University marching bands generally fall into one of two major categories: military bands and show bands. Originally, military marching bands were the first marching bands and helped control events on the battlefield. Subsequently, absolute precision in both marching and music was a necessity, and this tradition continues in modern military bands. True military bands at universities, which are somewhat of a rarity, are associated with military universities and perform often at military ceremonies. However, a military marching band more loosely refers to any marching band that maintains the military style of marching and playing, even if the music performed is clearly not patriotic in nature.
Probably the most common type of military university marching band is the drum and bugle corp, which is made up of bugles and percussion instruments. Other military university marching bands are fife and drum corps. Many university marching bands that simply adopt the military style include a full range of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments.
Regardless of the instrumentation of a military marching band at a university, a key feature of the military marching band is that members tend to march in straight lines due to the band's original function of battle control. A second feature is that they use a rolled step. This keeps the upper part of the body still, which helps players have better control over their embouchure and achieve a more consistent, even tone and pitch. Military marching bands at universities also use music at fairly consistent tempos that usually don't exceed 140 beats per minute, as the speed of the music has to coordinate with each step.
Show marching bands at universities are those formed purely for the entertainment of an audience. Perhaps the most well-known type of show marching band for a university is the type that performs during halftime at football games. In addition to performing for entertainment, these bands also are featured in parades. They may compete or enter festivals designed to provide ratings and feedback for improvement.
Unlike university marching bands that fall into the military classification, show bands may use other steps such as the high step during performance, although some show bands use military-style marching to create appeal through precision. Members can march in virtually any direction. In fact, in a particular subcategory of show marching bands, scramble bands, members may not even march in time to the music, instead simply scattering to their place at significant points. All show bands have some degree of flash and flair, but these bands tend to incorporate elements of comedy, too.
University marching bands in the show category, because they are designed for entertainment, have a much broader range in terms of the type of music they play. They often base their shows on particular themes, which often follow popular trends in order to appeal to viewers. With the exception of scatter bands, show bands still are somewhat constrained in tempo, however, because steps still have to accommodate the beat of the music. If the band plays while stationary, which may happen at special events, these constraints are lifted.