Drum majors are responsible for knowing the music of the ensemble and conducting it appropriately.
- Controlling tempo
What is "appropriate" conducting has evolved over the decades. During the 1970s and prior it was not uncommon for a stationary drum major to do a high-lift mark time on the podium for an audible and visual tempo; with the arrival of increasingly higher drum major platforms and thus greater visibility this has become both dangerous and unnecessary. Current drum majors use a variety of conducting patterns and styles that suit the needs of their respective marching bands and/or drum corps.
- Assisting musicality
In addition to memorizing the music (between six and nine minutes of music is typical for high school marching bands, college bands and drum corps may have that much or more, up to more than eleven minutes of music) a drum major must memorize dynamics as well as tempo in order to provide proper direction and cues, particularly in area where the drum major has some discretion, such as a ritardando or fermata.
Drum majors have slightly different roles within the world of traditional show bands. Many college bands have drum majors who are very much part of the visual element of a field show. Rather than conduct as a corps-style drum major would, traditional drum majors often march on the field with the band, using a mace or baton to keep time and flourish their own movements. Drum majors in the Big Ten and HBCUs have a particularly prominent role. While most of them do not conduct at all, they lead the band onto the field, often after having several seconds for a short performance by themselves (a backbend is traditional in many schools). During dance routines, they often move along with the bands. As traditional drum majors have much more of a visual role than corps drum majors, there are often many more of them, sometimes up to ten drum majors to a single band.
The drum major position is one of leadership, instruction, and group representation, but usually not administrative duties. A band director or corps director assumes administrative responsibility. In the absence of the Band Director, the Drum Major carries the authority of the director or instructor and assumes complete leadership over the band.