1550s, from German Pfeife "fife, pipe," from Old High German pfifa, or via Middle French fifre (15c.) from the same Old High German word; ultimately imitative. German musicians provided music for most European courts in those days. As a verb from 1590s. Agent noun fifer is recorded earlier (1530s). Fife and drum is from 1670s.
A small flute with a high, piercing tone, used mainly in military bands.