Although the bugle call now is sacred, it has less formal roots. The name comes from the Dutch term “taptoe,” meaning tattoo, a military call to action. Three taps of the drum meant “lights out.” It had a secondary use. The tattoo meant “close the beer taps and send the troops back to camp.
One of the memories of every Memorial Day will be memorialized Monday. “Taps,” the lilting bugle call that brings tears to our eyes, is 150 years old. It’s been played since 1862 on military posts to indicate “lights out” and to conclude countless military funerals.
1. WHY “TAPS?” Although the bugle call now is sacred, it has less formal roots. The name comes from the Dutch term “taptoe,” meaning tattoo, a military call to action. Three taps of the drum meant “lights out.” It had a secondary use. The tattoo meant “close the beer taps and send the troops back to camp.”
The official meaning, when it became a bugle call, is “all unauthorized lights are to be extinguished,” according to the field manual of the U.S. Army Band. It was the last of 25 bugle calls of the day from “First Call” and “Reveille” to “Mess Call” to “To the Colors” and “Call to Quarters.”
2. WHY SO MANY NAMES? “Taps” has endured many attempts to change its name. Some older veterans still call it “Day is Done.” They remember its lyrics: Day is done, gone the sun
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
From 1835 to 1862, the call was known as “Scott’s Tattoo” to military buglers. It was first notated by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott.
Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield re-arranged it in 1862 during the Civil War to replace the French bugle call “Lights Out.” The call became so popular, it was appropriated by the Confederate Army (they used the same bugler’s manual). Soldiers on both sides renamed it “Butterfield’s Lullaby.”
3. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BUGLE? “Taps” is difficult to play on a bugle, which is difficult to play, anyway. Both require strong lungs and the ability to spit notes through the steel mouthpiece.
Bugle calls are easier to play on a brass horn with valves. The “straight” bugle (a valveless horn) is popular at Boy and Girl Scout camps (some still have merit badges for troop buglers). Bugle calls on military posts now are recorded.
Military bugles date back to 1758. Before then, they were used to signal hunters and called “moon blowers.” They still are valuable because they play in all kinds of weather, where trumpet mechanics may fail on inclement days.
4. WHAT DOES THE ARMY THINK? The U.S. Army sets the protocol for use of “Taps” and rigorously defends it against exploitation. Still, military purists don’t like what’s been happening with the call.
“Taps” is intended for one bugle, period. “Taps Echo,” where trumpets impressively sound in echo across a cemetery, is frowned upon by military purists.
Page 2 of 2 - In the continual quest to digitize everything, instrument makers 10 years ago launched the digital bugle, a device that fits into the bugle’s bell. It automatically plays the “Taps” recorded at the 1999 Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery. It costs $175 online with free shipping and turns anybody into a bugler. And you bet, the old vets scorn it.
5. HOW HARD IS IT TO PLAY? Bugles are difficult as all the noting comes from the player’s lips and not the valves of a trumpet. Beginning players find their lips swell.
The “Taps” music could not be more simple, three notes, take a breath, repeat eight times. It’s called “the straight eight.” There are only 24, but they say a lot to us.
Most times, when a bugler makes a mistake, the gaff is a broken note: “ta, ta, tat-ta.” This causes embarrassment for the player, although the listeners may not notice, or figure it’s part of the call. Don’t be judgmental if you hear it. It’s difficult when you’re the only horn playing, and everybody’s listening.
The most famous “Taps” broken note happened during John F. Kennedy’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 24, 1963. The bugler, Jari Villanueva, stood in the cold for three hours before playing “ta, ta, tat-ta.” After 50 years, people still notice.