Some folks on a Shakespeare Facebook group had questions and opinions about Shakespeare’s musical stage directions, and when I said I had done one of my masters’ theses on this topic, they wanted to know more.

Apologies in advance.

If you read Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the histories, you’ll quickly notice stage directions like, “Sound trumpets alarum” or “sennet.” You might wonder what those mean. Good news: They have specific meaning. You might assume they’re interchangeable or ignorable. I’m here to tell you why they most definitely are not.

A few key points, before I get rolling:

  • We don’t know if Shakespeare himself wrote those stage directions (or any of the stage directions). They could have been added by a prompter or compositor or…another person. So I might say “Shakespeare calls for drums,” but what I mean is “The text of this play, of which Shakespeare was the primary author, includes a notation calling for drums.” Don’t make me say the whole thing every time.
  • I did all this research in 2006, and maybe there are new discoveries in this tiny subfield that I’m not aware of.
  • I’m not interested in songs, my research was focused on incidental music, so…don’t ask, I don’t know.

Anyway, here’s the short version of my thesis. If you want a longer explanation of the trumpet bit specifically, I wrote a chapter on that in a book called Shakespeare Expressed, which includes a number of better chapters.

Shakespeare uses specific auditory signals to tell his story. These can be atmospheric, like storm sounds to accompany a shipwreck or hautboys (sort of like an oboe) to create a spooky feeling. What I’m more interested in, though, are the uses that are about conveying specific information.

The time I got to nerd about this stuff at the Blackfriars Conference.

What did the music sound like?

Well. Nobody really knows. We have some good guesses.

Because military and naval trumpeters on leave could make extra money playing for the theatres, the trumpet calls used in battle scenes were likely authentic (remind me another time to nerd at you about the relationship between theater history and naval history). Shakespeare’s most outstanding and effective use of music is evident in his depiction of battles.

The early modern audience would have been familiar with at least the most basic signals. The plays almost never require a complicated series of calls.

Wait, why would they have known military signals?

You’re forgetting, this was before Animal Crossing. People would take a picnic on a nice afternoon and go watch the soldiers drilling at Mile End Green. It was A Thing. A place to see and be seen, not unlike the theater. Also, lots of people were veterans.

One of the great difficulties of studying sound in the early modern theater
is that no one at the time wrote it down. Military signals were probably authentic, taken straight from contemporary battlefields. Military musicians did not write their music down, either, because new recruits learned it by rote. Military musicians would not have needed or used sheet music. They didn’t start writing this stuff down for 100+ years after Shakespeare.

My wonderful thesis adviser, the dearly departed Frank Southerington, told me I should contact British regimental museums. Turns out, they have military music historians! Two of them—David Edwards, of the Life Guard, and Major Richard Powell, of British Forces Broadcasting—were super excited to hear from me. I guess people don’t ask them about their work that often. They sent me some CDs and sheet music of their best guesses. Unfortunately, while they have been able to work backward from their regiments’ current music, and have made educated guesses based on the musical traditions of other western European countries, their findings are largely speculative.

Operas of the time are entirely pastoral, and offer no hints of battle music. William Byrd’s My Ladye Neville’s Booke has a few supposedly military moments, but the book is full of music for the virginal, and any relationship to actual battle sounds is purely conjectural.

In other words, what exactly did they sound like? We’re guessing.

The theatres used legitimate naval and military musicians, as well as civil
waits for their productions. They would have used legitimate military signals, because otherwise they would have had to extemporize, which would have been much more difficult than playing music they already knew.

No record of music written specifically for theaters survives.

So if we don’t have those records, what can we do? My advice to theaters is to make a set of calls specific to their company, and then use them. All the time. Your audiences will learn them. Think about the number of musical signals you learned from Looney Tunes as a kid. Audiences internalize this stuff. At the very least, make sure you have internal consistency within a show, or preferably a season. Maybe you’re doing Henry V and you decide that the English use violas and the French use clarinets because those sound pretty different and you happen to have people around who spent their summers at orchestra camp. Was that what Shakespeare did? Not quite. Does it still allow Shakespeare’s sounds to help you tell the story? YEP.

Don’t have musicians? Do your best. Most people can beat out a good rhythm on a drum, with a little instruction and encouragement. I’ve had a few productions where we used the pBuzz to substitute for a trumpet, and it’s pretty convincing.

What instruments were used?

For battles, primarily trumpet and drum. The choice of instrument tells a great deal about what kind of battle is going on in the imaginary world behind the frons scenae. Trumpets historically signaled cavalry or naval battles, while drums were more of an infantry instrument. In theatrical use, particularly in battles that involve both infantry and cavalry, the stage directions often indicate trumpet and drums collectively. Because of the specific use of each instrument, there are some calls, like “Mount horses” that are unique to the trumpet. Most calls, however, could be performed on either instrument.

Maybe you’re wondering, how could the same call be performed on two instruments as different as a trumpet and a drum? Consider, for a moment, “Shave and a hair cut, two bits.” You probably had a tune (with different pitches) associated with that in your head—but if someone knocked it at a single pitch on your door, you’d understand it was the same thing. We’re pretty sure it was like that. A distinctive rhythm, that probably had pitch variation on instruments that could do it.

Other instruments show up here or there—the indoor playhouses had coronets instead of trumpets, fifes and flutes (meaning recorders, basically, not the transverse flute) are called for from time to time. Horns appear when there is a hunt. Stringed instruments, other than the occasional lute, are notably absent from the plays. Maybe they wouldn’t be loud enough, or couldn’t be expected to stay in tune. Mostly, though, it’s a trumpet and drum world.

What kinds of information did Shakespeare encode in sound?

  • Time of day: Some types of music, or specific instruments, were specific to a given time of day. The city waits, or night watch, often played hautboys in the streets to signal the end of the night. Shakespeare could have just as well had Romeo and Juliet argue about whether they heard the fiddle or the hautboys, as the whole nightingale vs. lark business.
  • Place or formality: Instruments like the fiddle and tabor would indicate a pub or informal setting. Recorders would be very fancy and courtly. Coronets meant you were watching a foppish little boy’s company do one of their silly theatricals. Etc.
  • How a battle is going—not just what military actions are taking place, but who is winning: This is one of my favorites. Countries had distinct marches, by which one could tell which army one was hearing. In I Henry VI, the stage directions indicate a distinct “English march,” followed shortly by a “French march” (3.7.30-33). No one knows exactly what the differences between these two would have been, although they would almost certainly have been a difference in the melody, speed, or rhythm, and not in the instrument that played it. Francis Markham, in his Five Decades of Epistles of Warre (1622), asserts that “divers countries have diverse Marches.” The French march seems to have been slow—Dekker, in “Seven Deadly Sinnes of London” (1603?), talks about a man moving as slowly “as if hee trodde a French March.” Dekker also reports that, for James’ coronation, musicians played a Danish march in honor of Queen Anne. They sounded it “sprightly & actively,” so it must have been a fairly up-tempo piece. The only English march extant from the period is in fact a very old one, which Prince Henry revived and published in 1610. Military signals must have been similar and yet distinct across national lines, because an English officer named Bayard recognized the Spanish army’s alarum behind him during a surprise night attack and managed to escape. He recognized both the signal and the fact that his own army was not playing it.
  • Position of an incoming person or army: Some calls say, “Trumpets afar off,” meaning that they are meant to signal that an army is far away, but coming soon. At Shakespeare’s Globe (that is, the reconstruction presently operating), the musicians create this effect by playing in different parts of the tiring house, to seem farther away.

The calls


This basically means, “Get up, let’s go, time to fight!” It’s often coupled with “excursions,” which is a direction that is the subject of some debate. I usually interpret “excursions” as little two- or three-person fights. But maybe that’s not what Shakespeare meant? He’s dead, so it’s hard to ask him.


Sounded by hunters when they’ve cornered their prey. This is used to particularly icky effect in Titus Andronicus. Look it up.


Trumpets played long “sennets” when large groups of people had to enter or exit. This seems to be a usage that was specific to the theatre, especially as no extant music for a sennet exists. Playing music as a large group entered would have allowed the aural sense of the play to be continuous—there would not be a long silence.

In Fair Maid of the West, for example, the stage direction “Sound hautboys long” appears twice. Both appearances are immediately before scenes set in the court of Fez. This unusual stage direction hints that the court was especially elaborate and would have required significant set-up time. Similarly, scripts often call for a “sennet” when a large group of people needs to enter the stage.


Trumpet flourishes announced royal entrances. King James I tried to capitalize on the wide use of trumpet flourishes, decreeing that all playhouses had to get his permission to use them, and even then, they had to pay 12d., except, of course, for “his servants.” That’s right, he demanded a royalty.

James’ possessiveness over trumpet flourishes might not have been purely entrepreneurial. Trumpet calls were often personal, something one’s family owned. Noble families or individuals often had specific trumpet calls, known as “tuckets.” A tucket was “a sort of heraldic badge in sound,” according to Phyllis Hartnol. Using the King’s fanfare without permission would have been as offensive as giving James’ arms to a player-king.

Just as twenty-first century people can identify commercial jingles, seventeenth-century people would have recognized the tune that indicated a certain family. Shakespeare uses tuckets frequently in his plays. In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo tells Portia, “Your husband is at hand. I hear his trumpet” (5.1.121). Iago similarly identifies “the Moor” by his trumpet (Othello 2.1.177). There are no extant English tuckets from the period, but some Italian and French ones survive.

You’ve heard a tucket before. Think about watching Star Wars and hearing Darth Vader’s theme. That little piece of music tells you who to expect. You know, before he appears on camera. That’s a tucket.


It’s an invitation to discuss this whole thing like civilized folks.


4 Replies to “Sound Trumpets

    • Shakespeare’s Use of Music: The Histories and Tragedies, by John Long. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1971.

    • To be clear, I’m not making an argument that this is the etymology of “royalty,” in the sense of fees for performance rights, and neither does Mr. Long. That usage begins in the 19th century. I was just being funny.

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