Taps Bugler: Jari Villanueva

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Celebrate 150 Years of Taps

The Evolution of Taps


The twenty-four notes we know as Taps has been in use in the US military since its origin in 1862. It has undergone slight modifications over the years but has essentially remained the same. To provide background to the music of Taps, an evolution of the call is presented.

This material is copyright © 2010 by Tapsbugler.

Note: All the musical examples have been engraved into a modern notation program from the original source.  You can click on each example to enlarge. Should to wish to see the original, please contact Jari Villanueva

1804 “To Extinguish Lights” “Pour Eteindre les Feux” “L’Extinction des Feux”

Used by the French since 1804, this call, attributed to David Buhl (1781-1829), was Napoleon’s favorite bugle call.  It is found in Ordonnance Provisoire sur Lâ ‘Exercice et les Manoevres de la Cavallerie, printed in 1804.  The call is also found on p. 17 of Manuel Général de Musique Militaire a L’Usage des Armées Francaises (General Manual of Military Music) by Georges Kastner, published in 1848. Sonnerie favorite de lâ Empereur (favorite song of the Emperor) is written under the title. Both the 1835 US Infantry Manual (Scott’s) and the 1836 Manual (Cooper’s) include this call, and both copy virtually the entire French 1832 Infantry Manual, note for note.  During the American Civil War, the call was used as the final call of the day and as the name implies, it was a signal to extinguish all fires and lights. Following the call, three single drum strokes were beat at four-count intervals.  These are known as “The Taps.”  In the cavalry and artillery, this tune, played as a trio, was the signal for evening roll call (The Tattoo). As a solo call in the infantry, it meant lights out.

Tattoo may have originated during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) or during the wars of King William III during the 1690s.  The word tattoo in this usage is derived from the Dutch taptoe. Tap or faucet and toe meaning to cut off. When it was time to cease drinking for the evening and return to the post, the Provost or Officer of the Day, accompanied by a sergeant and drummer, would go through the town beating out the signal.  Innkeepers were required to “Doe den tap toe”or “turn off the taps” lest they be closed down.  Another theory is that tattoo came from the seventeenth century German Army’s Zapfenstreich, meaning the time for the striking of the tap or bung into the barrel (or keg) of beer.  At 9:00 p.m. when the call was sounded, all bungs (stoppers, or Zapfen) had to be replaced in their barrels.  The provost would hammer the bungs in and then draw a chalk line across them to make sure they were not tampered with.  If there were any signs of tampering, the innkeeper would be fined.  As far as military regulations went, there was a prescribed roll call to be taken “Taptoe time” to ensure that all the troops had returned to their billets.

How the word Tattoo became Taps is uncertain, but here are two possibilities.  Tattoo was also called Tap-toe and as is true with slang terms in the military, it was shortened to Taps.  The other and more likely explanation is that the name “Taps” was borrowed from a drummer’s beat.  The beating of Tattoo by the drum corps would be followed by the Drummer of the Guard beating three distinct drum taps at four count intervals for the military evolution “To Extinguish Lights.”  This is known as “The Taps” or “Drum Taps.”  Thus the drum beat “To Extinguish Lights” came to be called Taps by the common soldiers.  As the bugle call came to replace the drum beat it assumed its name. These two explanations could be the derivation of the word Taps as it applies to the bugle call.

Today, although the call Tattoo is sounded at military bases the term is used to describe ceremonies used as a venue for military bands and drill teams to perform before large audiences. Eventually this developed into a large-scale performance of military music by massed bands.  The most famous of these Tattoos is the one in Edinburgh, Scotland, every August.  Since 1950, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo has been an annual event held over the period of the International Festival on the Castle Esplanade.  It is now attended by some 200,000 people each year from all parts of the world.  Every year the program includes the music of the massed Pipes and Drums of the Scottish Regiments together with that of the Massed Military Bands.  The participation of foreign units does much to contribute to its international flavor, and some one-third of all spectators come from overseas  These Tattoo performances are popular in Europe and showcase the talents of various military, civilian, and para-military musical groups and the precision of military drill teams.

1825 “Commodore’s Dinner Call”

Bugle calls were used on nineteenth century U.S. Navy warships as found in the records of the U.S.S. North Carolina, U.S.S. Concord and U.S.S. Columbus.  In addition to duty calls common to all military organizations, such as morning and evening signals and calls to dinner, the Navy had certain musical soundings to identify small boats (or gigs) on the ships.  They were used to call away the variety of ship’s boats, as well as to summon the requisite ship’s crew to man the boat falls. This bugle call is found in the records of the U.S.S. North Carolina and U.S.S. Columbus. The resemblance to Taps is remarkable considering that this call was used by the Navy thirty-five years before the Civil War.  We cannot know for certain if this call had any influence on Taps, but the last three notes are similar to the William Little arrangement  (below) of Taps found in the 1884 Luce manual.

1835 “The Tattoo” (The Scott Tattoo)

The 1835 Tattoo, also known as the Scott Tattoo, is a leftover from the old trumpet notation.  In that notation, which is one octave lower than the bugle notation, the notes of middle C and the first line E are common.  The trumpet calls were sounded on cavalry trumpets in D and E flat.  Although the higher notes might be considered hard to play in today’s context, it was common for trumpeters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  One just needs to examine trumpet music of the court and military trumpeters of the time. It is also possible that this was to be sounded on a keyed bugle.  The keyed bugle is about forty centimeters long and is held in a horizontal plane.  The best way to envision these instruments is to think of them almost as a hybrid of a saxophone and a natural trumpet.  The keyed bugle was the same as the keyed trumpet, but had a distinctive conical shape.  Made originally in England, it became known to the public through the works of Richard Willis (17??-1830), an arranger, composer, and performer.  The first patent was obtained by Joseph Halliday in 1811. Halliday named his new instrument the Royal Kent bugle in honor of the Duke of Kent. His patent called for five keys.  The instrument made its way to the United States with Willis when he was appointed bandmaster of the United States Military Academy Band at West Point, New York.

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4 Responses to “The Evolution of Taps”

  1. Tapsbugler says:

    Have you read this
    please contact me by email and we can chat

  2. William Long says:

    I am a bugler in the Plattsburgh NY area and locally we commemorate the Rev War’s Battle of Valcour Island and the War of 1812’s Battle of Plattsburgh. For the 1812 ceremony I sound the British “Last Post”, as many British soldiers and sailors are interred here alongside their American counterparts. I do not follow with the “Rouse” call though. My British bugle can hit the low C whereas my U.S.Regulation bugle (that I use when I participate in FMH funerals or our local Honor Flights) will not. For Rev War ceremonies I prefer to sound “L’Extinction des Feux”, which I have always understood to be the same call as the 1835 “Scott Tattoo” and NOT the Tattoo call you have it shown as. I believe the reason the first line E exists in this call is because French bugles of that era, which more closely resemble natural french horns, CAN sound that note in the low octave. The fact that these types of bugles were common to the early American infantry can be seen in the round shape of the bugle pins common on infantry Kepis of the civil war era. As you know it’s harder to find information about the American use of the bugle before the Civil War era. This is my best understanding from what I’ve been able to piece together.

  3. Pei says:

    Hiya, I’m really glad I have found this information. Nowadays bloggers publish just about gossips and net and this is really annoying. A good website with exciting content, that is what I need. Thanks for keeping this site, I will be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Can not find it.

  4. Steve Straight says:

    PLEASE arrange to put this into the necessary format, and bibliographic details, to pass muster on Wikipedia! Yours is the most convincing account of the origin of Taps that I have found, and it deserves pride of place in Wikipedia, so that others can add to it as needed.

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