Music forms an integral part of Salvation Army worship and evangelism. Bands and songster brigades are an important part of corps life and public events. For many non-Salvationists they are the most recognisable feature of the Salvation Army.

Early Salvationist musicians drew upon a rich heritage of British singing and band playing, including contemporary church and temperance bands. The beginning and early growth of Salvation Army bands and songster brigades was not planned and at first there were debates and conflicts over the use and character of Salvation Army music.

William Booth was uncertain about organised music groups. Nevertheless he recognised that music was an effective evangelising tool that had the power to draw in large audiences of potential converts. In 1878, when Salvationists in Salisbury were facing opposition in the streets, Charles Fry a local Methodist preacher and his three sons brought their brass instruments to help in the open-air meetings. After the success of the Fry family, Salvation Army bands were encouraged and sprung up quickly in corps across the country. By 1883 there were 400 British Salvation Army bands.

William Booth was keen to distinguish the music of the Salvation Army from other church music which he considered overly sophisticated. He issued guidelines to bandsmen and songsters to produce simple songs with an emphasis on strong, clear ‘soul-saving’ messages. He also believed that Salvationists ‘must sing good tunes’. He is famously quoted as saying ‘I don’t care much whether you call it secular or sacred. I rather enjoy robbing the devil of his choicest tunes’. For this reason Salvationist musicians moved away from solely using traditional hymns and began to set new words to Victorian songs, such as popular music hall melodies. Audiences recognised and liked these contemporary songs and so this was an effective way of spreading the Christian message.

In 1883 the Music Department was established as part of a long term plan to nurture Salvation Army musicianship. The Music Department published standardised musical materials, including vocal music and band scores, in its publications The Band Journal (1884) and The Musical Salvationist (1886). The Department’s first director, Richard Slater, was a music teacher, member of the Royal Albert Hall Orchestral Society and wrote over 500 songs during his career. He is popularly known as the ‘Father of Salvation Army music’.

Also established in the 1880s was the Salvation Army’s Musical Instrument Factory. The Factory repaired and manufactured brass instruments for Salvation Army bands around the world until 1972.

During the twentieth century British Salvation Army music continued to evolve and draw upon contemporary culture. For instance, after the Second World War timbrel groups, consisting of singers with tambourines, were popularised by female Salvationists. Later The Joy Strings (1963-1968), a band formed by singer Captain Joy Webb with two guitarists, a drummer and a singer/tambourine player, demonstrated the ability of pop music to reach out to new audiences across generations. The Joy Strings overcame criticism from Salvation Army music traditionalists and gained UK chart success with songs such as ‘It’s an open secret’.

One of the most famous British Salvation Army bands, the International Staff Band, has continuously promoted the Salvation Army message since its beginning in 1891. The International Staff Band often features in national television and radio broadcasts and, in 2008, they also achieved mainstream musical success when they signed to recording label Universal Music.

Today, Salvation Army music has expanded globally with the Salvation Army ministry. There are over 2,500 brass bands worldwide and over 427,000 music group members. Salvationist bandsmen and songsters across Territories continue to draw upon their own cultural background and create vibrant musical styles to accompany worship and attract new audiences.