Was the Titanic sinking the only time in recorded maritime history that a band was playing while their ship was sinking?

Throughout maritime history, many ocean liners hired musicians and bands to play for the passengers. I have always wondered if any band played music while their ship was sinking other than the band that played during the Titanic sinking. I have searched online for such an occurrence but I have not found one yet.

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    I would imagine that the potential circumstances for this are fairly limited, so it wouldn't surprise me if it were a unique event. The ship has to have a band, the ship needs to be sinking and doing so slowly enough that the band has the ability to play, the band needs to be in a position to play (i.e. have their instruments and be together) and there needs to be no method for them to escape the vessel (or would playing in a lifeboat be acceptable?). Oct 2, 2018 at 16:06
  • I seem to remember an incident of a volcanic eruption that engulfed pleasure craft gathered to take in the spectacle. Not sure but might have been Pelée in Martinique in 1902.
    – AllInOne
    Oct 2, 2018 at 16:10
  • @ KillingTime, at this time I’m only interested in bands that were actively playing music onboard the ship while it was going down. I’m not interested in band members that survived after their ship sank and then played music on their lifeboat.
    – user33576
    Oct 2, 2018 at 17:26
  • @FanofComets The latter never ever happened. A sinking ship is a traumatic affair. Once in the lifeboats people are busy trying to stay alive.
    – Jos
    Oct 3, 2018 at 1:27
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    One other situation when a bank could possibly have played during a sinking was a military band on a sinking troop transport ship. A lot of soldiers were transported by ship, there were often regimental bands, and a number of troop transports sank. As near as I can tell no band played at the sinking of the Birkenhead in 1852, but a number of other troopships sank.
    – MAGolding
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:46

2 Answers 2


The painting of HMS Birkenhead (Birkenhead drill) shows the band playing and soldiers/sailors standing fast. Incredible bravery shown by men who knew the sharks were waiting.

  • The painting seems to show a single drummer so not what most would call a "band". Also paintings often take a little artistic licence when it comes to historic events. The description of the evacuation states "Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice." which seems to rule out a band playing.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 5, 2018 at 13:12
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    @ Dave, I did not know about the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. I just read up on it, and one article about this incident said there was a military band that was playing music as the ship was sinking. So, the Titanic sinking was not the only time that a band was playing as their ship was sinking.
    – user33576
    Oct 5, 2018 at 13:18
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    @FanofComets While I would hesitate to agree that a painting of an incident would constitute proof of an incident during "recorded maritime history", the article you mention would, most especially if there is any indication of the source of anecdote. You could either add the article's information to this answer, improving it for future readers, or write your own answer. Please note, self-answers are fully accepted at Stack Exchange in general, and this one in particular.
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 5, 2018 at 13:35
  • @Steve Bird . I also read the part about there being silence on deck, but seeing as it took a while for her to sink and the men were stood to attention, there's a reasonably good chance some drums and perhaps The Last Post was played on a bugle. Anyway, seems like the servicemen showed bravery equally as much as the band on Titanic, they met their end without trying to swamp the boats.
    – Dave
    Oct 5, 2018 at 13:41
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    There's a lengthy account of the ship's loss which gives both the official report and the survivors accounts, neither of which mentions a band playing. Given the circumstances of the accident, such a happening would have been worthy of remark.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 5, 2018 at 18:25

I would say: yes it was. Until now, probably the only ship in history.

Throughout maritime history, many ocean liners hired musicians and bands to play for the passengers

This is not entirely correct. "Throughout maritime history" creates and impression of an age old tradition. In fact, passenger transport only became important cargo after the invention of the steam engine. And yes, passengers are technically a form of cargo. Often jokingly referred to as 'complaining cargo'.

Before that, ships did carry passengers, but only in addition to other cargo. As far as I know passenger sailing ships did not exist. On shorter routes, possibly. Definitely not on longer routes such as the Atlantic crossing. Even Channel crossing were not done with dedicated sailing ferry ships, but converted fishing ships until steam engines became reliable enough.

Ocean liners are ships dedicated to the transport of passengers (cargo is an extra) on fixed routes. That became only possible about 100-120 years ago when steam engines became reliable enough and ships safe enough (less dangerous is probably more apt). Before that period (around 1860-1880) ships may have had a few cabins, but were still cargo carrying ships with additional accommodation for a few passengers.

It's not just the reliability of the engine and ship that is important here, but also the size of the ship. Ships before the 1900's simply weren't large enough, with very few exceptions.

A band is a luxury only affordable with economy of scale. A small/medium sized ship cannot afford to waste that much space and crew on entertainment. Today - I kid you not - some cruise ships operating in the Caribbean are equipped with an ice rink and a zamboni. I watched Holiday on Ice on board the Rhapsody of the Seas. Those ships are among the biggest afloat. Only the largest ships could and can offer such entertainment economically. Back then a band, today ice rinks and a whole range of other luxuries. The Queen Mary 2 has a magnificent planetarium, for example.

Some ocean liners did have bands om board, but definitely not all of them. You have to look for the biggest liners competing for the Blue Riband, from the 1907 period onwards. Other and/or earlier ships had almost certainly no band on board.

I don't know of any band playing while the ship went down other than the Titanic. It was definitely not a tradition. Usually the band members have other things on their minds. Such as saving their lives.

Note: I talk about dedicated passenger ships known as ocean liners. Of course people crossed the ocean before the advent of steam power. Otherwise America couldn't have been colonized. But those immigrants didn't do that on ocean liners. They either chartered an entire ship, or booked passage on a cargo ship going that way. Often they had to provide their own food and bedding. Sailing ships were not equipped to carry passengers in cabins. Only very important persons would take over one or some of the officer's cabins. Everybody else had to bunk down wherever convenient.

  • Water Music: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Music
    – AllInOne
    Oct 3, 2018 at 2:25
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    @AllInOne I'm pretty sure the king of England hadn't planned on drowning will listening to Water Music. Nor did his performers. :-)
    – Jos
    Oct 3, 2018 at 2:55
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    @Jos As a native of Pennsylvania I can tell you that people sailed across the Atlantic to settle there by the thousands each year, over a couple of centuries before you say that passenger ships started, and they and their goods were probably the main cargo in every ship that carried them.
    – MAGolding
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:17
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    @MAGolding Passengers were transported, as your ancestors clearly were. But not on passenger ships, because they didn't exist.
    – Jos
    Oct 3, 2018 at 23:25

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