How Did “Taps” Begin?

“Taps” plays in military services to honor soldiers. It has long been associated with soldier funerals and solemn ceremonies in the military. The story of Taps is full of romantic accounts and legends, even if many of these accounts have no basis in historical fact.

Overtones

“Taps” started partially because of the limited notes available to buglers. Bugles are capable of playing tones that exist because of a natural phenomenon called overtones. The bugle call “Taps” uses these natural overtones to create all of the pitches in the tune. A bugle player can play taps without the need for valves, which is important to know since the first brass instruments did not have valves and relied on different sized extensions to change the key of the instrument. Practically speaking, bugles needed to be low maintenance since in battle valves need lubrication.

Calls

Bugle calls alert troops, announce military services and signal commands. “Taps” signifies lights out. Appropriately, “Taps” appears in military funerals as one last final “lights out” ceremony for the service member. According to Jari A. Villanueva, a writer for westpoint.org, “Taps is unique to the United States military since the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying and memorial services.”

History

“Taps” began as a simple notification to soldiers to turn out their lights. In 1862, the Union army had a general bugle call to signal the end of the day. Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield of the Army of the Potomac wanted to use a different one for his brigade. He hummed a tune called “Tattoo” for his brigade bugler Oliver W. Norton. The two expanded on “Tattoo” until they came up with the melody that now forms “Taps.” It quickly became identified with solemn military occasions and gained popularity with buglers on both sides. The 24-note tune got the official name “Taps” in 1874. In 1891, the army required that it be played at military funerals.

Myths

There is a common story about the origination of “Taps” that is highly romanticized and in no way true. The story states that a young northern soldier had written the notes for the tune as he lay dying in the field. When his father discovered the boy, he took the notes and used them for his funeral service. Villanueva’s story says there is no evidence to back up the story. Despite this, this story illustrates one of the many myths surrounding this highly formal and somber tune.

Lyrics

According to FAS.org, the following lyrics are commonly used for “Taps.”

“Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh — Falls the night.

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright;
God is near, do not fear — Friend, good night.”

Originally published at https://www.uremusic.org.

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Teaching the Craft of Music Composition since 1996. Articles on popular music- and art-related topics. Check out our Lists for more in-depth composing articles.

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Kevin Ure (UreMusic.com)

Kevin Ure (UreMusic.com)

Teaching the Craft of Music Composition since 1996. Articles on popular music- and art-related topics. Check out our Lists for more in-depth composing articles.

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