccolo, but louder and shriller due to its narrower bore. The fife originated in medieval Europe and is often used in military and marching bands. Someone who plays the fife is called a fifer. The word "fife" comes from the German "Pfeife", or pipe, ultimately derived from the Latin word "pipare".

Physical description

The fife is a simple instrument usually consisting of a tube with 6 finger holes, and diatonically tuned. Some have 10 or 11 holes for added chromatics. The fife also has an embouchure hole across which the player blows, and a cork or plug inside the tube just above the embouchure hole. Some nineteenth-century fifes had a key pressed by the little finger of the right hand in place of a seventh finger hole.

Fifes are made mostly of wood: grenadilla, rosewood, mopane, pink ivory, cocobolo, boxwood and other dense woods are superior; maple and persimmon are inferior, but often used. Some Caribbean music makes use of bamboo fifes.

Military and marching fifes have metal reinforcing bands around the ends to protect them from damage. These bands are called ferrules. Fifes used in less strenuous conditions sometimes have a lathe-turned, knob-like decoration at the ends for similar reasons. Some fifes are entirely made of metal or plastic. Some modern fifes are of two-piece construction with a sliding tuning joint similar to some recorders.

Key and range

Marching fifes typically play in the key of B flat. Fifes in the key of D and C are also common, and fifes in various other keys are sometimes played in musical ensembles. Fife music is commonly written in the key of D, and played as though the fife played in that key (playing notes D, E, F#, G, A, B and C# as finger holes are uncovered in succession) regardless of the key in which the fife actually plays. The fife sounds an octave above the written music.

Like the Irish flute and the tinwhistle, the fife is a six-hole simple system flute. These flutes are unable to play all chromatic pitches, and many chromatic pitches that they can play are grossly out of tune. This tuning irregularity is part of the unique sound of the fife. Because of these restrictions on available notes the common six-hole fife is really only capable of playing in the keys of G, D, maybe A, and their relative minors.

An experienced fife player can play 3 full octaves although the fingering patterns necessary for playing in the third octave can be daunting to a beginner. Marching bands typically play only in the second and third octave since these are the loudest and most penetrating.

The fife in folk music

The fife originated in fourteenth century Switzerland and was spread throughout Europe by Swiss mercenaries. In medieval Europe, it was used in some folk music traditions to accompany dancing by all social classes.

The fife was one of the most important musical instruments in America's Colonial period, even more widespread than the violin or piano. The fife can still be heard in some Appalachian folk music, playing lively dance tunes. American slaves adopted fifes in their musical traditions, which derived from African music. African-American fife-and-drum music was one of the many sources of Blues music. The fife and drum tradition continued throughout the twentieth century, but is dying out. One of the most famous artists in the tradition was Othar Turner, a musician from Mississippi who played Blues on homemade cane fifes. Turner died on February 27, 2003.

There remains an active and enthusiastic group, primarily in the northeastern United States, that continues to play fife and drum music in a folk tradition that has gone on since just after the American Civil War. The center of this activity is in eastern Connecticut. There is a loose federation of corps, though not a governing body, called The Company of Fifers and Drummers, which maintains a headquarters and museum in Ivoryton, Connecticut.

Fife alone, or fife and drum, is also used in numerous European countries, especially in the South of France (Occitania): Languedoc and the county of Nice, and in the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland where it is played as an accompaniment to the lambeg drum

Modern players of Celtic music, including folk-rock, sometimes include fifing in their arrangements. The Junkanoo festival of the Bahamas and Jamaica includes the music of bamboo fifes.

In northeast Brazil, on the rural lands, people use a bamboo fife named Brazilian Fife (in Brazil its called Pife Nordestino or just Pife, and pronounces like Peef). This fife is a mix of native-american flute traditions with europpean fife traditions. The groups that uses this instrument uses only flutes and percussions in their music, in a profusion of native-american, african and europpean traditions.

The fife in military music

The fife is loud and piercing, yet also extremely small and portable. By some reports a military fife can be heard up to 3 miles away over artillery fire. These qualities made it useful for signaling on the battlefield by European armies beginning in the Renaissance period ("See also Early modern warfare"). Armies from Switzerland and southern Germany are known to have used the fife ("Soldatenpfeife") as early as the 1400s. Swiss and German mercenaries were hired by monarchs throughout Western Europe, and they spread the practice of military fifing. By the 1500s, the fife was a standard instrument in European infantries.

Accompanied by a snare drum, the company's fifer was responsible for conveying orders in battle. These included orders to fire, retreat, advance, and so forth. The fifer also gave signals at camp such as the call to arms. While the infantry company marched, the drummer and fifer set the cadence. During marches, the fifer improvised tunes, creating variations on a theme while keeping the rhythm of the march. While the unit rested, the drummers and fifers played music to entertain the soldiers.

By the eighteenth century, the military use of the fife was regulated by armies throughout Europe and its colonies. The rank of Fife Major was introduced, a noncommissioned officer responsible for the regiment's fifers, just as a Drum Major was responsible for the drummers. Books of military regulations included standard fife calls to be used in battle or at camp.

By the late nineteenth century, warfare was changing and fifes were no longer practical as combat signaling devices. British armies stopped using fifers in the 1890s; the United States stopped in 1904.

Today the fife's military legacy lives on in marching bands and fife and drum corps in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States and other former British colonies. These groups often emphasize historical reenactment alongside musical performance, sporting period military costumes.

Modern Fifes

The modern era of fifing in America began in about 1880, with the popularizing of civilian fife and drum corps, in a musical tradition that has come to be known as Ancient fife and drum (or simply Ancient). The rise of these corps led to a demand for fifes that were superior in intonation and better suited for group playing than those used during the Civil War. This call was answered by the Cloos Company of Brooklyn, New York, and their Crosby Model fife. These fifes were one piece, cylindrical bore instruments with six irregularly sized and placed tone-holes. Anyone who compares a Cloos to a fife made prior to this time will immediately note how much easier the Cloos is to play, how much better tuned it is, and how much louder the sound produced by the Cloos is.

After the death of Cloos Company founder George Cloos in 1915, the company continued to make fifes under the aegis of his son Frederick until it was bought out by Penzel-Mueller in 1946. Penzel-Mueller continued to make Cloos fifes for another six years after the buyout. The Cloos fife was, and continues to be, a highly respected and sought-after instrument among fife players. In the late 1950s McDonagh model fifes, designed by renowned fifer John McDonagh and made by Roy Seaman, began to come into popularity. These were two-piece instruments with a dual conical bore - the foot joint tapered down from the joint to about an inch before terminus, where the bore cone reversed itself and opened up again slightly. They used the popular flute and piccolo designs of the 1830s, where "cone" flutes were the rage and most common. The cone flutes had fallen out of favor to the cylindrical flutes designed by Boehm.

As would be expected, these fifes were notably more internally in tune than any previous fifes since the designs of the 1830s fell from favor, and had the added value of being tunable with each other (by sliding the joint). In addition, they gave the player greater dynamic control and could be played even louder than traditional fifes. At first, only six hole (Model J) fifes were made, but within a few years, McDonagh designed and Seaman manufactured a 10-hole (Model L). Two of the holes were used by RH2 - covering only one of the two produced F natural. Some players found this quite difficult, so eventually (c. 1970s), an 11 hole model was introduced, with both the original double RH2 holes and an RH thumb hole to choose from for the F natural. These were actually ideas derived from several makers of the days of the 1800s, including Giorgi.

Around this time, Roy Seaman decided to retire from actively manufacturing fifes. An apprentice, Larry Trout, took over the operation.

In 1997, John McDonagh, along with his fife study group, decided that the time had come to make some changes and updates to the original design. A new manufacturer, Wilson Woods, with critical oversight from Roy Seaman once again, produced the new fife, called the Regimental Model. Along with this new fife a number of fingering changes were suggested to take full advantage of the improved design. For a number of years, both Larry Trout and Wilson Woods made McDonagh fifes. Note that Larry Trout still produced the original version fife from around 1960. Both makers have discontinued making fifes as of 2003.

Most recently, The Cooperman Company, a Vermont-based maker of fifes and drums for the Ancient and reenacting communities, has taken over the manufacture of McDonagh fifes. Their new fifes most closely resemble the Wilson Woods Regimental models.

The early 1990s saw the emergence of The Healy Flute Company as a major player in fife manufacture. Skip Healy is a champion fife player and well-known Irish fluter from Rhode Island. His fifes are two-piece, six or ten hole instruments with a Boehm style bore (cylindrical foot and truncated parabolic head) and huge tone holes. Tuning is even further refined than on the McDonagh. The Healy also offers a bit more dynamic control than the McDonagh, though perhaps a bit less volume when pushed to the extreme.

Simultaneously with the emergence of the McDonagh fife, a maker named Ed Ferrary assumed the mantle of the now defunct Cloos company, producing traditional 6-hole cylindrical fifes. For those who continued to play traditional fifes, the Ferrary became the fife of choice. After Mr. Ferrary's death, his tooling and equipment was bought by a maker who prefers to remain anonymous, and who markets his fifes through outside sellers under the name "Model F".

The early 1960s saw the founding of The Cooperman Fife and Drum Company, founded by Patrick Cooperman. Cooperman fifes continued in the Cloos vein, with the significant addition of a plastic tube fife available at a very low price (still available and still under $10) and used by nearly every beginning fifer. By the mid 1970s, Cooperman had retired from his previous full time job and dedicated himself completely to making traditional fifes, drums and drumsticks for the Ancient community. The Cooperman Company has remained in operation and continued to grow and flourish under the control of other family members since Patrick's death in the mid 1990s. They make a wide variety of fife models, primarily of the traditional Ancient variety, but also including the McDonagh model (as discussed above).

Other current makers of traditional fifes include The Sweetheart Flute Company of Enfield, Connecticut, founded and run by Ralph Sweet, and the Peeler Fife Company of Moodus, Connecticut, owned and operated by Ron Peeler.

In the Ancient community, there are those who are also historical reenactors, and those who maintain close ties to their own groups' often lengthy history and tradition. These folks play the traditional fifes - Ferrary, Model F, Peeler, and some Sweet and Cooperman fifes. Groups with lesser ties to history and tradition and greater ties to musicality and competition usually choose McDonagh or Healy fifes. There seems to be a geographic distinction, with New York, New Jersey and western Connecticut groups preferring McDonagh fifes and central to eastern Connecticut and the rest of New England playing Healy's.


* Brown, Howard Mayer, and Frank, Jaap, et al. "Fife." "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians", ed. Stanley Sadie, Vol. 8. NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

External links

* [ Fife Tips & Tricks] , articles pertaining to the playing of the fife
* [ Blues and History] , a biography of Othar Turner and a brief history of African-American fife and drum music
* [ The Virginia State Garrison Fifes and Drums] , a history of the development of the Virginia State Garrison Regiment fifes and drums and their representation today
* [ Fife traditional music in the county of Nice (France)]
* [ Fife fingering guide]
* [ Ulster Scots and Scots Irish Fifing Music]
* [ The Company of Fifers and Drummers] , organization of corps and individuals who perpetuate the Ancient (U.S.) fife and drum tradition

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