About the Fife


The traditional fife, a musical instrument in the "transverse flute" family, has just 6 finger holes (tone holes), a mouth hole (embouchure hole), and no keys. The metal end caps, called "ferrules", are added to protect the ends of the fife but serve no musical purpose. Holding the fife with the tone holes extending to your right, look into the embouchure hole to see a cork to the left of the opening. The pitch of the fife is determined by the length of the air column, which is measured from the face of that cork stopper to the end of the body of the fife.



The traditional fife is called a “Bb fife”, but this can be confusing if you play a flute or piano or similar instrument. That is because the fife is a “transposing instrument”. The note as written on the finger chart or music chart does not sound as it is written – when you play a D on the fife finger chart, it will sound like a Bb on a piano, giving the fife its name. Classical piano and flute players will name the instrument for the note they hear when they play the written C, which they also hear as C; on a fife, if you play C you will hear Ab, so many people are confused in thinking that the Bb fife is an Ab fife.



Close your lips, then open them slightly in the middle. Hold the fife with the finger holes (tone holes) extending to your right, without covering any of the holes. Rest the closest center edge of the mouth hole (embouchure hole) on your bottom lip. Direct a stream of air across the embouchure hole, aiming for the opposite edge. Roll the fife slightly forward and away from you, or adjust the shape in the opening of your lips, until you can produce a clear note. Don’t get discouraged if the note doesn’t come right away, it can take some time to find just the right spot and just the right amount of air to get the note.



The fife has a long history as a military signal instrument, with the traditions we are most familiar with today having their roots in the early to middle Renaissance period in Europe. The English military fife tradition is generally believed to have been introduced by King Henry VIII in the early 1500’s. After that time, the arrangement of each military company having one fifer and one drummer for signal purposes was widespread, as was the introduction of the fife into popular music by soldiers returning to civilian life. In early America, fifers and drummers were often boys  between the ages of 12 and 16. The English tradition was followed, with the fifers and drummers from each company assembling to form a “corps” when the regiment of 10 companies was assembled. This corps played music for reviews, parades, and ceremonies, and again, the fife made its way into popular music and civilian marching corps when soldiers returned to their homes. Up until at least 1863, army regulations detailed recruiting regulations including these: recruits as are found to possess a natural talent for music, to be instructed (besides the drill of the soldier) on the fife, bugle, and drum, and other military instruments; and boys of twelve years of age, and upward, may, under his direction, be enlisted for this purpose. The fife was soon after supplanted as a signal instrument by the bugle, although it remained, and remains to this day, in wide use as a marching corps instrument in the military and in popular parade music.