I came across this question What components make military music especially rousing? and thought I'd examine the question - what makes a military march successful?
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Military marches are a very specific niche, but one with its own distinct guiding set of principles that are not necessarily applied generally to the march when composing classical music.
In my opinion, you can describe a military marches as a sort of engineering profession decorated by artistic inspiration, rather than a work of pure art, and this is a major stumbling block for many who try to compose for this niche. There are literally thousands of marches (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_of_the_March) but yet so few that you actually remember. Why? Why do so few manage to make a wide cultural impact? Surely it cannot be because the genre is not enjoyed by the wider population (if you've ever seen the Marine Band march down a street, they aren't for want of an enthusiastic audience - and crucially, one that knows very well the catchy opening of The Halls of Montezuma). Military marching music comes as a package with the public spectacle of the shiny brass bands, the uniforms and large numbers of troops marching in step, the national pride, and all the emotion that goes along with it.
That is the crux of the issue and the point where most composers in this genre fail to make an impact - they fail to understand the science behind it and get carried away with the 'art'. They fail to capture the single, simple purpose of the military march and the whole (apparently obvious) idea behind it:
Military marches are designed to be marched to by troops, usually carrying some sort of weapons.
So you can see, the military march is actually a functional tool long before getting into the beautiful chords or the structure of the march or anything else. It has to pass a simple test: Can you actually march to this tune or not? A simple question which somewhat incredulously most marches out there are unable to answer. It is as though the composer didn't ever get up and try to march to it. Consequently, the major impact of the genre is lost as the audience doesn't "feel" the march, but more practically, troops find it harder to stay in step with the music, and it loses its practical value on the parade ground. You can build a beautiful desk lamp but if it can't shine bright light on your table it doesn't have a wide appeal.
So, you want to compose the most awesome military march like Sousa and others (yes there are many others which I will shortly go into)? Before beginning to compose, set the criteria. These are mine, based on many years of actually marching in many different situations (including street marches):
Most important: Does it have a strong and clear cadence, especially at the beginning?
Does it make you wake up and pay attention?
Does it have a clear, reasonably short tune that is in the whistling range of most people? This will make the troops recognize 'their' favorite march and ask for it. This will make it memorable.
Is it simple, yet original?
Is it suitable for the cultural context?
Let's look at each of these criteria with examples:
Strong and Clear Cadence
Remember, soldiers have to hear the strong left and weaker right beat while marching in street noise, going around corners, competing with other bands etc. Your melody should be part of this in case they can't hear the drums, or the drums are echoing / delayed due to distance.
A few good examples where this is done well are:
Glorious VictoryThis is a British March by WM Kendall. Throughout the piece there is a strong beat which makes it ideal for marching - it is actually hard to get off step, and easy to get back if you do.
Our Platoon Marches in the NightThis Israeli march is in my opinion one of the best engineered marches of all time. The opening is clear and on-beat, followed by a strong, clear cadence throughout the piece. Following the intro and first part, the piece launches into the second part with a powerful three-note blast from the brass. In the mid-part of the piece, the intensity is lowered while maintaining the clear cadence. This is precisely the dynamic which makes it as easy as possible for marching troops to keep to cadence.
Aces HighFrom the movie Battle of Britain, the beat is nice and strong throughout the piece, making it ideal for marching.
March of the MotherlandThis is a soviet march, you can hear the strong beat throughout the piece. I should point out that it is fine to have a quieter part that does not emphasize a strong beat towards the 3rd quarter of the march, but the beat needs to be maintained in the first half of the piece to get everyone in a marching cadence. Soviet marches tend not to let up at all while western marches do allow more for it (a great example of this is Army of the Nile or of course the Radetzky March )
So, what makes a march difficult to march to in this category?
Take, for example, The Glory of the Yankee Navy (by Sousa). Generally, this march could work fine, but right on the opening there is a complex arrangement in the brass which unfortunately obscures the beat in the first critical bars of the march. If troops don't start together, they spend the rest of the next 5 minutes trying to get in step with one another and it all goes to the proverbial. In High School Cadets , Sousa has a similar fanfare in the opening but it doesn't obscure the initial marching cadence.
Another example is the theme from The Great Escape. While the theme is very catchy and identified with the military, actually try to march to this piece and you will find it hard to maintain a cadence.
Does it make you wake up and pay attention?
This point is best explained by Whoopie (). It's all about the opening bars of the march. This is the part that people remember. Remember, this is a military march, and it's being done in front of a live audience that want to be amazed quickly. There's no time to mess around with gentle openings. People gotta start marching! A marching column of troops is like a train, you don't get a lot of second chances to get the ball moving, once they're started that's it. If they halt, the band stops playing anyway. So there are no second chances. You have to make them wake up and pay attention.
Let's look at some examples that succeed in making everybody wake up and pay attention.
The National Emblem Marchcheats because it hits you in the face with the anthem of the United States of America and there are very few people who can ignore that. But actually it is the distinctive intro which masterfully combines the woodwind, brass and percussion sections to create a unique and catchy tune that also is surprisingly easy to begin marching to.
Rule Britanniadoes for the UK what National Emblem does for the USA (including weaving the UK national anthem in). Clear and distinctive, it begins with a simple yet powerful melody that does not obscure but rather enhances the cadence, making it easy to start marching.
Washington Post March- excellent opening intro which doesn't detract from the marchability of the piece. However, following the strong intro, the march comes dangerously close to losing its cadence straight after. Not because the band will stop playing at the correct tempo, but because GI Joe marching in 3rd platoon can't hear where his left foot is supposed to come to the ground. GI Joe needs that the whole way through the piece.
The Standard of St. GeorgeThis British march has one of the greatest openings for stepping off marching. Highly distinct and memorable, the opening fanfare is instantly recognizable and attention-grabbing.
Road to Isles- our first Pipes and Drums (accompanied by band) piece. From the first beat it is immediately recognizable and catches the attention. The cadence fits perfectly for a slow march.
IDF March- Another Israeli piece, this time the official march of the armed forces. It possesses one of the more unique and adventurous openings to a military march which walks over an octave and a half while somehow maintaining a clear cadence and is instantly recognizable.
Gloria- A Prussian march with clear and recognizable opening, followed by a simple and clear melody which is easily marched to.
What unites all these examples is the originality and power of the opening, along with attention to the cadence for the marching troops.
And some examples where this point was missed.
MilanolloLike a fine wine, this British march develops into a memorable tune, however, at the beginning it struggles to establish a "wake up and pay attention" moment. If you play the first 2-4 bars it is not trivial to immediately recognize the march.
Soldiers of the QueenAnother British march, the opening fails to make a distinct and unique impression, and immediately continues with a quiet, gentle and nondescript meandering tune, which although charming for inspection music, falls short of the standard of what is needed to propel a marching column of troops forward and catch the attention of the crowd.
Florentiner March by Julius Fucik. The perfect counter-example. It takes just forever until this march starts moving. Definitely not conducive to actually marching anywhere.
Clear, Short Tune in Whistling Range
This is the crowd-pleaser, what makes the march memorable and makes everyone's faces light up when it plays. Much of this is of course cultural association, but in no small way a simple, original melody that can be whistled is the main driver.
The success stories:
Waltzing MatildaTHE Australian march, sometime contender for the national anthem and the best-known song from Australia. A light-hearted and catchy tune which lends itself well to arrangement for the military march.
Scotland the BraveThe Scottish National Anthem / March / Favourite Song / Pub Anthem. This anthem is whistled and well known all over the world by people who don't even know where Scotland is, the epitome of the bagpipe with a distinctive and catchy drum beat.
The Army Goes Rolling AlongThe official song of the US Army, the simple, easy tune can be whistled, hummed or of course sung for those who know the words.
Scipio by George Haendel. This march is perfect for the Slow Time cadence with its strong and easily-found beat, however it is the tune which is very recognizable and smack bang in the whistling range, not too fast, just perfect. This is actually a testament to the composer who wrote such a great march that it has survived across musical eras. Quite interesting is the original marchand the modern military band version .
76 Trombones. From the movie The Music Man of 1962, this piece demonstrates locating the melody smack-bang in the sweet-spot of the whistling range. The melody itself is simple, with the artistic flair and complexity taking place in the supporting bass and high treble ranges.
I won't include examples here as all the above examples demonstrate this fairly well. Suffice it to say that if clear attention to the simplicity of the piece is not made, it ends up becoming an orchestral piece which although pleasing to the ear, cannot be marched to.
Some examples of impractical marches (even without the cannons) are the 1812 overture finaleand Mozart's Alla Turca . Also many of the "coronation marches" fall into this category as too complex for soldiers to figure out while marching. In defense of the above it may be said they were not strictly intended for marching troops, but this is exactly the issue - as a composer for military marching bands, it is important not to stray into the orchestral arena too much.
The final issue is the cultural environment. This is a whole different discussion, but I will include a couple of marches that demonstrate the different style of composition for different cultures while still maintaining the core components of a military march which make it easy for troops to march to.
The first example is from China, the Peoples' Liberation Army march. This is the march past in every Chinese military parade I've seen, and it blends Chinese influence with the western origin of the genre in quite a masterful way. They'll play it on loop for hours until everyone marches past.
Another interesting example is Indiawhere they use a very different and very Indian style of play - note the octave doubling between the brass and woodwind. It creates a unique and interesting "sound".
I'll finish off by emphasizing that the whole thing comes down to one metric: can they march to it?
I'll also mention that obviously there are thousands of marches out there and I could have selected countless others. You may disagree with the choices, and maybe have others (I'd love to hear in the comments of course), and this is my personal take on it. But it is a practical opinion for a practical genre of music.